Think about one of your classrooms – how do you like it? Is the lighting wonderful? Does the paint color make you drool? Is the seating arrangement and level of mobility conducive to impromptu dance parties? More importantly, does your classroom space – whether face to face or online – enrich your students’ experience or shut down creative/productive thought and action? Does the layout encourage relationship building? How does the space align with your teaching philosophy, course goals, and disciplinary practice? Can your students really do sociology, history, public health, or botany in your space?
I’ve been thinking about these types of questions throughout my entire career in higher ed as ugly, unfriendly, generic classroom spaces thwarted me at every turn! But what can you do? Sure, some disciplines – like sculpture or microbiology – are lucky enough to have dedicated studio or lab space. However, even these spaces don’t necessarily prepare students to do your discipline or help engender positive affect through beauty, novelty, or realistic embeddedness.
Now, GSU does have some gorgeous active classrooms. Unfortunately these spaces are still in short supply. So one option here is to just leave your appointed space and go to a different space on campus. This is what I chose to do during Spring 2014 in my grand freshman studies teaching experiment that I called The Travelling Classroom. In short, the students and I met in alternative, contextually-appropriate locations almost every day of the semester. Now to be totally transparent I need to tell you that I didn’t do this experiment at GSU – this was at a different USG institution. However, I think that you could adapt something similar for your own class. Here’s a bit about how my version worked:
- Choosing and Booking Spaces: Well before the semester began I booked spaces on campus that somehow related to the course topic for the day. For instance, when we talked about health we met at the gym. When we discussed research we met in the library. Choosing spaces was quite easy for the type of class I was teaching. One big consideration here was to make sure that students had enough time to get to their next class from the alternate space.
- Informing Students: I considered listing meeting locations on my course calendar but decided against this in favor of announcing the meeting space at the end of each class. I did this for several reasons. First, secret locations built excitement and anticipation around coming to class. Sure, the students could probably guess where we were meeting based on the course topic but on occasion we met in an unexpected spot. Second, alternating spaces encouraged student bonding via contact exchange. Much flurried texting happened at the beginning of most classes as students who missed class – or forgot to note the new location – got in touch with their classmates. This textathon waned greatly as the semester wore on and students understood the importance of coming to class.
- Justifying The Experiment/Negotiation: On the first day of class I explained the traveling classroom idea to my students and, importantly, justified this choice using a combination of my own experience and research findings. I also included a justification in the syllabus. Throughout the semester the students and I revisited how the experiment was going and made adjustments on several occasions. This helped build buy in and gave students some control over their experience.
- Reflecting On Spaces: In this experiment I wanted to situate the spaces as fellow actors in our class. To help students think in this way I built 10 minutes of open reflection into the course each day. During this time the students and I wrote brief reflections on the space and how it enhanced or detracted from our experience. We also discussed how the space aligned with the day’s topic. This reflection served as both a formative assessment of student learning and a formative evaluation of the course design.
Overall, the travelling classroom was a great success. Not only did student attitude and attendance seem to improve over previous semesters but students also received better grades on average. This isn’t a great surprise since research supports the long term effects of field trips and other types of contextually embedded learning.
So what do you think? Is this type of itinerant course something you could try in your own classes? How could you tweak this idea to work for you and your students?