Online Watering Holes

I’ve been thinking about learning spaces recently. The environments in which our students learn are directly related to the kind of learning that happens. Looking at a classroom, you can see what types of activities take place in that room. Is the space designed for one person to impart knowledge to a group of learners? Is it designed for the students to talk to each other? Does the space encourage or discourage collaboration? Is the space flexible, acknowledging the reality that we do different things at different times?

David Thornburg identifies three kinds of learning spaces: the campfire, the cave, and the watering hole. The campfire is a space for storytelling. It’s a place where people gather to learn from an expert. Traditionally, elders would pass down insights at the campfire, preserving and replicating the culture for future generations.

Learning Spaces, from School Specialty LLC

The cave, on the other hand, is a private space. That’s where we go to reflect and think. It’s where we work alone, taking new information and new ideas and fitting them into the framework of understanding that we’re constantly building and refining.

The watering hole, then, is an informal place where we gather to exchange ideas. The “water-as-gathering-place” metaphor works equally well in the African savannah, the old west, and the office building. Those water cooler conversations are important for students, too. It is through our interaction with others that we refine our understanding of the world.

Some school leaders have added a fourth space to Thornburg’s original three: the sand pit. The sand pit is the playground. It’s where we go to investigate, discover, experiment, build, and tinker. It’s the experiential part of learning: the maker space, the science lab, the theater.

When I look at the two new schools in our school district, it is clear that all of these applications were considered in the design process. Though there are significant differences between the approaches taken in the elementary and high schools, there are obvious campfires, watering holes, and sand pits. The caves are harder to find, but they’re there. And many spaces can serve two or more of these functions at different times, just by re-arranging the furniture. That flexibility allows many different kinds of learning activities to take place.

But this is the age of COVID.

In the COVID world, we have to have three sets of learning spaces. We still need the physical spaces at school, because sometimes we’re in school. But with hybrid and remote models, students also need a learning space at home and online. Take the campfire, for example. In a classroom, an expert can stand at the front of the room, where she can be seen by the whole class. She can tell stories and impart knowledge and share information with the students. We have whiteboards and digital displays and audio systems to make that easier. When the students are online, though, we need a digital space to serve that function. We found quickly that Zoom works pretty well for this. The students can join a Zoom meeting. The teacher can share her screen. When the technology doesn’t get in the way, one might argue that it even works better than the classroom. Every student is in the front row. Every student can hear. The learners aren’t distracted by one another. And they’re socially distant without needing to wear masks.

But we also have to consider where the students are physically sitting in this scenario. Do they have a space that’s distraction-free? Are they sharing a room with siblings or parents, who are on their own calls? Do they have headphones? Is their network connection reliable?

What about the cave? Sometimes, I have trouble with the cave in my work environment. There are a lot of people around, and they can be pretty loud at times. They do watering hole really well. But when I need cave, I often have to put earbuds in, with some neutral background music, so I can concentrate. Most of my reflection time comes outside my regular work space. It might be on a walk, or in the car, or in a quiet room with a cup of tea. Do we give our students the tools and the permission to tailor their caves to their needs? Are they allowed to close their doors, or turn off their cameras, or (gasp) disconnect from the Internet for a little while? If they’re stuck at the kitchen table for six hours a day on a Zoom session, I’m guessing they may not be quite as productive as they might otherwise be.

Similarly, the watering hole can be problematic in a digital environment. The technology to share ideas is extraordinary. I can (and have) jumped into shared documents with multiple people in different countries, collaboratively building a written common understanding while discussing ideas through an audio conference. The availability of synchronous collaboration tools makes this remarkably easy. But do we encourage our students to use them? Can they set up their own Zoom calls with classmates? Do we encourage them to work together? Do we block messaging apps and semi-synchronous tools? Do we help them establish community norms for appropriate behavior in those kinds of environments? When they’re doing these types of activities, do they have a physical space to work where they can enable cameras and microphones without their physical spaces causing disruption? Watering hole can be done online, but it’s not nearly as easy as campfire.

The sand pit is probably the most problematic learning space in an online environment. Back in the spring, I was involved in several conversations about this. How are we going to do elementary school art over Zoom? How are we going to do chemistry labs? There weren’t any good answers then, and I’m not sure it’s much better now. It’s tough to use maker spaces online. The focus then was trying to find ways to meet the same goals in different ways, rather than trying to replicate the activities. Why do we do that chemistry lab? How can we try to address those goals in other ways? It’s certainly not ideal, and there aren’t easy answers. The virtual choir or band performance is nice, but it’s an exercise in audio editing. It doesn’t do anything to give students the experience of ensemble music performance. Voices can’t blend when they’re recorded in isolation and edited together. Digital simulations and “almost-as-good” activities exist, but this is clearly the area where online learning falls flat.

For better or worse, we’re reaching the point where fully-online school is becoming less common. Most schools are going back, either with a full face-to-face model or some sort of hybrid. As we return to school, we’re realizing how precious face-to-face time can be. Knowing that classroom time with students may be limited, we should be focusing on the things that are difficult or impossible to do online. If I were in the classroom, that would mean that sandpit activities would be the highest priority. Then, I would be encouraging the watering hole activities in class, using the digital tools. So students are collaborating in the same physical space, but they’re also developing the skills to collaborate remotely when they need to. Campfire and cave would be the lowest priorities, because they can be most easily accommodated online. If we ever go back to the old normal, those are the pieces that may end up as “homework.” They’re easy to do online, and we don’t have to spend so much classroom time on them.

It’s been a hard year. But I’m still excited that this experienced has given us the opportunity to reflect on how we use time, and what we ask our students to do, both in and out of the classroom.