with Vanessa Carvalho and her IB Business students
Covid really did a number (not just 19!) on efforts to make classrooms feel more human, be more like home. For safety’s sake we went back to rows, more widely spaced and rigidly adhered to than ever before, sometimes quasi-encasing students with plastic protection.
Good measures against the spread of disease, less good for the spread of knowledge.
Now we have the chance again to be more creative with classrooms. IB Business teacher Vanessa Carvalho grabbed the opportunity.
“I want to move around when I teach. I don’t want to lecture,” she says, seated at the end of the new boardroom table in her classroom. “The arrangement of the furniture, the type of furniture, can help me be effective – or it can hinder me.’
Students like it, too. “It’s chill,” says Daniel simply, backed up by other students who mention that it’s less stressful, it feels more homey, and they like that lamps have replaced the bright overhead lights found in most classrooms.
We started the makeover by talking about teaching style first. Vanessa doesn’t lecture, she runs a flipped classroom, she likes to carry her computer with her, set it down here and there as she works with individual students. A couple of high tables with stools on each side of the room helps. It’s a business class, so a boardroom table makes sense. Nothing like emulating the real world – and facilitating better class discussion. The room has a couch and extra chairs. If it’s necessary to project a presentation, there are enough chairs for everyone. And then those lamps, with soft lighting. You notice it immediately when you enter the room.
I visited the class to ask the students some questions. Within a few minutes they were reframing my questions in terms of what they are learning in class.
I mentioned that the classrooms in our school, and in most schools, tend to look the same. It’s cheaper that way, because the school makes one large order. “Wait!” says Ms. Carvalho. “Why is that?” The students explain that it’s economies of scale … purchasing economies – meaning that large scale orders of the same product are bought at a discount.
Our maintenance team, I also said, prefers to have lots of the same product on hand in case something breaks, but our teachers might prefer subject-specific furniture in their classrooms. “What is it called when groups of people in a business have different interests?” asked Ms. Carvalho. “Stakeholder conflicts,” says Yusef. “In this case, these are internal stakeholders.” he adds.
Neat! We’re applying theoretical knowledge now to a very practical project. And I’m learning terminology along the way.
I don’t know much about business, so I contribute instead by saying that, for the sake of learning, there’s probably a good reason for having classrooms look different. As Meyer (2014) put it, “Memories are inextricably tied to place.” What happens when all of our classrooms look the same? It may actually be harder to remember things. Yet there is this conflict between the department that buys the furniture for the school and the department that plans the learning for the school.
Ms. Carvalho gives the students a significant look and a few of them say “stakeholder conflicts.” They’ve got it.
Before I leave I ask the students what they think about the room, in addition to “It’s chill.”
“When I first walked in, I thought we were going to have a conference meeting. And the teacher explained her teaching method and that this style might be better,” says Petra.
“It’s easier to remember things because it’s casual, rather than the teacher standing in one place,” adds Ayano. (And, if she knew the term, she might have mentioned that thing about memory being tied to place. I looked it up; psychologists call it episodic memory formation.)
“And dimmer lights help you have less stress,” points out Mohammed.
I understand the pull and push of outfitting school classrooms. I can even describe it a bit now using proper business terminology. Yet I remain convinced that variety has a lot of worth, that teachers should have much more say in what their classrooms look like, and that we may find out that individualization in school interior decorating is actually quite important. In education parlance, addressing individual student needs is called differentiation, and few of us would argue that differentiation is not important.
“Anything else you’d like to add?” I ask the students, as I get up to go.
“I don’t know,” says Zoe. “It’s just … different.”
Meyer, R. (2014). In the Brain, Memories Are Inextricably Tied to Place, The Atlantic(4),6, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/08/in-the-brain-memories-are-inextricably-tied-to-place/375969/
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