I’m currently reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, a book about how little things can make a big difference when causing an epidemic or movement to start. Today I read about the “Power of Context,” which is the understanding that context matters and “specific and relatively small elements in the environment can serve as Tipping Points” (p. 167). The example given about the New York City subway system was about how elements in an environment that convey disorder or a feeling of chaos or apathy can actually be the tipping point for violence or vandalism. This got me thinking about the “power of context” in relation to classroom design and set up.
Imagine a class that values collaboration and teamwork. How would that classroom be designed? Perhaps the desks would be arranged in table groups. There might be areas set up in the room for collaboration such as a reading table, a carpet space to gather as a class, or small work tables scattered around. Now imagine a class that values collaboration, yet all the desks are all in rows facing the front of the room. What message does that send if all the desks are in rows? How are the students supposed to work together when they are all facing one direction? The way in which you set up your classroom should reflect your values and be set up in a way that the context of the room supports those beliefs. Having the desks in rows can send the message that all eyes should be on the teacher, the giver of knowledge. A subtle change in classroom desk arrangement and design can make a big difference and be the tipping point for getting collaboration going in your classroom.
I recently volunteered at a local Chinese school, and upon entering the classroom, was taken aback by the design of the classroom. The small room was filled to the brim with 40+ children, all in rows, facing the front of the class. There was hardly any room to maneuver around the room, and it was evident to me that there couldn’t possibly be much collaboration happening in this room. The walls were bare, except for a few permanent fixtures on the wall– Chinese posters displaying rules and procedures, a TV in the corner of the room, and a blackboard at either end of the classroom– and a display of student stickers which seemed to be some sort of incentive program. The front of the room contained a teacher’s desk/podium from which to teach. The context of this classroom tells me that its values are that the teacher is the one in charge, the one who gives information, and the children are receivers of knowledge. While there may be other factors at play, I don’t speak enough Chinese to ascertain if there is anything else happening to suggest otherwise. The walls, free of anchor charts and student work, also conveyed a message that work was done in their notebooks, but not shared. While the children didn’t seem unhappy at all, my Western-style teaching beliefs and methods were definitely challenged and I felt myself feeling sad for these children who have to learn in this way.
In addition to classroom design, the decor of your classroom also conveys a message, and the students pick up on that message, even if its on a subconscious level. Do your displays reflect the learning going on in your classroom today or do you have the same posters up year-round? Is student work valued and displayed on the walls in and outside of your classroom? Are there anchor charts of lessons hung on the walls so that children can refer to them if they have a question or need help? What you choose to put on your walls should reflect your beliefs and values about education and set up a context for learning.
How do you use the “power of context” in your classroom design and set up?