Monday, June 29, 2009

The wallpaper curriculum

How can high-school teachers maximize learning time for students with short attention spans? Here's an idea.

When students drift off and stop paying attention to a lesson, they often look around at other areas of the classroom - anywhere but where the teacher wants them to look. The lawn-mower in the window was a particular favorite of mine in high school: the hypnotic back-and-forth movement and the pleasant drone could keep me occupied during a long hour of history class.

Teachers, when they set up their classroom, should aim to make it utterly impossible for kids to look anywhere in the room without learning something. Fine, don't look at the teacher - look at the maps and timelines on the wall, or the art, or the quotations from famous figures, or the posters depicting famous photographs and historical events. Or the rows of books that cover a wall - some with their spines out, some faced-out. You don't even need to open them to be intrigued by their titles: "The Philosophy of History" by G.W.F. Hegel; "The Open Society" by Karl Popper; "The Educated Imagination" by Northrop Frye; "Tales of Love and Loss" by Knut Hamsun; "Confessions of a Mask" by Yukio Mishima.

What about vocabulary terms in size 100 type? A garden, with the plants and vegetables labeled? An aquarium? Phrase charts in foreign languages?

Managers of retail stores are taught to never show their fixtures - to cover every inch of shelves and pegs with products. Products are for sale; fixtures are not. Showing the customer an empty shelf sells no books.

The same principle applies in the classroom. Empty wall space gives you no educational return-on-investment; in fact, bare walls evoke feelings of confinement and claustrophobia. Fill empty spaces. The classroom is not a modern, minimalist design studio: it is an attic and workshop for independent scholars with crackling, eager minds. A classroom's walls should contribute to students' impression that schooling is not a world unto itself, but rather an introduction and guide to the greater world of ideas, art, and informed action.