The fourth wall of the classroom being both physical and psychological is more difficult to cross than the theatrical one. The play Sleep No More, an immersive version of Macbeth, blurs the boundary between stage and audience. In the NYT, the director said, “It’s important that the audience feels empowered to break all the rules that they’ve been trained in over their lifetime.” Our Designing Change class shared that goal.
The big community experience of my education was being a school patrol. I wore the orange belt, held out the orange vinyl flag, and made adults I didn’t know stop their cars. If we really want students to learn agency, that sense of capacity, autonomy, and obligation to act, then they need experiences in the community. During our semester long design thinking class, I was repeatedly struck by our students’ discomfort engaging with adults and often peers outside their grade or friend group. As much as students loved the activities, conducting empathy interviews and wrangling subjects to test prototypes challenged their comfort zones. Admittedly, this is dangerous territory for teachers, too. I was responsible for student actions I couldn’t see or control.
In our library redesign project presentation, all the students were amazed that the library staff and architects addressed them seriously. They didn’t expect to have agency; they didn’t expect the cars to stop.
Much of schooling is defining skills. We (or Common Core) decide what is important, teach skills students need, and then assess. Mostly students do a page of problems, or read a novel, or write an essay for a teacher. More narrowly, we do this within academic disciplines, and are held responsible mostly for grades, test scores, or college admissions. We all know the tension between the orderly curriculum and the complex, messy world beyond the four walls. In Designing Change, we tried to teach interdisciplinary 21st century skills of collaboration, creativity, communication, and problem solving. My lesson from this class is that students struggle to cross the fourth wall and need new skill sets and real world assessments. But perhaps most importantly, if they are to learn to operate in the messy world, they need to be empowered to break the ingrained and all too comfortable expectations of schooling within the four walls. Our semester class didn’t take down these walls, but it certainly opened doors.