Classroom Walls


My children attended an elementary school with an open floor plan. I was skeptical when I heard about this design. There are no walls around the classrooms? Isn’t it loud? Isn’t it chaotic?

Indeed, Bear Creek Elementary did not have fully-walled-off classrooms. But it was not a single undifferentiated open space. Bookshelves and file cabinets acted as barriers around each class’s space. The vibe was a little loud and chaotic, but the teachers and the students made it work.

Partitions and boundaries are a big part of formal education systems. Schools are divided into distinct buildings and rooms, with separations by ages (in the younger grades) and topics of study (in the older). Years are divided into terms, and days are divided into periods. Bells chime. Finals arrive.

Requirements and milestones also create structure. The high school diploma requires X classes in math, Y in language arts, etc. For a bachelor’s degree, it is one-hundred-twenty credit hours, divided and subdivided into breadth and depth requirements. Structure is a defining feature of school.

Is all this structure good or bad?

Structure makes efficient use of resources. One teacher will explain how to factor a quadratic expression to thirty students at a time. That’s a better use of the teacher’s effort than delivering the same explanation thirty times.

Structure can be motivating. The bigger goal of working toward the degree will get students to study topics for which they lack inherent motivation. We teachers know that students will devote attention to assignments if there are points and grades at stake and for the most part, will opt out of anything optional or ungraded. Points and grades provide structure and shape behavior.

Structure can help people get into flow, fully absorbed in work. Having clear goals and being able to track progress helps bring on this desirable state.

But the structure of school is also the source of the biggest challenges. We teachers groan (at least silently, sometimes not) when a student asks, “Is this going to be on the test?” For some students, structure and the implied competition extinguish their love of learning. Those students lose internal motivation for their own development and become trained to identify and jump through hoops that others define for them. In the worse cases, our best students feel like they are on a treadmill; these are the Excellent Sheep that William Deresiewiczs writes about.

If students aren’t internally driven to learn or to get the most out of an educational opportunity, they may resort to cheating. If the chance of getting caught is low, cheating may appear to be a rational response to structure.

Structure can crowd out valuable learning experiences. I’ve been asked by many companies whether students can receive academic credit for “internships.” At my school, we don’t offer much of that: it’s hard to fit the activities of company work into the structure of academic credit. For a mundane example of the disconnect, consider timing. If the company plans a project for an intern, but for some reasons the project encounters delays, students can miss the credits in the current semester, possibly jeopardizing their full-time enrollment status. In smaller educational settings, these hiccups are easier to handle on a case by case basis. On our large public-school campus, it’s hard to craft policies that hold all the parties involved (companies, students, faculty) to high standards of the student experience.

The best individual classes and the best educational systems balance the opposing forces of structure and freedom. I acknowledge the magic of inspired and intrinsically motivated students and recognize that some of our “classroom walls” deplete them. We also need to recognize the benefits of those walls. Delivering higher education at scale uses structure in the service of efficiency and motivation.

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