July 10, 2003

The Environment Matters

I recently attended a workshop on Collaborative Requirements given by Ellen Gottesdiener. Besides the fact that it was a great workshop, what interested me was that so much of what made the workshop great had to do with how the social and physical environment was set up.

Physically, the walls were covered with paper which had been sprayed with adhesive for sticking things to it. There was a huge collection of things to stick to it, all shapes and sizes of post-it things, little stars, and different colored markers. Moreover, tables were set to seat four, all facing each other. Each table was adorned with pens of different colors, and various paper things. A very inviting environment indeed!

Moreover, the structure of the workshop itself was such that people were working together almost immediately. After Ellen gave a brief introduction, we were invited to work in pairs and interview each other. Then we worked in groups of four, then within the larger group. This sequence of events – from more intimate one-on-one conversation to whole-group conversation -- seemed to facilitate an uncommon intimacy that, in my experience, usually takes longer to get going. With this intimacy, we were able to get a lot of creative work done. The final project articulations were stunning.

This reminded me of an interesting thing that happened to me many years ago. I was a relatively inexperienced university teaching assistant, and was teaching a lecture course in music theory for non-music majors. This course was from a “general education” list of course requirements, and so most of the students were not there by choice.

At one point while I was lecturing, I started to notice that those who sat to my right tended to be the worst students in the class (i.e. they were not getting anything out of it and not putting anything into it). By contrast, those on my left tended to be the best students. The structure of the environment was a wide, but incredibly shallow lecture hall. As a consequence, I could not face everyone at once. So, for whatever reason, I tended to favor the left side of the room.

One day, I asked the class to switch sides for 2 weeks – just as an experiment. Many thought this to be the weirdest thing to ever happen in the classroom—a university instructor was asking them to do something about their learning environment!

Once they switched, I had determined I was not going to force the situation after that—I would not “make” them stay in their new places. Instead, I would just observe what happened.

Two things happened that were interesting. First, I now found myself pulled toward my right, rather than my left: it was on my right that I now found the most engaged and attentive students--the “good” students who were originally on my left. Since they were the “good” students, and because I had developed relationships with them already, by making lots of eye contact during the lectures, I preferred to look at them.

So, I forced myself to focus more on those students – the “bad” ones--now seated to the left. This was actually really hard, because it was confronting for me and for them. These were students who had adopted a certain kind of “slouching” attitude toward class participation over years of practice. To suddenly have a lecturer making frequent eye contact with them was a different, and somewhat alarming experience. And I myself felt uncomfortable because, since I wasn’t used to looking at them, they were like foreigners to me. Moreover, I didn’t like them. But I forced myself to get into relationship with them, regardless of my feelings. After a couple of class meetings, I started to like them a little more, to engage with them more. I found playful ways to talk about things that they could relate to more.

Nevertheless, after a couple of weeks, many now seated on the left side gradually started to migrate back to my right, while almost all now seated on my right returned to their original places on my left. I sighed a kind of relief that I could now look at the students I felt more comfortable with.

But what was really interesting was that many of the “bad” students voluntarily stayed seated to my left: we had established a greater rapport by my forcing myself to pay attention to them, to relate with them. Consequently, these previously “bad” students became among the best students in the class.

In their evaluation forms for the course, a couple of students reported that they liked the “changing seats” experience very much. For one thing, they had never before realized that physical space could have such a subtle impact on human behavior. For another, they had never realized that it is possible to participate in ones own education in a meaningful way, even in such a small way as this.

Now of course, were I a better teacher, I might not have had the spatial/performance bifurcation problem in the first place. But that’s besides the point, because I learned a number of things from this experience.

First, that physical space matters: the space we were in may have been suitable for choir practice, but not for lecture teaching.

Second, that there are different ways to elicit improved performance, and that sometimes the best way to do so is to make a change in the environment. This observes a systems-theory principle that you can effect a change in the behavior of a system simply by changing its inputs (its environment)—you don’t necessarily have to change the system itself.

Third, that oftentimes what stands in the way of our effectiveness as teachers and coaches are the things that we ourselves are uncomfortable with—that oftentimes, what is going on “over there,” is simply a reflection of what’s going on “over here.”

Posted by mhamman at July 10, 2003 03:29 PM | TrackBack