I am a location dependent employee; my ground zero, my classroom, is room 211 at The American School of Brasília (EAB), an international American school that caters to the diplomatic community in Brazil’s (somewhat Martian) capital.
This city, called the Plano Piloto, is shaped like an airplane. The president’s palace is the pilot’s cabin; the senate looks like a control tower, the fuselage is comprised of the ministries; the tail is a large TV tower. The Asas, or wings, are the neighborhood. The plane is pointed at Paranoá lake.
The swirling cemetery mimics the spiraling trajectory of Bernoulli’s equation.
When it was built 51 years ago (in less than 40 months!), the city represented a radical deco departure from the “city-square” model for Latin American prefectures.
When seen from a plane, it literally looks like innovation, movement, and non-linear modality; much of Brazil’s recent economic growth can be attributed to their ease with whimsy, and visioneers in companies like Embrapa. I wonder how much the physical shape and archetectonics of the 51-year-old capital sets the tone.
As an educator I have begun to see how physical spaces, like the city Brasília, can be optimized for the co-creation of ideas, projects, and the facilitation of higher thinking. In a classroom, especially in a global community, I can explore a freer, more strategic way of creating moveable student workspaces that respond to the needs of an assignment.
The classical classroom—desks in rows facing the podium—implies that students are given to “absorb” information delivered from the speaker. Now most information is democratized. The role of a teacher has changed, utterly. Today rows imply “repression” or “control.”
A circle immediately makes a “class” more of a “cohort” if not a “tribe.” Recently, I projected a Youtube film of a crackling fire during poetry recitals. Normally reserved students almost naturally became more dramatic—even dead-poet primal—in the recitations. When we talk of 21st century capacities, or potentialities, we often refer to “out of the box thinking.” This is as simple and profound as King Arthur’s democratization of his dining table.
The more a circle is broken and spread, the more there is a tension between “integration” and “performance.”This is an excellent way to put people in the “soft-spotlight” while dramatizing Hamlet or The Crucible.
Two face-to-face (F2F) rows immediately puts students into a severe “speed date”; especially when they are not next to a friend. But a face-to-face conversation facilitates dialogue. Dialogue, when given parameters, quickly becomes interview, screenplay, manuscript. It also forces students to attend to one person amidst the clamour for attention. They role play characters in novels and to talk about an issue, gossip about another character.
Sometimes it’s to go totally off base. I will, for example, put all the desks in amphitheater seating facing the back corner of a classroom. Then I will give them a simple assignment, like “create a tag cloud describing your feelings right NOW. Larger words represent stronger feelings.”
Immediately students come up with this fascinating artistic data about their minds. Large “AWKWARD,” smaller “sleepy,” big “WTH,” smaller “confused.” I love this because “disorientation” is always the precursor to “reorientation”—new thought, endeavor, insight. The student’s free-associative data becomes the stuff of collective creativity.
Over time this creates culture. Culture + an interdependent workspace begets innovation (see NYTimes article on the Standford’s “Facebook Class”). According to educational theorist Benjamin Bloom, creation is the highest level of learning (source).
My International Baccalaureate (IB) group has wonderful diversity, culture, and creativity. I recently assigned spoken word poems (based on Sarah Kay’s model); each student wrote a poem, shared them with each other, and then performed the entire class. I asked have of the audience to take notes, and the other half of the audience to take videos with their cell phones. They have begun to see data as the currency of new art.
We are now using the collection of creative artifacts–videos, various performances, notes—to create an iMovie to go on the school blog. It will also be shown at the next class meeting. In truth, I grade the students according to a rubric, but this kind of intrinsic drive (cf., Daniel Pink) is far more motivating than a grade—and will be far more motivating than a paycheck.
Here’s the rub: the information’s out there. Teachers that try to demonize Spark Notes or Wikipedia will be fighting the creative collective. When I think of the classroom as a creative interdependent workspace, I can expect to be surprised. It’s like the information is the sandbox, and the students have returned to make elegant and surprising castles in the Cloud. The parameters are the walls and the limits of time, energy, and imagination.
Finally, students have the toys. They’re looking to find more than a vocation—they want to enjoy the experience of being alive. They want to identify and capitalize on a mosaic of talents…they are, in the end, quite “puttylike.”
Teaching is really about redeeming childhood dreams. Optimizing creative spaces is like “dream engineering.”
Born in San Diego and bred on surfing, books, and adventure, Mark Robertson is a kind of halfling of Sylvia Plath and Caliban…with St Francis for a crazy great uncle. He has been living and teaching abroad for last four years, and plans to continue for a while. He writes travel articles for the SD Reader, and blogs at The Panamericans and Je ne sais quoi.