Learning happens in the oddest places — or perhaps not odd but not where many would expect it to happen. Learning happens on the route 2 bus heading toward campus. Learning happens as one walks down to the corner market, and it happens as one considers where to grab a bite to eat on a Thursday afternoon. But, the dominant belief is that institutionalized learning happens in the classroom. Indeed, there is some strength to this belief because the University of Minnesota has close to 55,000 students, and most of them take courses that happen in a classroom environment.
A classroom environment is obviously influenced by its occupants. When a teacher occupies a space, it changes the meaning of the space. The same can be said about when students occupy the classroom space. Overall, however, a classroom absent of human occupation is still invested with the authority of the university in many ways. The smells, desk setup, size, windows and other factors feed into the authority a classroom space projects. In many ways, the authority of the classroom space is a promise by the university that learning happens in said space. Though, this may or may not always be the case.
Some items within a classroom space are overt evidence of a university’s authority. For example, in many classrooms at the University, there are medium sized posters telling classroom occupiers to make sure they throw their trash away. These posters have an image of the University’s mascot, Goldy Gopher, smiling his bucked-tooth smile at all those inside the classroom. He watches those within that space, and he is a rather overt, albeit kind, reminder that the University is watching.
Decisions on what types of desks to put in certain classrooms also reflect the authority of a university over a space. Whether or not to put individual desks or round tables in a classroom is an immensely political and powerful decision. The university is telling students and teachers that they will use these desks because they have no choice. The university made the choice for them. Certainly, teachers have had influence over the furniture in classroom spaces to some degree, but the amount of power a teacher has over the choice of desks compared to the university is insignificant. These types of issues affect learning and constantly assert the authority of those outside a classroom space over those inside the classroom space.
Even the designs of many classrooms are inherently oppressive. Many classroom spaces are boxes with only one entrance and exit. Some classroom spaces have windows, and some do not have windows. Some classroom spaces are big with small desks, while others are cramped with big desks. All of these factors feed into the authority of the university because it is through the power of the university that these types of classroom spaces exist.
Let’s take one type of classroom space for example: Lind Hall room 320. This is a smaller room with big tables filling it up. There are three windows and only one opens. There is a chalkboard and an old projector screen. The room is set up so the instructor stands in front of the chalkboard. The carpet is old and smells, and the room seems to be perpetually hot. All of these things influence how learning happens in that classroom space. The mere fact that only one out of the three windows available opens is testament enough to the power of the university. Students and teachers who use Lind Hall room 320 are only allowed one window for fresh air. That is an exercise of power.
The design of classrooms forces students and instructors into certain modes of thinking, so it becomes natural for a teacher to stand in front of a chalkboard and lecture. While the way in which an instructor teaches has a lot to do with learning, the way a classroom is set up also has a lot to do with learning. If you have a classroom space that is large, temperature controlled and filled with comfortable seating, then the learning that takes place in that space will probably be different than the learning that happens in Lind Hall room 320.
It is true that space is limited on many university campuses, but that is hardly an excuse for the propagation of classroom spaces that confine learning rather than liberate it. If learning is truly to be student-centered, then there must also be classroom spaces that support student-centered learning. What if we had classroom spaces that were empty, and the instructors and students needed to decide what went in them? It certainly would be difficult because there are many courses that use one classroom space. But, what if students were simply asked what type of space they would like to learn in?
Some classroom spaces are just stifling and suffocating. They are examples of university-authorized learning in spaces that are often not conducive to learning. Indeed, instructors can hardly be expected to evoke liberating teaching methods in spaces that confine, constrict and force learning into certain molds. It is even more difficult on students. Students are the reason classroom spaces exist.
Despite both the role of students and teachers in its existence, the classroom space may be one of the ultimate exercises of university authority. The university tells students and teachers where, when and, to some extent, how learning will happen. Suddenly, something as simple as a classroom is not so simple anymore.
Trent M Kays welcomes comments at