In his book Discipline and Punish, French theorist Michel Foucault writes of desks in classrooms. To Foucault, the grid format of school desks was “… one of the great technical mutations of elementary education. It made it possible to supersede the traditional system (a pupil working for a few minutes while the rest of the heterogenous group remained idle and unattended). … It organized a new economy of the time of apprenticeship. It made the educational space function like a learning machine, but also a machine for supervising, hierarchizing, rewarding.”
Practically, public schooling’s function is to provide basic, needed education to its citizens, teaching measurable skills to the greatest number of students. A grid reflects this goal, Foucault writes. The grid is a closed system; students move about within it, but the content is predetermined. This model may be sufficient if simple skill absorption is education’s ultimate aim, but Foucault’s critique asks us to dig deeper. If we wish for an education environment that provokes creativity, forges community and conscience, and engages young minds in critical thinking, what kind of spaces do we need?
If we accept that spatial arrangement matters for learning—that our sensory impressions shape what we think, what we learn, and how we are—it changes the approach to education and the spaces where learning happens. For example, if we want students to interact with other human beings with care, we had better not segregate them in desks that sit at measured distances from one another. Instead, we could create spaces that allow students to tangibly encounter each other, the world, and themselves. Because in the end, we, students all, need to practice being human.
Two real-life examples will help clarify this messier approach to space and pedagogy.
First: A tiny-house build with high school students, carpenters, and designers, all women, at the education program I run called Sawhorse Revolution. This day, half of the projects were inside the 120-square-foot house, about the size of a food truck or a large walk-in closet. Seven bodies were working there, equipped with tools, paint, and 13-foot boards, depending on the team. In this cramped condition, the lessons change. One must be attentive and considerate, so as not to scrape a board against wet paint, or bump into a student on a ladder. In this small space, one encounters and must physically consider the safety and well-being of others. Time is wasted as one group waits for another, offering a chance to socialize, reconsider the problem at hand, or simply rest.
Second: A story from a forest kindergarten in Denmark. This December day, three- and four-year-old children spent the afternoon climbing up and down trees, sawing small branches to create a hut for unknown purposes. The saws they used were sharp, and the children had to rally their limbs and fingers to safely cut low-hanging branches. It was winter in Denmark, but the cold was mostly forgotten in the glee of racing from tree to tree, struggling to collect branches. As one boy hurried to catch up to his friends, he tripped spectacularly and emerged crying, with two bloody knees and mud slathering his hands. One of the teachers calmly walked over and pulled out of her bag a mirror nearly as tall as he was. She held it up; he stared in, his eyes widening, tears forgotten as he took himself in.
This mirror suggests a model of education quite distinct from the grid: an open form that encompasses and reflects life back to the students. It is an educator’s tool, as are the uncontrolled Danish forest and the cramped, under-construction tiny house. The boy in the mirror sees that he is much more than his pain; the student carpenter has to communicate beyond her comfort zone. In both cases, they struggle with and encounter themselves.
When contrasted with the desk grid, a repressive system that recycles content, the environments above create space for exploration, generosity, and struggle. Problem solving can be taught because the students encounter real problems. We need educators who can withstand the discomfort of errors, imperfections, and failures to help transform a difficult situation into a learning experience; educators who can let their spaces become a beautiful mess; spaces that interrupt the daily flow of “I am, I know, I can” and cause us to pause and question what, where, and who we are.