This week’s blog post is by David Gibbons, teacher of English at Eton College. David is a regular contributor to the TES and has formerly taught English in the state and international sectors.
Do the spaces we inhabit make us think (and learn) according to their design? Step into chapel and try not to think of prayer; find yourself on stage and try not to dwell on performance; grip a podium and try to forget power; log onto Twitter and … you get the idea.
Do classrooms, or even digital classrooms, work in the same way? Are the contours of our thought, and memory, shaped by what is displayed on their walls? Or, for these times of lockdown, can the digital waiting room or Zoom background be used to help students think about the lesson to come, or shape the thinking and discourse of the lesson in progress?
There is a strong tradition of learning from, and thinking in terms of, the space in which we find ourselves at a given moment. Religious buildings provide a good example: in a church, the stations of the cross, stained-glass biblical scenes, hagiographic frescoes and the like remind worshippers of instructive episodes from scripture and mythology, as did the metopes, temple friezes and so on in the ancient world. But this tradition of instruction through built environment is wider than just the religious one. Fundamentally, the tradition is educational.
Thought and environment shaping one another: the case of Montaigne
Montaigne, for example, famously wrote from his study in a tower which he decorated, not with a Protestant whitewash, but with sententiae: sentences of worthy advice, moral and philosophical. He had inscribed on his walls at any one time 60 maxims from Greek and Latin authors, which he added to or removed according to his interests at the time. Of the 48 oak-joists and supporting beams in his study, 46 were inscribed with quotations taken from worthy classical and biblical authors. His mind and studies mirrored what was on his walls and vice-versa, and the room’s interior decoration continued to be shaped according to his intellectual endeavours.
Some of Montaigne’s inscriptions were meant to be motivational. Just like many teachers today tack to their classroom walls Edison’s famous adage “Genius is 99% perspiration. 1% inspiration” or stirring maxims like “The distance between your dreams and reality is called action”, Montaigne, too, had lines reminding him of what was important. Montaigne didn’t want for motivation, so some of his quotations reminded him of the hubris of work: “I see that all of us who live are nothing but fleeting shadows” (Sophocles’ Ajax). Other quotations were simply philosophical reminders, such as Sextus Empiricus’ maxim “To any reason an equal reason can be opposed”, which seems like a fitting notice for the walls of any politics classroom today. You can take a virtual tour of Montaigne’s study, replete with his inscriptions and library.
Montaigne was working in that classical tradition predicated on the idea that the mind and its memory mirrored the architectural features of an interior space. In classical antiquity, the idea gave rise to the memory technique known as the ‘method of loci’ or ‘memory palace’ employed by mnemonic champions throughout the ages, even up to Derren Brown today.
The method of loci is straightforward: someone wishing to memorise a sequence of ideas can transform these memories into objects or topoi (Greek for places – our word ‘topics’), and place these in an order.
For instance, on Eton High Street (coming from Windsor toward the College) we have on our right: Costa, followed by Premier Food Stores, followed by Salon 61, then Eton T-shirts, then the clock-shop, then Nimia, then 58 with its red door, then Eton Mess, etc. I could then, if I wanted to employ the method of loci technique, associate different ideas with each location or topic on Eton High Street. So, if what I wanted to remember was a shopping list: Costa could stand for ‘breakfast items’, Premier Food Stores for ‘a newspaper’, Salon 61 for ‘bathroom essentials’, and so on. Structured narratives like these are sometimes referred to as ‘mental models’ in the literature on the science of learning and have been posited as beneficial for learning. The difference here is that the labour of creating the model is relieved by superimposing what needs to be remembered on pre-existing structures.
Here’s the science: the method of loci technique has been shown to activate the medial parietal cortex, retrosplenial cortex and the right posterior hippocampus which are all regions associated with spatial awareness and navigation. So when we are in recall mode, we use that same part of the brain which helps us place things spatially. This is the reason why it is easier to recall a sentence from a physical textbook than a digital screen: the physical text has a spatial reality that is unique and not palimpsestic or reused, like a screen or a whiteboard.
Montaigne’s study’s interior decoration has been demonstrated to match his essay writing activity. The sententiae written on his walls inspired ideas which inspired his writing, and his essays’ philosophical loci, in turn, became inscribed or painted onto his study’s walls.
An experiment in classroom design
There is a body of literature in education which explores the communicative potential of classroom space. Within this literature there is debate, of course. Some in this research community argue that the effect classroom settings have on the quality of thinking and discourse is neutral. But try teaching with windows open under the Heathrow flightpath or in the stifling heat of summer, and one quickly finds the impact of the physical environment to be not so neutral in its effects on education. A simple wasp can scupper the carefully planned cultivation of 20 Etonians in moments.
The idea that classrooms are neutral spaces is disputed by a larger section of the classroom environment research community. The biggest literature review of its kind, written on behalf of the Design Council and in the period of massive funding for school rebuilding, found that classroom environment, encompassing noise, air quality, light quality, wall colour all had a cumulative effect on learning outcomes, attendance, well-being, and engagement.
A few years ago, I was fortunate have a chance to redesign my classroom according to my own requirements. I was to complete a research project exploring how alterations in classroom environment improved student thinking and discourse. To do this I looked at a group of 40 students in years 7 and 9. I did not focus on going over what Steve Higgins et al. had already established about learning environments in their 2005 literature review. Instead I chose to explore how thinking could be altered by classroom environment and focused on a single alteration – making as many surfaces as possible writable ones. The most suitable means of tracking thinking was by using Noam Chomsky’s framework for treating discourse as marker of thinking.
My classroom would be converted into a modern version of Montaigne’s study. Instead of inscribing sentences on wooden beams and painting on walls, I had 13 glass boards put on every wall of the room. Onto the surfaces, boys wrote quotations, ideas, classwork. The policy was simple: no wiping off without permission. The room began to fill up with words. By enforcing a no-wipe-off policy, a patina of students’ work remained on the classroom’s surfaces until the wall or desk was required again.
I also began teaching particular topics from different sides of the room. So, on the students’ advice: Macbeth was taught from the red and black glassboards because those are the play’s colours; Dickens’ Hard Times was taught from the grey glass board; English language, because it is functional, from a conventional white board. The idea was to explore whether the memories and ideas generated by orientating students in a particular direction to different physical locale, albeit within the same classroom, helped support the students’ retention of these ideas.
I suppose a more basic system of this is in place in many schools already: students head to the geography building to learn about geography, history for history, and so students’ memories and ideas within a subject are already associated with a particular physical location. But I was interested in replicating this system within the classroom, by using different topoi for different topics.
The classroom’s design seemed to encourage students to adapt their discourses, written and spoken, to benefit from the dynamics of the space. Students would write their work on the room’s walls knowing their work would not be removed and with a number of audiences in mind. Their own class and teacher were the primary audiences, but the secondary audiences of future classes in other year groups definitely also appealed to them. In turn, these adapted discourses began to reconfigure the space itself by becoming written onto its walls. As students made points about what was written up, those points were in turn added to the wall space, so the room encouraged and acquired a self-referential patina.
I found two main things, through a mixture of surveys, interviews and lesson transcript data.
Firstly, the writable classroom helped students make connections across topics and even disciplines. Students started to form dialogues with classes and years who had left their work behind on the room walls by reading and then commenting on it. Often what was written on the walls became the opening topic of discussion in the next class. Lessons took on a sequence with the walls working as a record of previous classes’ commentary on, and ideas stemming from, what was written by previous classes.
2. Engagement through vicarious experience
We know the phenomenon by which the newspaper of the person beside you on the tube is intrinsically more interesting than the identical paper you have in your own hand. Similarly, with classes, students seemed drawn to what other year groups and other sets were doing, even if what they were studying was interesting. Leave a whiteboard with the work of a previous class up and there is a strong likelihood that your next group of students will take more of an interest in what the other class were doing than what they are supposed to be doing.
When I first started this project many teachers commented that I wouldn’t want my classroom to be distracting. Contrary to this common sense view of distraction, I found that students actually being distracted was a positive side-effect of the room’s design: through being distracted, or by distractedly reading what remained on the walls of the classroom, students became more engaged generally in the subject and its discourses.
In this way, the writable classroom imitates a peripheral model of instruction, in which improved student focus and discourse can be achieved through an immersive activity happening on the edges of the classroom and not consciously generated by the centralising energy of the teacher. In other words, students got on with their own learning as they split their attention between the official classroom discourse activity and the room’s distracting and yet oddly reinforcing discourse. This form of semi-engagement with an ever-changing space helped students to think.
Top tips for classroom design
From this study, we can derive three key tips for classroom design:
1. Get as many whiteboards in your room as possible, on every wall.
2. Have a ‘no wipe off’ policy.
3. Teach different topics from different parts of the room and keep this consistent.
There is a phrase to describe writing on walls: parietal writing. It is used in academic circles to describe the Renaissance decorative technique for deliberate wall writing which included papering walls with pages from books (I would love to see this revived in English classrooms).
In schools we make use of pictures, posters, and students’ work, but not often a lesson’s detritus in the form of the impromptu vocabulary left behind on our whiteboards. I think we could.
I also hope we stop wiping clean our whiteboards. Coming across another teacher’s fully marked-up whiteboard is an invitation to think, learn, scrutinise, and see what we might not have thought of when teaching the same topic. When coming across a maths teacher’s demonstrations, as an English teacher I am humbled by my uncertainty. It is a valuable activity to put one’s self in the position of the students and feel that mix of doubt and awe.
Without any effort – in fact by being lazy and not cleaning whiteboards – students (and teachers) can learn plenty from each other.
 E. A. Maguire, E. R. Valentine, J. Wilding, & N. Kapur, ‘Routes to remembering: The brains behind superior memory’, Nature Neuroscience. 6 (1) (2002), pp. 90-95.
 N. S. Baron, Words onscreen: The fate of reading in a digital world (Oxford: Oxford University Press, (2015).
 G. Grigson, Montaigne’s Tower and other poems (London: Secker & Warburg, 1984), p. 11.
 P. Kraftl, ‘Geographies of Arcjietcture: the multiple lives of buildings’, Geography Compass, 4(5): 402-415. Doi: 10.1111/j.1749-8198.2010.00332.x
 M. J. Zander, ‘Talking, Thinking, Responding, Creating: A Survey of Literature on Talk in Art Education’, Studies in Art Education, 44(2) (2003), pp. 117-134.
 T. Monahan, ‘Built pedagogies and technological practices: designing for participatory learning’ (2000) and ‘Flexible space and built pedagogy: emerging IT embodiments’, Inventio, 4(1):1-19
 S. Higgins, E. Hall, K. Wall, P. Woolner, & C. McCaughey, The Impact of School Environments: A Literature Review Produced for the Design Council (The Centre for Learning and Teaching, School of Education, Communication and Language Science, University of Newcastle, 2005).
 N. Chomsky, Syntactic Structures (The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1957).
 S. Heppell, ‘Writing on surfaces in learning spaces’, Heppell.net, 2017.
 Lave & Wenger 1991.