RE: What's new in classroom configurations

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Wed Mar 02 2005 - 19:38:26 PST

Very interesting resource links posted recently about issues of designs for
learning environments.

I rather liked the basic ideas in the Duluth harborside plan, though
perhaps the homebase was short-changed a bit.

Let's consider starting from some radical re-engineering of how learning is
done, and I don't just mean kids in groups, which is great for getting them
to talk and have a little freedom of action on short timescales, but still
is mostly NOT a ZPD because of its homogeneity with respect to competences
relevant to learning goals (though valuable insofar as other sorts of
diversity leaven the groups).

Most basic is getting outside the walls of the school, not just of the
classroom. Then, giving students more control of the goals of their
learning, as well as the timing and means. Start by changing the power
relations. Imagine that it was a learning environment for high-status,
powerful adults, not for our last remaining legally disenfranchised social
caste (apart from gays in the US).

Look a bit at how citizens of this age group and generation CHOOSE to learn
when not in school. E.g. how they share tasks of learning to become expert
players of computer and video-games (and for other activities within their
own culture-realm, ignored by the curriculum and most parents). By and
large they do want to play together, which is not seen as distinct from
learning together. The learn/play distinction is itself fundamentally
dysfunctional, as we have known theoretically at least since LSV and Dewey.
While there are purely online collaborative groups, there are also usually
face to face ones. There is the same kind of total integration of practice
and learning that Lave describes for traditional apprenticeships, and which
makes sense in age-heterogeneous (and competence-heterogeneous) communities
-- but not in imitations of these principles in age-homogeneous classrooms.

Several of the sources posted recently mention the need for a variety of
different kinds of learning environments, and likewise for different kinds
of learning/action/play groups: peer groups, peer and mentor,
competence-diverse, diverse in age and likelihood for forming social bonds
with similar vs different members, etc. Longterm groups, ad hoc groups,
across all timescales.

A lot less emphasis on adult planning and design and control. Less adult
pre-occupation with optimizing learning; let people figure out how they
learn well and support that, in its many forms. Good learning arrangements
emerge when people get together because they want to share in
learning/playing/doing. No one has to design it all for them, and design
really cannot effectively anticipate the variety of possible solutions
people will come to.

But all of this is predicated on something much more basic: motivation to
learn/play/do. Most of the problems with school-based and curriculum-based
education comes from the very simple fact that most students do not want to
learn what someone wants to teach them. And they are right. There is no
evidence, beyond the most basic elements of primary school curriculum, that
any of what we spend hours and years teaching is actually of any use to
most people. Most of it is simply artificially over-valued cultural
capital, not functional cultural capital (or functional only because it is
arbitrarily valued). The fundamental problem with education today is not
teaching methods, resources, or learning environments. It is the CONTENT.

Still, it is more intellectually interesting to think about the role of
space and time, by which we usually really mean place and pace, as well as
movements and traversals, in learning, rather than about why schools and
their version of "education" are so dysfunctional. It is also less depressing.

One could take, in a sense, two approaches to this. You could look at the
chronotopes (space-time-place-pace typical dynamic patterns) of
non-learning in failing institutions, to see how not to do it, and to watch
the counter-chronotopes of resistance, appropriation, etc. Or you could
look at the rarer examples of spontaneous learning/playing/doing
communities (some of which might even occur in schools) and see what their
chronotopic patterns are like, and how they come up against obstacles and
barriers, and which ones they find ways around and how.

Of course what I would LIKE to study would be such communities for which
the barriers are removed, so that one could see just how they would evolve
if our society were actually interested in having people learn to think and
learn how to succeed at what they want, which it clearly, and for fairly
obvious reasons, is not (or at least its most powerful interests are not).


Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276

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