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“Thinking rooms”: Expanding the notion of classrooms to include unstructured, free thought

For those of you who remember (most of you perhaps all too acutely) what primary and secondary school is like, you may recall that the central venue for learning was a room of 30 kids, one teacher, desks, and a chalkboard or whiteboard – and perhaps even a projector, an ELMO, or whatever other gadget your school district decided to splurge on. This form of teaching hasn’t changed at its core in a long time, and for good reason: it generally serves its purpose pretty well given the cost. That purpose, of course, is teaching students a particular subject, or collection of subjects, and imparting them with knowledge that they can build on in their future education and some of which they may even use in their careers. This is the purpose of the classroom itself; while school more broadly may have the arguably-more-important purpose of fostering a community among children and initiating them into society, the classroom is a particular tool used to help teachers give them some basic knowledge along the way.

The classroom is a great tool to use in accomplishing this goal because, in the most basic sense, it brings teachers and students into the same space, separates them with walls from lessons going on in other subjects, and are stocked with materials and manipulatives whose use can further students’ understandings of particular subjects – this is most obvious in something like a science lab, where you need to use specialized equipment to do certain activities, but also applies to standard implements like chalkboards. Increasingly, these materials even include laptops that can give teachers more powerful tools to fine-tune individualized learning, although those come with their own costs that are beyond the scope of this post. Indeed, it’s through ideas like this – the idea that we can introduce technology, materials, and pedagogical methods that are studied and restudied, many of which are indeed quite extraordinary – that we have taken the simple classroom and moved its effectiveness beyond that of the one-room schoolhouse.

We study methods to increase effectiveness, introduce technology to increase effectiveness, test and – don’t we know it – retest students to ensure effectiveness; and we all know what “effectiveness” means – we all know what we’re referring to. Right?

The astute reader would note that in my writing above, “effectiveness” refers to a classroom’s effectiveness as “a particular tool used to help teachers give [students] some basic knowledge” during their time in school. Of course this is what “effectiveness” means – we all know what we’re referring to when we talk about the effectiveness of classrooms. In fact, we all know this is what “effectiveness” means when we talk about the effectiveness of schools.

The astute reader may also note here that I briefly alluded to the idea that schools may have a more important purpose than imparting basic knowledge before moving on. Despite this, when we talk about the effectiveness of schools, we all know what we’re referring to. Right?

Classrooms and schools are distinct. A classroom serves to teach a subject, and a school serves – well, whatever purpose society wants it to serve. Today, schools are made up largely of classrooms, with some extra bells and whistles like gyms, libraries, cafeterias, etc. This reflects almost perfectly society’s expectations for the purpose of schools: today’s schools serve primarily to teach students and, as an ancillary function, further other campaigns for the good of society, like promoting fitness and providing nutrition. Indeed, this also comports very nicely with the popular and somewhat cynical idea that school is either wholly or mostly useless, serving to teach kids that “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell”, as the popular saying goes, rather than things like how to do taxes. (Ironically, this expression doesn’t exhibit subject-verb agreement, as the singular form of “mitochondria” is “mitochondrion”, but I digress.) While I believe people ought to be thankful for humanity’s knowledge of basic biological functions and marvel that our knowledge of nature has so improved that we are taught what was groundbreaking research 100 years ago as unremarkable fact today (although this itself raises questions about why material is presented in the manner it is), this dissatisfaction goes to show that some segments of society believe schools ought to serve a purpose other than just distribution of facts.

While learning facts, processes, methods, and other things you learn in school can be engaging and rewarding in its own right, schools can be much more than just centers for fact distribution. As I alluded to above, schools are where we initiate a new generation of people into our society, and so are an important place to instill all we can into students. While there are many things we don’t teach students that people propose we should – like how to do taxes – each of those things could be accomplished with another classroom. Despite all the discussion about them so far, though, this piece isn’t about classrooms. Classrooms are wonderful tools for teaching, but there are drawbacks – in a room of 30 kids, you get different levels of knowledge, experience, motivation, and so on. For all my raving about how helpful a tool classrooms are, that’s all they are: a tool. The most important part of a tool is its user, and it’s incredibly difficult to be a teacher in an environment where students each have unique, highly variable sets of skills they bring to the table, and, perhaps more importantly, it’s incredibly difficult to be a student in an environment where the teacher can devote so little of their time to you. This is, after all, one of the draws of introducing laptops: it’s much easier to learn at your own pace when the material is distributed to you individually.

Luckily, there’s one thing that’s extraordinarily important to society that students can do at their own pace – all the time, with no effort, and with no technology required. Everybody thinks. This is obvious, of course – perhaps too obvious. It’s not obvious that people should be taught math – it's not even obvious that people should go to school – and yet society decided it would be good for everyone to do so. But everyone thinks, and society decided we don’t need to expand on that. Some may protest that schools and teachers do help people learn how to think; I would like to preempt this point. My own job with Hermiona is, and has been in other roles in the past, to help students learn math, yes, but also how to solve problems. One may protest that this involves thinking and that mainstream pedagogy is already broadly aware of this potential function of schools. I don’t mean that kind of thinking.

When I was younger and less sleep-deprived, I would often stay awake in bed for a long time (or what then felt like a long time – probably 10-30 minutes) before going to sleep. I wouldn’t just stare at the ceiling; I would think. When you jettison the stimuli of the real world and have nothing but a dark ceiling to stare at, there is little else to do. Letting your mind wander can be valuable; you can reflect on your day and what went well and not so well about it, resolve to take on new challenges or mull over how to better confront old ones, think about an interesting question, invent a dream world, compose a ditty, or any number of a limitless set of options. Thinking is unconstrained, and, in practical terms, can allow one to relax, come up with plans or solutions to problems, or regroup and set new priorities; thinking can even offer a temporary and harmless escape – like doing drugs with no side effects! To distinguish this from the kind of thinking I mentioned above, I’ll use the more specific term “unstructured, free thought”. Nowadays, I don’t do this as often because I am much busier, and hang out with friends or sleep in my rather scant free time, but I believe the benefits are almost self-evident, and would like to be able to do so more freely.

Unfortunately, schools don’t support this kind of unstructured, free thought. To the contrary, schools cut down on free time; in grade school, I didn’t even have recess and the only break we had all day was a 20-minute lunch. Having been raised in Chicago, former home of the shortest school day of any large American school district, we did get out at 13:45 after starting at 8, but by the time I got to high school, this had been changed to a more typical almost-eight-hour school day, meaning that after all the extracurriculars I did, I rarely got home long before 5, at which point it was off to the races on all the homework I had to do. I believe my experience is typical of most students at academically-demanding schools, where the standard procedure is to sit in classrooms all day, fit in some activities after school, then go home to complete the unnecessarily-large volume of work – often rather rote – that reinforces the facts, processes, and methods taught in classrooms. There is little time for unstructured anything, let alone free thought, which often – understandably – takes a back seat to visiting friends and unwinding to begin with.

Looking back on high school, I remember a few brief periods where we were encouraged to do this in class – not for a grade, not to be evaluated – just time set aside for us to think. These went by the name “free writing”, which, in essence, is the same thing: time set aside to think, except to then set your thoughts down on paper. In fact, while I may have the journal I used in some drawer back home, I don’t need to look at it to remember very distinctly what I wrote about (it was about how a guy in maroon pants came to our school to film an episode of a TV show). This did as well as advertised: it let me unwind and relax, address some of the random thoughts that always bounce around my head – even if they weren’t “important” - and even gave me a piece to remember that day by. In some way, it was liberating; it’s nice to just have a break and have time to just have thoughts. Indeed, people I know who journal or keep diaries tell me it helps them feel organized and grounded, and can be therapeutic and help them destress.

To this end, instead of focusing purely or heavily on structured thinking, I propose we introduce a structure (no pun intended) into schools that supports unstructured thinking as well. This could be free-writing time or it could be like free-writing time but without the pen – or simply whichever is best for the individual student.

A “thinking room” is a natural extension of this activity in the same way a classroom is a natural extension of having classes at all; a classroom facilitates learning, and a thinking room ought to facilitate thinking. I don’t have any sure idea for how to build this, or what to include in it, but I have some suggestions. To risk sounding a bit kooky, it’s plausible that a thinking room could be akin to a small cell – perhaps a tiny room with a window, a desk, a chair, and nothing else besides perhaps a pencil and paper. While this could facilitate “boredom” rather than thinking, I’d like the reader to think back to a time they were bored at a desk with “nothing to do” – everyone knows how to doodle, and everyone has certainly doodled in school at some point or another. Anyone can tap a pen on the table in a rhythm, and anyone can hum or stare at birds out the window. While these might sound like tasks that are a poor use of time in school, I’d argue that it’s very difficult to be truly bored, and that “boredom” is often filled with a creative, if, from an outside perspective, somewhat mundane, use of time. Moreover, these activities are often idle things we do whilethinking, or can lull someone into a state where they’re more prone to engaging in unstructured free thought; by watching someone doodle, we certainly cannot say they’re doing nothing. Doodling isn’t necessarily dawdling, if you will.

I'm open, however, to the idea that these arguments amount to wishful thinking at best and mild lunacy at worst. It’s possible that the very idea of a thinking room is nonsensical in the context of what thinking actually is, and that it tries to apply a rigid solution to a problem that specifically responds poorly to rigidity. Surely, if we want someone to think, we wouldn’t place them in glorified solitary confinement – right? I also worry that the segregation of classrooms and thinking rooms into literal, physical, separated spaces could encourage the separation of thinking and traditional schooling in an unhealthy way, especially with a name like “thinking room” – after all, isn’t math supposed to be about problem-solving, and isn’t thinking essential to learning? Of course, we could call them “unstructured, free thought rooms”, but the general worry still applies that students may separate the idea of independent thinking from learning. Beyond the connection of math to problem-solving, this may be even more salient in the humanities, where discussion is of paramount importance to learning. In this sense, I worry that physically separating “thinking” – even if we call it “unstructured, free thought” – from traditional classrooms could make almost a caricature of the learning and thinking process and of how traditional schooling is supposed to help children.

On the other hand, there are certainly things that can be done to facilitate freer, less structured thinking in schools, although I can’t claim to know what all the solutions are. For one, I would encourage teachers to have a “free write period” at least once a week. (This framing has the added benefit of ostensibly being more palatable to more obstinate administrators.) Beyond that, I don’t have much to prescribe besides perhaps to limit homework to no more than what kids need to learn, or, if possible, to individualize assignments, allowing kids to have more unstructured free time. Parents have a role, too, in allowing their kids this time rather than stewing over why their child is “doing nothing”.

There may be a way to hybridize every classroom into a “thinking room”, or make them “looser” or less rigidly purpose-built – perhaps simply by using the same formula of adding materials that help facilitate this – but then we may risk losing some of the very benefits of having purpose-built classrooms, and then here, as before, the real onus would fall onto the teachers to make good use of the materials they have. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I know that we humans are good at solving problems if we set our minds to it – and the best way to solve a problem is to think.



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