Writing

Learning In-Situ: The Materiality of Knowledge-Making

This is an excerpt from my thesis portfolio, titled “Matter Matters: The Transformative Power of
Materiality in the 21st-Century Classroom.” This work can also be found in the SVA Design Research’s
Class of 2019 publication, Everything That Rises: Thinking about Design in Precarious Times.

 

At the front of Mrs. Balliett’s second-grade classroom at The Buckley School, an independent all-boys school in Upper Manhattan, is a colorful, wall-to-wall rug. It is deep blue with multicolored polka dots woven into 100% Invista type 6.6. Continuous Filament Nylon. 

These rugs are available in a range of patterns, like world maps, the alphabet and even multiplication tables. Most are blues or greens, making them resistant to juice, mud and other stains that children bring in. Most progressive schools in America have classrooms with such rugs, pedagogically inherited from the modernist education theories of John Dewey and Friedrich Froebel, which emphasised children’s spiritual and emotional growth as well as their academic growth. In that tradition, tables and chairs began to be seen as too rigid to nurture the spirit of the individual. The rug allows the child to inhabit his body freely and without constraints in the pursuit of learning.

The rug is where the 19 boys, aged between six and seven years old, spent most of their time, engaged in different activities. They assembled on it, sitting cross-legged or leaning against the wall, first thing in the morning to discuss the day’s schedule. It is where they spread out LEGO blocks during recess. At one point they arranged themselves into two parallel lines to practice for their upcoming performance of “Manhattan” by Ella Fitzgerald. 

Elizabeth Ellsworth, Professor of Media Studies at the New School, introduces the concept of “places of learning” in her book Places of Learning: Media, Architecture, Pedagogy. She describes her study as an effort to think of “pedagogy not in relation to knowledge as a thing made, but knowledge in the making.” She sees the “place of learning” as a pedagogical venue where the body, its sensations, affects and movements, and its embodied experiences produce “the learning self.” Similarly, in The Materiality of Learning, Estrid Sørensen writes that classrooms can be seen as regions, which she defines as “something that takes the shape of a container field in which objects are located, where people act and where entities belong.” This region has a boundary, and all inhabitants of the space have the same regional identity.

Looking at the rug as a “place of learning,” and not just as a common classroom furnishing, allows us to approach learning spatially and materially, and to begin to question how the presence of such a “region” is indicative of an aspect of the learning process that is often overlooked.

While Mrs. Balliett spoke to the boys about their math assignment for the day, each of them had a unique bodily arrangement. Some slouched against the wall, some twitched nervously, unable to sit still, and some distractedly gazed out of the window. Making this scene even more fascinating were the variations in their dress: some ties askew, some collars pointing oddly upwards, some sleeves half rolled up. 

Observing such nuances is crucial to understanding that how children inhabit their bodies is more complex than adults might assume. Situating the child’s pedagogical experience within the boundaries of the rug tells us that the body is a crucial element in the formation of the “learning self.” This is unusual, considering the long history of pedagogical thought that values the mind—not the body—as the seat of thought, which can be traced back to the influence of Rene Descartes’ oft-quoted axiom “I think therefore I am.” However, there is now a growing consensus in the fields of cognitive science and cultural studies that the body and its material engagements are valuable to the understanding of human experience. In Phenomenology of Perception, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote, “I am not in front of my body, I am in my body, or rather I am my body.” It is fascinating to consider what it means for learning to be your body. The philosopher and social theorist Brian Massumi believes that there are consequences of this change in our understanding, in that it makes “it more and more difficult to maintain the philosophical or practical distinctions between reason and sensation, the body as material and the mind as immaterial.”

“Summer journeys to Niagara and to other places aggravate all our cares / We’ll save our fares.” The boys sing in discordant pitches and volumes. Despite being asked to stand in a single-file line with their arms behind their backs, it seems that they are incapable of confining their limbs to one static position. “Stand still, boys!” Mrs. Balliett calls out several times. “Chins up and chests out!”


When the child’s body is considered together with the material reality it exists in, we are then looking at the event of knowledge-making from a different perspective. The experience of the body is derived from its interactions with things, and in the instance of the rug, the experience is situated within the boundaries of a “place of learning.” These interactions “make knowledge.” In that sense, situating the child’s pedagogical experience spatially allows us to see that the body makes knowledge based on where it is located. This knowledge is inseparable from the softness of the 100% Invista type 6.6. Continuous Filament Nylon that makes up the rug, or from the severity of straight-backed wooden chairs and desks. It is clear that learning is not simply an immaterial process between mind and information, or mind and instruction. It is inarguably material—the etymology of which can be traced back to the Latin “mater,” which means mother, but can be interpreted as the “source” of knowledge. As John Dewey wrote in Democracy and Education, “…the pupil has a body, and brings it to school along with his mind.”

 
ThesisSneha Mehta