Does size matter?

To what degree do the rooms that we teach in affect the learning that takes place?  It's a question that often arises in professorial grousing.   Indeed, my colleagues and I often trade war stories about horrible classrooms.  There's the room below a large evaporation condenser that periodically kicks on with a banshee-like shriek.  Other contenders for the "worst room on campus" include a basement classroom complete with visible mold, and a second-story science classroom with heaters that blast relentlessly on warm spring days.  There's also a room in the student center that has a mural on one wall depicting what can only be described as clawed slashes on the underside of a coffin lid.

And then there's Science 1, the cavernous lecture hall they assigned me this semester for the senior seminar.   It's not exactly the kind of space you would imagine for a seminar purposefully limited in size and usually taking place around a large conference table.  Nevertheless, that's where I am this semester.

The rhetoric of  Science 1 is completely wrong: the students sit on a series of rising tiers, the professor is down in a pit., and all of the techno-pedagogi-gadgetry is splayed across the large front wall.  The room screams that the most important thing is what's on stage; the least is the learner sitting in the audience.  It's the perfect setting for a production of Euripides, but the worst imaginable for promoting active student engagement.  The room asks students to sit back in the dimly lit auditorium, yawn and mutter, "Okay, teacher boy, start dancing."

I could request a change of classroom, but for some reason I've taken Science 1 as a kind of challenge .  If I can make the seminar work in this room, I can make it work anywhere.   So I'm going to put to the test the theory that classrooms matter.  I secretly suspect that they don't matter as much as we think, or that they have only a limited effect.  After all, people around the world learn in all kinds of inhospitable settings.  One thinks of schools in poor tropical countries: open to the elements on all sides, un-air-conditioned and--horror of horrors--with no LCD projector or Internet access.  Let's face it: people were learning long before there were classrooms.


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