A space with greater opportunities to interact

Classrooms should be smaller, seminar-style and student-centred—not like an amphitheatre

Marc Garneau speaks to students in a Stirling Hall lecture theatre on March 15.
Marc Garneau speaks to students in a Stirling Hall lecture theatre on March 15.

Lately I have become more persuaded by Jane Jacobs’ simple maxim that “the look of things and the way they work are inextricably bound together.” I think this is a good guidepost in thinking about how Queen’s can be better.

Great universities are places where there’s a vibrant and lively exchange of ideas and arguments. A university is more than its buildings, of course, but the look of the campus may tell us how well we are achieving the basic goal of a great university. Jacobs’ idea can be applied to the culture of a university as well as its infrastructure. For example, a central hub where students can meet and exchange ideas will help create a culture of dialogue and discussion.

I think the Learning Commons in the library has done this quite commendably. It has transformed space and, in doing so, may have changed the way students research and study. Although it has influenced the culture of the library, it is important to note that culture is something that’s organic and evolves over time and not something that can be changed suddenly with a new building or structure. Though it may be too early to determine the long term effect on the academic lives of students, the Learning Commons does remind us that form follows function. We know that capital projects reflect the University’s priorities. The new Queen’s Centre, on paper, seems to be a judicious balance between function (athletic facilities, space for student groups, etc.) and form (a central hub for campus activities).

When we think about the relationship between form and function and apply it to classrooms, I think that there’s much more that can be done. Although many of our classrooms are Internet-ready and have data projectors, their structure is archaic and this affects “the way they work.” Virtually all the University’s classrooms, except Goodes Hall and the basement of Dunning Hall, are created “theatre-style”: Students sit in rows and face the professor, who is standing in front of the class. This creates a dynamic in the classroom that I think inhibits natural discussion among students and sees learning as the mere passage of information from the expert in the front to students, who are recipients of that knowledge. I don’t think that this is the way many of my colleagues want to teach, but the classroom structure reinforces a dynamic that existed years ago when the transmission of knowledge was much more about a one-way flow of information than it is now. Classrooms that allow students to talk to each other create a more democratic and inclusive space that sees learning and knowledge as a collaborative exercise. Queen’s would be better off with classrooms that responded to the way many of us want to teach in our small, medium and even large classes. These are spaces that are much more student-centred than the theatre-style classes that are instructor-centred. In order to make the university a better place, students need greater opportunities to interact with each other and the instructor in the classroom. This is one of the reasons why the International Study Centre at Herstmonceux is so successful. It’s not about modernizing facilities since the classrooms at the ISC are hundreds of years old; it’s about having space that encourages active learning. In downtown Vancouver, Simon Fraser University has a space devoted exclusively to dialogue and discussion. It’s called the Wosk Centre for Dialogue and it follows Jacobs’ ideas about how function is closely related to the architecture of space. The Wosk Centre is a room for 160 participants sitting in a series of concentric circles. It’s in great demand for business meetings, academic events and engagement exercises because it allows for open, collaborative dialogue. It’s also unique in the world. We need to give greater attention to our classroom space and how it can be made more conducive to dialogue.

Although there are many priorities for our campus and many demands on scarce funding, wouldn’t we be saying something about the core values of our university if we had venues that engage students for learning?

--Jonathan Rose is an associate professor in the political studies department.

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