If Class Outside Was Good Enough for Plato, It’s Good Enough in a Pandemic
The 1960s TV spy spoof Get Smart had a ridiculously unworkable piece of conferencing hardware called “the cone of silence.” Unfortunately, that gives a pretty good idea of what’s been happening in the pandemic-era college classroom, with its Zoom classes and its in-person classes held behind plexiglass barriers and mandated masks. These efforts to block viral transmission are blocking voices, hiding facial cues, and making the quieter students retreat even further.
Imagine if the makers of buggy whips had responded to the automobile’s advent as colleges have dealt with the pandemic: “Try our new virtual whip, the Invisi-Smack—or upgrade to the Wonderwhip2000 whose extra-thick grip kills germs while spurring steeds to higher speeds.”
That’s not a compelling product; nor, these days, is an American college. By moving online and trying to retrofit classrooms for social distancing, colleges are building barriers between the school’s two essential groups: teachers and students. The institutions are acting like their value proposition is the classroom when it’s actually the learning that students get from teachers and from each other.
Certainly, we should all wear masks when we must be indoors. But here’s the thing: We don’t have to be indoors. Outdoors is where Plato taught, and it’s where I taught. He used an olive grove outside of Athens; I used the central quadrangle, the Quad, at James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
A recent Swedish study found increased levels of engagement, motivation, and achievement with outdoor learning. American colleges already have plenty of grass and trees, and they’ve long been paying lip service to outdoor classes (as a glance at their promotional videos would indicate). But now it’s time to put these campuses into the service of learning.
My students earned better grades last year than ever before, and the ones who showed up in person scored a letter grade higher on average than the ones who took advantage of my Zoom simulcast. Other students would approach me on the JMU Quad and express a wish that their professor would teach outside. One such student wrote an
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