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The Unexpected Classroom

Dr Rebecca Fisher

Brief overview

We all move through the world with expectations. I can share some specific examples from this average Wednesday afternoon at work: I expect to sit at my desk; to type; to write; and to have meetings. Let’s think about the last item in the list in particular: when I show up to a meeting, I might expect that the person in charge stands at the front, or sits at the head of the table. I’ll expect that person to lead the meeting, to answer questions, and to guide the discussion. Those expectations and the fulfilment (or not) of them then informs my relationship with the centres of power and the formations of hierarchy in the meeting room. So what would happen if the chairs were in a circle? Or not there at all? I would immediately be more conscious of the space, having had my expectations disrupted, and would therefore interact with the space and the people within it with a heightened awareness: in this particular example, I would be more conscious of how each person marks and holds their position in this micro-hierarchy.

To take another example: I expect the things I read to make sense, to be written in words I recognise, in sentences I can understand. So what happens when I expect to read a tidy little poem only to be confronted by this:

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head,
He went galumphing back.

Surprised and discombobulated, I focus on the liquid, disturbing sounds of the Jabberwock, the sharp, vicious whipping of the blade, and what it might mean to be ‘uffish’ or ‘tulgey’. The challenge to my expectations has sent my senses whirring and my mind buzzing where once it might have been calm and placid – and less able to imagine and create.

We propose that by defying and challenging students’ expectations of their classrooms it is possible to open up spaces that welcome and foster divergent and creative thinking. The ideas that follow are playful in that they disrupt, tease, and discombobulate spaces and the people within them, inspiring a more conscious and creative interaction with space and ideas. These ideas all arose from the work we did on The Dark Would, which was itself an unexpected classroom.

Tl;dr: Think of your classroom as an unexpected recital of ‘The Jabberwocky’.

Role of participants

The teacher/facilitator is the curator of the classroom-landscape here; you will decide how to subvert the classroom space to make it unexpected. You’ll find some ideas on how to do that in the list of activities below.

Once the students enter the space, your role will depend on the activity you’ve chosen to undertake: will it increase the unexpectedness and challenge if you withdraw completely, or if you participate alongside the students as one of them? You may need to lay some ground rules (common sense ones, like don’t run in a dark room; or code of conduct rules if you’re requiring students to leave their usual classroom to work in an unexpected space that they find for themselves).

The students’ role is to be prepared to engage with and contribute to an activity that is unexpected and therefore may not have immediately perceptible learning goals and outcomes; depending on the group, the teacher/facilitator may decide to scaffold the activity with an introduction or a debrief following the session. This can help students to reflect on and align their experience with their broader learning goals. Scaffolding is particularly important if you are planning to bring the students into a space that could be intimidating, triggering, or infuriating.

Purpose of the play

The activities listed below all share a common purpose: to surprise and challenge students. The results of this will vary depending upon the way in which their expectations are debunked, and the nature of the group: students might be angry, stunned into silence, overcome by childlike wonder, frightened, inspired… The intention is that these intense experiences lead to a higher level of engagement in the space and the ideas discussed. In our experience, these activities can also help to create a lively atmosphere, and can help to form strong bonds between students in the class.

Environment

The environment around you is your greatest tool. You can work on a sliding scale, determined by the space and resources available, as well as what you want to achieve. Simply asking a group of students to sit on the floor can be just as effective as building a landscape for students to explore in a fully-equipped drama studio. Key things to check are: can you make the room dark? Are there blocks that can be stacked safely to create unexpected height and shapes? Can you use herbs, food, and found items to create a multi-sensory environment? Each activity below includes a list of suggested resources where relevant.

Scaffolding and anchoring

These activities are all about surprise; too much scaffolding can reduce the impact. I’d suggest, then, that anchoring is the most useful technique here: reminding the students that they will gain the most by surrendering to the experience and engaging fully, and that once the session is finished you will supply the required academic foundation, allowing them to anchor their experience back into their broader goals. There does need to be an element of trust between the teacher/facilitator and students, and so you might find that these activities are best used with a group of students that know each other and you relatively well. (NB: we distinguish between ‘scaffolding’ and ‘anchoring’, with the former used to bookend the activity, and the latter being useful during the activity).

Questions

Consider access requirements for visible and invisible disabilities. Consider working with the students beforehand to understand exactly what their expectations are, so that you can subvert them more effectively! Don’t forget that it’s good to be surprised yourself. One of the most rewarding experiences we had in The Dark Would was getting someone else to build an unexpected space for us to explore, turning the tables on us as practitioners. What opportunity is there to keep developing the space - alongside the students?

Example of The Unexpected Classroom in practice

The Dark Would, when used for teaching on the Applied Imagination module, was a great example of students encountering and then engaging with an unexpected teaching and learning environment. TDW was an unexpected classroom in a range of ways:

  • its physical environment: it asked students to use their bodies differently by entering the space by crawling through a tunnel; it was dimly lit; there were sensory experiences of music and smell and taste, but a conspicuous lack of teaching paraphernalia like whiteboards, desks, and computers;
  • the lack of expected hierarchies: there was no teacher present within the space, and students were expected to navigate the space themselves;
  • the type of activities within TDW: the students were asked to engage in activities not traditionally associated with the classroom; students were asked to engage their emotions – their affective thinking skills – rather than detaching them from the task at hand, which might be more usual in a teaching/learning context.

Activities

Light and Dark

Instructions: The level of light can have a great effect on how people use a space; think of how people whisper in the theatre when the lights go down. Try turning the lights down – or off – to see what effect it has on the group: a softly-lit space tends to feel more safe and welcoming, and can therefore be useful for discussing difficult issues, or those which require emotional honesty or courage. You can also try bringing in unexpected lights – candles (preferably battery-powered – safety first!), fairylights, or torches – to create a cosier, home-y feel, which we find encourages students to engage emotionally and personally in activities.

Tall and Small

Instructions: One of the most effective uses of this technique was demonstrated by The Making Space, a theatre project led by two University of Warwick undergraduate theatre students. Visitors approaching the space were given a form to hand in upon entering the space, and were told that this was to help with tallying how many people used the space. Visitors then approached a desk and cupboard, and were invited by a sign to open the cupboard and deposit their form inside: so far, so ordinary. But when the cupboard was opened, visitors were met by a sign instructing them to break the rules: to abandon their forms, and crawl into the dark tunnel that formed the inside of the cupboard. There are two things to learn here. The element of surprise can be heightened dramatically by contrast with an utterly normal and boring introduction; and by the request to use your body in an unexpected way.

So what happens if students are asked to enter a learning space in an unexpected way? They might find it funny, intimidating, bizarre: but all will be surprised, and therefore jolted out of their usual approach to learning. We also find that students are more conscious of their bodies and their physicality than if they entered in the usual way. The result of this is that students negotiate subsequent tasks and problems by using their bodies as well as their minds, leading to creative and original ideas and solutions.

Leave the classroom behind

In her book Men Explain Things to Me (Haymarket, 2014), Rebecca Solnit suggests that

wandering on foot can lead to the wandering of imagination and to an understanding that is creation itself, the activity that makes introspection an outdoor pursuit.

She quotes Virgina Woolf’s description of ‘one thing burst[ing] into another’, creating To the Lighthouse in ‘a great, apparently involuntary rush’, just by virtue of leaving her writing-room and wandering the winter streets.

We all remember the delight that would come from the teacher suggesting that their lesson takes place outside on a beautiful summer day (… I have fond memories of Latin classes taken in the pub). Even if the content of the lesson that takes place is the same as it would have been in the classroom, the unexpectedness of the new location and the pleasure of being in a more comfortable environment can increase our willingness and ability to participate – and we may even be lucky enough to experience seeds of new ideas flowering in the unexpected fresh air.

There are different ways you could try this. Elsewhere in this tool-kit we explore the benefit of walking while learning, an idea connected to the unexpectedness of the outdoor classroom. If you’d prefer to remain in one location, try asking students to find a space of their own where they feel most able to learn, giving them unexpected control over their learning space. You could also try taking your class outside, or into a drama studio, or a tennis court: somewhere unexpected but still amenable to the activities and tasks you want them to carry out. We have found that learning outside or in a space connected to the natural world can encourage students to consider themselves and the topic in hand as part of larger systems (both literally, as part of ecologies and the environment, but also metaphorically, as participants in other kinds of systems and networks): we need to explore this further, so why not give it a go and see if you get the same result.

What, this old thing? De-familiarising objects

I once observed a day-long creative writing workshop in which the classroom was a spaceship, and the participants aliens (credit to Jon Mycroft). The goal of the workshop was to explore world-creation in fiction; one of the activities was to interact with various objects which had been beamed into the ship’s science lab, and to determine what their use might be on this strange alien planet. And so the students explained how a high-tech weapon made vicious spiral lasers (a corkscrew), and how the bizarre creatures on the planet below communicated (sophisticated mirrors, i.e. a pair of spoons). The students let their imaginations roam wild and progressed onto the more challenging creative writing tasks with more confidence and creativity than in the previous days. The set-up (imagining the classroom to be a spaceship filled with aliens) combined with the de-familiarisation of everyday objects was a very effective way to stimulate creativity and imagination.

You could try this activity with your students, or tweak it to the topic at hand. For example, when thinking about environmental sustainability, give your students a selection of everyday objects and ask them how these high-tech tools can be used to solve the challenges we face. The objects can be anything their imaginations can conjure up, and they are therefore unrestrained by accepted limits: the purpose is not necessarily to generate realistic and achievable solutions, but to allow students to think more broadly and creatively, thus allowing them to move on to subsequent tasks – which might be more grounded in reality – with a creative, imaginative attitude.