1 September 2021

Back to the classroom?

It just dawned on me recently: all learning activities need a home – a space where learning takes place, where instructions are given and where practice is done.

Sounds obvious, right?
Or is it?

Here’s some things to chew on as lockdowns are being lifted and we start crawling back into our classrooms.

My kids go to a Montessori school (just like I did). What I love about this school and the system is that kids share a classroom with three different grades. One of the consequences is that they stay in the same classroom with the same teacher for three years before they move on to the next classroom for another three years.

They occupy the space, it’s theirs. It’s where they read, write, draw, make, watch, sing, eat, drink, cheat, chat, laugh, bully and fight. They probably spend more hours in this classroom then they spend awake at home! For them it’s not just school, it’s also another ‘home’.

When I started my studies in Industrial Design in The Hague back in the 90’s the school was based in a relatively small building that was shared with two other faculties. Most courses had a dedicated classroom and design projects where done in project spaces where sketches and prototypes could be left behind to continue work the next day.

At least for the duration of a project that space was our home. We occupied it.

During my third year in The Hague a brand new campus was built right in the city center to bundle the majority of studies under one roof as one big collective. The prestigious campus for the newly branded ‘Hague University of Applied Science’ would make for a strong image to attract students from all over the world and the move to a single infrastructure would ultimately be much more cost efficient.

The basic idea behind this new efficiency is that you can optimise the use of all educational space by means of centralised planning – no more empty classrooms. That may have sounded like a briljant idea from a management point of view, but this efficiency also came at a cost.

With fourteen academies spread out over an eighty-three thousand square meter site, we were now sharing the available educational space with more than twenty thousand students and all of a sudden our classes took place in anonymous lecture rooms that could be scheduled on one of ten different floors every other day.

I felt lost!

Years later, when doing an extra year at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena (CA) I finally had another home-at-school-experience. For a whole term our class would ‘own’ a studio space.

We could design and setup our own workspace and use this room as our private design studio, where professors would come to visit us and not the other way around. We even had a couch to take naps in between classes or watch videos at night. Some students never went home at all!

Over the past twenty years I have been teaching design sketching classes and workshops in many places all over the world, including the department of Industrial Design in The Hague where I started my studies. I am fortunate to be teaching most of my courses there from a home base – the vislab studio, one of the only dedicated learning spaces in the whole building!

It’s a light and spacious room with individual drawing tables, a wall to pin-up sketches and shelves full of product samples, reference books and sketching tools. A place to get inspired, to practice, experiment, fail and reflect. Where guests are invited to share their expertise. Where work is submitted, where feedback is given and where students come for advise, even after class is over.

A place where staff and students feel at home.

This studio space was not given to us by chance. If it wasn’t for the perseverance of my co-teacher Rein Have, the vislab would have never existed. He fought like a lion for this space because he believed our sketching classes needed a home base.

I fully agree and I also believe this insight extends way beyond my own classroom and applies to all learning activities – everywhere.

At the same time I see that opportunities for creating and maintaining a home-base are under constant threat by management driven cost reductions – everywhere.

Whilst many teachers seem eager and excited to return to on-campus teaching, I feel more reluctant than ever. Don’t get me wrong – I know students need to meet up physically to engage in social interaction and have some sort of student life.

Yet, the distance that came with teaching remotely during the pandemic has made me even more aware of the pitfalls that are undermining the educational system as a whole. When educational space gets managed like factory space, students and staff will feel like moving through an assembly line.

I no longer want to expose my students to nomadic lectures in anonymous classrooms. I am going to make an effort to make my students feel like we own the space together.

It’s their education after all.

Martijn van de Wiel is an independent Dutch creative entrepreneur and design teacher on a mission to help aspiring and professional designers unlock their creative potential. Through online courses, keynote talks and hands-on workshops, Martijn keeps beating the drum for sketching as a vehicle to support thinking and stimulate the imagination.

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