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Character and Setting: Giving Students a Place in the Learning Design

Sunday, November 5, 2017

“Place has the most delicate control over character: by confining character, it defines it. Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel's progress. Location pertains to feeling; feeling profoundly pertains to place.”
–Eudora Welty, “Place in Fiction”

Whenever I need to make airline reservations, I encounter the same existential crisis: am I a window or an aisle? Sometimes I like the freedom and mobility of the aisle – I can stretch my legs or make a bathroom trip without climbing over other passengers. But I also like the coziness and isolation of the window seat. My preferences in seating vary based on what I need to focus on during the flight. On a red eye, all the legroom in the emergency exit row is great for a long nap, but it does me little good if I need the pull-down table to work on my laptop. 

Space matters. Place matters. It matters to our physical comfort, our moods, our brain function.  My wife and I have spent our married lives getting to know and negotiate each other’s spatial quirks, compromising when we can and capitulating when we can’t. It’s not just a matter of individual preference but also a necessity of community building. Can you design a space that accounts for both?

Our new Middle and Upper School space, photographed by James Florio. Yes, you can – but not without challenges. The new learning space for our Middle and Upper School students aims to address this balance between individualized and collaborative learning. Before construction began on this space last school year (long before I came on board), the team had brainstormed how the best aspects of the Lower School setting might be recreated in this new space for older students. In workshops with the architect, our students requested features that they felt would improve their experience: more space to move, more room to read, and more rooms to film, record, seek help, and collaborate. After a thorough design process with both students and teachers, construction launched this past spring and our learning space was ready just in time for the beginning of the new school year.

Since that day on September 5, most of our growing pains have been related to negotiating this space into one that is conducive to all of the students’ different styles and preferences of learning. Some work best amidst a steady din of background noise, others need a cocoon of silence if they’re going to get anything accomplished. Some find the bean bag chairs relaxing enough to do their best thinking, while others find them a little too relaxing. The idea, within our model of personalized learning, is that each student can use the space in a way that fits her individual learning style. The trouble – or rather, challenge – is that many students do not yet know what kind of space works best for their learning style.

As part of the Term Project on identity, students created 3D self-portraits illustrating their different personalities. As with all things related to fostering independence, getting kids to use their learning space in productive and meaningful ways requires guidance. Self-awareness and self-management must be taught. During our first term, therefore, students in Independence Level 5 spent their Studio Time engaged in taking and reflecting on personality tests, discussing how and where they best learn, and then finally working on their Term Project: designing and constructing an ideal space or an assistive device that would meet an individual need to aid learning. The results, which students presented and displayed at our recent Term Exhibition, were varied and ambitious. One group presented a creative invention that would use a decibel meter to cut student access to wifi once the volume in the common space got too loud. (As one parent at the Exhibition pointed out, “Don’t you think the sound will get even louder once that happens?”) A couple groups displayed their prototypes for study pods (introvert pods, I heard one student call them) that would provide a cave-like study environment for a student who wanted absolute focus on her studies. The products/solutions the students came up with showed empathy for individual learning needs, a wild imagination for how the educational experience should be physically designed, and far-reaching idealism that pushed the limits of what is possible – or practical, as most of us cynical adults would say. 

As the Head of Middle and Upper School, I paid attention to these products and solutions. While I’m not yet ready to send these prototypes or blueprints to the factory to get actualized, I did come to some conclusions: most people can’t learn when it’s loud, everyone has a different idea of the ideal learning space, and everyone has the same idea that a learning space should cater to everyone’s ideal.

“I even asked a couple artistically inclined students to decorate my very blank whiteboard walls – which they did more beautifully than I could have hoped for.” In my own office, I have made efforts to create a learning space that works for me: I bought a white noise machine to help me focus, I filled my shelves with the books and trinkets that make me feel at home, I have my yoga ball for when I need to get up from my desk and stretch every now and then (and blinds installed on my door window so passers-by don’t have to witness this performance), and I even asked a couple artistically inclined students to decorate my very blank whiteboard walls – which they did more beautifully than I could have hoped for. Aside from the lack of an actual window to let in natural light, my office is now catered to my own personal learning style. But I’m only one person in one space. What about the shared space beyond?

I recently listened to Marc Kushner’s TED Radio Hour about how buildings make us feel. In an interview with Guy Raz, Kushner explains, “The places where you spend your day-to-day – that strip mall where you get your coffee or that store where you really like to sit and read in – these places affect you. They make you happier. They make you feel protected. That's an emotional power that architecture brings to the table.” The places where our students spend their day-to-day are here in our school, so it’s up to us to help them find that perfect blend of happy and protected. The bean bags and couches make them happy, for sure. And the lockers that have no locks (my wife calls them “ers”) make them feel trusted, which is a way of feeling protected. 

While the school was empty one day, I gave my architect brother a FaceTime tour of our learning space and asked what he thought. The dry-erase walls – covered with colorful notes and questions from students – he loved. The hard flat surfaces everywhere, however, he explained, could be a problem for noise. “But,” he said, “when the place is full of bodies, those can help muffle any noise.” He then added, “Unless of course it’s those bodies that are making the noise.”  A recent Business Insider article about our new space alludes to this challenge: “Part of the flexible learning approach means giving kids the chance to be by themselves,” the writer of the article explains. “Collaboration is important, but if they're surrounded by their peers many students could eventually feel overwhelmed.” When does collaboration turn to distraction? At what point does my chance to be myself in my learning infringe on your chance to be yourself in your learning?

“Part of the flexible learning approach means giving kids the chance to be by themselves.” As a literature teacher, I spent plenty of time imparting on students the relationship between character and setting. The two are interlinked: setting affects character but character can also create setting. Eudora Welty’s essay “Place in Fiction” elaborates on this: “Place has the most delicate control over character: by confining character, it defines it. Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel's progress. Location pertains to feeling; feeling profoundly pertains to place.” This is true in fiction, of course, because this is true in real life. We often talk of Khan Lab School as the “brick and mortar” realization of Sal Khan’s vision for education – it’s the “concrete spot” of experiences and feelings related to this vision.

As such, when we focus on the space/place where learning happens, we should also examine the experiences and feelings of the characters who are doing the learning. I did not come to that realization alone, by the way; it was instead taught to me by one of our wise students who spoke to me about her ideas for improving the learning space. Though I had already made some physical changes to the space and some procedural changes to how students were allowed to use the space (to some improvement), I asked to hear what she thought. After a pause, she told me that it came down to relationships and community. Many of the students are new to each other, she explained, and many of the teachers are new to the students. She said that when we continue to intentionally build our community and foster these relationships, the trust that we cultivate will take care of the rest. In our KLS Graduate Profile, we identify character strengths as one of our aims for KLS graduates – and this student humbled me with hers.  

The lesson here is that character can indeed shape setting. All of our stakeholders have been involved in each step of designing and implementing our learning space. But building an effective learning space is only complete when we are also intentionally building the community within it.
 


Questions for Students:

  • How proactive are you about choosing places, times, and environments that maximize your learning?
  • At what point does your personal learning style infringe upon another’s personal learning style?

Questions for Parents:

  • How are you teaching your child to be respectful of their living space (cleaning their room, doing the dishes, straightening up around the house, etc.)?
  • How often do you provide or encourage a quiet environment at home for sustained thinking, learning, and reflecting?

Questions for Educators:

  • What does the layout and structure of your learning space (classroom, library, lab) say about what kind of learning you value?
  • How are you teaching students to understand their own individualized learning styles and to respect the learning styles of others?

 

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