The Ideal Classroom

This week students at OISE Cambridge are preparing a presentation on the Ideal School or training centre. 

I mentioned in a post earlier this week [here] the idea of forming a peripatetic academy in the Botanical Gardens just opposite the school, and I have been wondering why that might in fact be a good idea.Botanical Gardens, Cambridge

In a typical language classroom, students sit still, listen, talk, yawn, take notes, fill gaps; occasionally the teacher will invite them to get up and move around for some reason, perhaps as part of a game, perhaps in order to give a presentation. But on the whole, the student sits and the teacher stands, and the knowledge trickles slowly downhill.

Of course this was not always so; the Peripatetic School at Athens was famously organized for walking up and down; the cloisters at Europe’s oldest universities fulfilled a similar purpose. To walk is, in a sense, to think; Bruce Chatwin, in his 1987 book, The Songlines, argued that because we evolved as a nomadic species, we think best when we are going along at a steady walking pace – we think, literally, on our feet.

Raphael School of Athens

So it is, we might conclude, that every student loves to get out of the classroom, whether it is a five-year old going on a nature walk or an OISE student taking a trip to Lloyd’s of London. There is a sense of freedom, and of the real world shattering the classroom bubble.

But the idea of students strolling through the Botanical Gardens is more than simply a way of ensuring they get some fresh air; it is a way of introducing the phenomenal world into the learning experience: in other words, of learning through objects.

mca-lecture-theatreIn the nineteenth century in Cambridge (and elsewhere), plaster -cast copies were taken of classical sculpture and used to illustrate points in lectures on archaeology or aesthetics; students would be invited to come and inspect the casts at close quarters, perhaps handle them.

The casts are no longer used for this purpose, but I am often struck by the animation of students when, instead of photocopied sheets of paper, a teacher places an object on the table for them to inspect. It is as though a fragment of the real world has suddenly appeared – the real world of objects whose language everyone Magritte - The meaning of dreamsspeaks. In Gulliver’s Travels, the philosophers of Lagogo converse with one another by holding up objects which they carry around for the purpose. An object – an apple, a ceramic pot, a toothbrush – has an equal clarity in any language.

There it is then, the Ideal Classroom: out of doors, with space to walk about in, in the company of a philosopher who keeps producing memorable objects to which you can attach your ideas.

Now all we need is some weather.


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