Teachers, parents and other facilitators of learning dedicate a lot of time and energy to creating (or trying to create) the right learning environment.
As a teacher, I put a lot of thought into making seating charts to cater to the needs of certain students while trying to minimize distractions. I rearranged students and desks almost daily – from rows to pairs to pods to half circles and back to rows. Sometimes, we took our books outside and sat in the grass. I designed colourful bulletin boards where student work was showcased. I strategically placed inspirational quotes and guiding questions on the walls. I regularly ordered and restocked the bins with materials (often purchased out of my paycheque) to make sure students had what they needed. One year, I even put a plant on my desk, which one of the students named. I broke up a fight. I chased down hornets, wasps and even a bird that flew into the room (and I did so quickly to make sure more valuable “teaching time” wasn’t wasted). Oh, and then there was the time I removed a dead mouse from behind a bookshelf — all in the name of learning.
In addition to trying to structure the classroom, I also tried to structure learning through detailed unit and lesson plans that aligned with course standards, benchmarks and objectives. Being prepared to keep the students engaged (or at least busy) was my way of stopping disciplinary issues before they started. They happened anyway.
In hindsight, I probably missed a lot of “teaching moments” (which I now refer to as opportunities for learning though isn’t everything?) because I was so focused on what I thought learning looked like from the outside. I thought the students were uncontrollable but tried anyway. Maybe it is actually the environment and learning process that are uncontrollable. Perhaps my role as a teacher wasn’t even to control anything or anyone anyway. Maybe every environment is a learning environment.
Now I believe my role was and is to be present for learners, to occupy a space with the learners as a learner, to hold space for others so they can make sense of their internal and external environments and to create space within myself so each learner can find her own centre. And yes, to be there to remind them of what they may have forgotten along the way. Mostly, I need to be there (to be present) to be reminded of what I may have forgotten along the way.
How much structure do students really need in order to feel safe exploring the unknown? Or is the structure more so for the adults to feel better about themselves and the uncertainties that they grow uncomfortable with as more structures are imposed on them? At what point does structure create unnecessary limitations and false expectations, becoming a hindrance to the learning experience?
I’m not necessarily advising anyone to just show up and stand in a room full of youth without any structure or plans, but I am curious…
What would happen if teachers were encouraged to enter the classroom ready to seize whatever learning opportunities presented themselves? If teachers showed up, as in really showed up, how long would it be before the students stopped abusing the freedom and started showing up too, perhaps with questions and ideas of their own? And does the thought of this feel terrifying or liberating to you? What if your experience as a learner was your teacher education and teaching was simply sharing those lessons you had already learned along the way? What if the only lesson you actually had to teach was that each learner is his or her own teacher?
At the very least, it is worth considering what it would be like to be in a space with students without trying to put them in their places.
What if we regarded school as an open space for learning rather than a place that we occupy? What if learning is something that occupies us?