I recently asked my class of twenty somethings in exasperation: “Tell me, what would it take to make you all more engaged and responsive?” After a brief silence (probably due to my unusually irritated tone) one student hesitantly said, “Maybe the classroom space doesn’t encourage some of us to participate…?” He went on to suggest that we move the class to a different space, less bounded by walls and furniture. The next time we met under the trees near a student food court before the busy hours. Some of the structure of a formal classroom remained – we still sat in a semi-circle rather than in a real circle, eyes and attention were still focused more on me than on the group as a whole, and I found myself continuing to take primary responsibility for the way discussion proceeded. But there was a definite opening up. More students spoke up, and the conversation took unanticipated turns.
While not all of us have the luxury or the flexibility to change where we take our classes, maybe we can think of other ways to open up the traditional classroom, at least in higher classes where children tend to be more set in their patterns of behaviour and more mechanical in their responses. Of course, there’s a lot to be said for stability, familiarity and routine – but these can also stifle us or at best make us complacent. Changing the seating pattern and order every few weeks, or occasionally reversing the orientation of the desks may be enough to get them thinking and seeing differently.
In this issue of Teacher Plus, we have tried to take a closer look at the issue of conflict resolution. Among the questions various writers have addressed are: What are some peaceful ways of negotiating differences? How do we deal with conflicts within ourselves? Can classrooms become spaces where conflict resolution can be modeled?
Making a shift in our responses and, more importantly, our attitudes, is admittedly, quite difficult. But such shifts could be nudged a little bit by physical shifts in the classroom that in some ways are symbolic but can also catalyze a group to make other shifts. It can, literally, get students to see a different point of view. When we introduce challenging topics, it could help if we also changed the setting of our discussions – signalling to the students that it is not “business as usual” and we want them to extend their minds beyond the narrow walls of the bounded classroom.