Rows of benches tightly packed, facing a blackboard, where the teacher lectures and the students quietly and rather passively listen to the teacher – such is the face of the conventional classroom.
Of course, there are bellwether indications of shifts away from convention in a good number of classrooms around the world, but overall, the majority of classrooms stick to this convention – an inheritance of the factory model of education, the psyche of an institution modelled by industrialization – get students in, lecture them, contain them, get students out.
Such a Foucauldian nightmare of discipline and punishment it is that the floor plan of prisons is uncannily similar to that of a school composed of conventional classrooms (and a conventional hospital).
The conventional classroom and its typical design are consequences of educational philosophies such as perennialism and essentialism, where the former implies that there are long-lasting ideas that all students should know and the latter implies that there is a core pool of ideas that all students should know. These ideas emanating from the teacher resulted in a teacher-centred pedadogy, the primary task of which was to ensure ideas are downloaded from the teacher to the student. The classroom tightly packed with benches facing the blackboard is sufficient to fulfill this purpose.
The unconventional classroom would thus, embrace a different educational philosophy, such as progressivism, which results in a student-centred pedagogy. This philosophy embraces the notion that the focus should be on the student instead of a fixed pool of ideas. The curriculum, instead should be based on the student’s current experience and interests, adapt to changing experiences and focus on learning how to learn, instead of merely the memorization of facts.
Progressivism resulted in learning theories such as social constructivism, where knowledge is theorized to be constructed through social interaction. A classroom that wants to base its activities on social constructivism can no longer stick to the conventional design, but rather adopt a new design where students are able to interact with each other. One potential change of design is to have flexible furniture or round-tables, where students can face each other to interact.
Assessments would also have to change. While it is ideal that students should study for the intrinsic motivation of creating and acquiring knowledge, the cultural reality is that students and their support systems are extrinsically motivated by grades.
Given the current culture of salivating for high grades, it is not the ideal case that assessments are designed based on what is being taught, rather what is taught is based on the design of the assessment. It is sufficient for teachers to conduct rote memorization activities for students to perform well in conventional assessment formats. This, again, has resulted in the design of the conventional classroom.
However, if assessments were changed such that rote memorization was no longer sufficient for students to do well, teachers would be encouraged to conduct activities, which require a different design of the classroom.
Global movements in school design are also questioning whether schools actually need classrooms in the first place. Some schools have adopted the open no-classroom design, where the school has different zones instead – the discovery zone, the quiet zone, the wet zone, the play zone, the reading zone, etc.
These schools again are adopting student-centred pedagogies, based on appropriate learning theories, where students are central to the design.
Understanding what conventional educational philosophy results in and to embrace a different educational philosophy, that which is relevant to the rapidly evolving 21st century and to our increased understanding of humans and society, is thus foundational to re-imagine the classroom.