Monday, January 27, 2014

Designing the liberal arts learning environment

A colleague recently e-mailed asking what I thought would make the best classroom environment for a philosophy classroom, or a liberal arts learning environment in general. While I am confident that the physical geography of a classroom makes a difference to how we (can) teach and how students learn, I'd never thought about the issue systematically. 

Some initial observations:

The standard college classroom is not, we might say, very learning-centered. As Donald Ritzenhein points out, if function follows form, then the implied function of a typical 'liberal arts classroom' (the desks in a row facing the teaching model) is to enable students to sit down — and zone out. It's a very inflexible, teacher-centered spatial design, not designed to facilitate interaction among students. 
The question is what would we want instead? Texas Wesleyan is an institution that has clearly given the matter some thought. Its Classroom Next is everything the traditional classroom isn't: designed for collaboration, with lecture possible but not the focus of the design; flexible and non-hierarchical; technology has a place, but not the place in the classroom; multiple whiteboards arrayed at classroom's edge). (Sorry for the slightly fuzzy diagram!)

I have to say, taking a look at this design, group work, student presentations, and other learning-centered approaches seem profoundly easier in this configuration.

So with that: What do you want out of a philosophy teaching environment? Is it along the lines of Classroom Next? What are the deficiencies of the learning environments we're typically provided?


  1. Something that might interest you. Using audio/visual in teaching philosophy. (Check out Discussion on Oligarchy and Citizenship)

  2. I am a new adjunct philosophy prof (I've been teaching English a few years and this is so much more fun!) and I am in a war with the school registrar over rearranging furniture in my classroom. The room is always set up like the top photo, only it makes even less sense because the whiteboard and smartboard are on different walls. A square of tables (which is tight in my room, but not as confining as ROWS of tables) is the best I can do and the school will not leave it that way, even though every prof has asked for it. They trap the kids in rows, aimed at the smartboard. I can't even get to the whiteboard to do funny Socrates drawings! I spend fifteen minutes every morning before my 8:00AM class rearranging... Ugh. Sorry to complain at you on my first comment here.

    The best thing about my classroom, despite the table torture, is that it looks like a room at the Moose Lodge. Fake torches on the wall, wood paneling, a fireplace. Perfect for philosophizing. They should do it justice and set the tables up for conversation.

    Love the blog, and I will be back for more ideas. Teaching philosophy has really invigorated my teaching style altogether, but it takes a lot of planning. Thanks for the help!


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