Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Making space

It's incredible how much the physical configuration of a classroom (or other gathering setting) can influence the dynamics of the gathering that therein takes place.

As I settled into the seat I'd chosen for myself at the outset of a committee meeting I would be chairing this morning, I noticed that I'd unconsciously chosen to position myself across the table from the others who had already arrived, going so far as to reposition a small classroom table to that it angled up against those already occupied by my colleagues, forming a small triangle with theirs.

I told myself at the time that by rearranging the seats into more or less a circular formation I was just trying to create a physical environment that would facilitate greater inclusion, but soon after a few others arrived and seated themselves at the tables across from me, I realized that unwittingly placed myself in a position of physical "dominance" relative to them.

This sort of physical domination goes on in our classrooms every day, even in those classes which are most intentionally designed to avoid such domination. Permanent classroom configurations often reinforce this domination: even if the classroom's desks are not bolted into the floor, quite often the classroom's communal writing surfaces (whiteboards, blackboards, et cetera) are placed in such a fashion to privilege one side of the classroom over the others, and it is at this side that anyone (instructor or student) hoping to take lead of the class for any length of time must stand, distinguishing that person for a time as "the authority."

How might this be avoided, short of eliminating all manner of written communication during class? (While this may be possible in some courses, it's well-nigh impossible in mathematics for any sustained length of time.) Install communal writing surfaces on every wall of a classroom? Provide resources for fully electronic communication in the classroom setting?

To be continued, I'm sure...

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