Old Habits Die Hard: The Stubborn Specter of Traditional Education

There’s a reason this organization is called ITSA and not SAIT, and it’s more than just verbal aesthetics. It is no coincidence that “independent thought” comes before “social action.” Whatever social action we try to inspire and foster in our workshop participants is subordinate to independent thought. When we talk about “igniting the flame of social change,” there is no question that that flame is located squarely in the human mind.
And in our experience, the best way to foster independent thought is through an egalitarian classroom environment.

We create this environment in many ways – student-generated safe space rules, equitable facilitation, flexible and tailored curricula. The most salient of these, however, is the physical arrangement of the classroom. At ITSA, we recognize that the battle (for lack of a better word) between traditional and progressive education is fought largely over the physicality of the classroom. Indeed, the physical classroom environment has, in many ways, been the line along which the traditional/progressive split has occurred. As far back as 1938, John Dewey warned that “the fixed arrangements of the typical traditional schoolroom […] put a great restriction upon intellectual and moral freedom.”

Realizing the correspondence between mental and physical states is what prompts us to discard the traditional schoolroom in favor of the discussion circle. So great is our aversion to traditional schooling that even the chair, an otherwise harmless piece of furniture, is discarded. Our workshops occur largely on the floor – not out of some misguided radicalism, but simply because the pull of years of traditional education is so strong that we must differentiate ourselves from it as fully as practically possible. Only this way can truly new ways of thought occur in both us and the participants.

You might think that one or two workshops conducted in this way might be enough to shake off the reflexive impulse to fall back into traditional modes of schooling and learning. But experience has shown otherwise – most starkly during our July 18 workshop. We had just conducted an activity that required chairs – one of very few such activities, and were having a discussion afterwards. The activity itself had gone very well – students had had productive group discussions and, as always, raised some very good points. For the discussion, we thought it would be too cumbersome to go back to our circle just to make a few comments, so we stayed in the arrangement we had been in during the activity.

As it happened by the end of the activity most of the chairs were turned in the direction of the board, where a workshop leader was writing down what students were saying. It seems that his superficial resemblance to the traditional classroom was enough to re-ignite the habits of traditional learning in full force. We began our discussion, and students did something they had never done before – they stood up to speak, they faced and spoke to the “teacher,” often even when responding to points others had made. It was but a short discussion, and we soon switched back to the circular arrangement, but it was a stark reminder of the mammoth deterministic power of the physical classroom.

A few unfortunately arranged chairs, a workshop leader, and a board had threatened the fundamental structure of the ITSA classroom.

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