I've just returned from the Association of American Colleges and Universities annual conference in Seattle. As usual it was a good conference, filled with people making earnest efforts to improve American higher education. I was struck, though, at how many of the presentations (including mine) were about ways of improving education that have very little to do with what goes on in the classroom.
It isn't an earth-shattering realization to note that lots of the big reforms in higher ed are targeted somewhere beyond the classroom. Learning communities focus on structure, service-learning on outside-of-class activities, undergraduate research on work in labs and libraries. All of these things have implications for the classroom, but they make those implications indirectly, sort of like tending your garden by making sure your nursery carries better seeds.
Why is this? I'm not one to say that the classroom is simply an artifact of industrial-style education that ought to be pitched out. But at the same time many of the justifications of the classroom that jump immediately to mind are really about efficiency--in delivering content, encouraging conversations, even establishing spatial relations between people. As such, they are defenses of a vision of education that no longer persuades me. (Se John Tagg's The Learning Paradigm College for a strong critique of the industrial model.)
Certainly the classroom will continue far into the future, given the thousands of schools that have it as their central design feature. So it seems worth the effort to craft a defense of the classroom, especially one that goes beyond ease of content delivery. What is it about the classroom that ought to be defended? And how can that defense be used to improve learning?
One place to start is with the physical space itself. Nearly every major religion sets aside certain spaces for ritual activities. In many ways the classroom plays that role for education--it is (or at least could be) a place for communion between people seeking learning. A professor at Naropa University told me how at the beginning of each semester she sweeps her classroom, carefully arranges its chairs in a circle, leaves a gift for each student on his/her seat, and then invites the students to enter the room and begin the class. The idea is to define the classroom as a place set aside for learning, much like a chapel is a place set aside for worship. Not a bad idea, especially if one of your goals is to make the classroom seem like something other than an education factory...