Head's Blog

Of classrooms and airplanes

Yesterday we had a special all staff meeting in which we could finally celebrate that all of our Armenian-based staff is in the country and out of quarantine! The pandemic makes us look at what would be a normal event in a very different light, and gives us an opportunity to appreciate being able to have the team together safely in one room, with a couple of our colleagues who work remotely connecting from Ireland and Israel (Zhanna, our Acting Head of Advancement and Elena, our Head of Admissions, respectively). They connected remotely via videoconference and could participate in the meeting in spite of the physical distance.

While I am a confessed technophile who believes in the power of technology to transform our lives for the better, I cannot help but wonder at how the coronavirus has forced society to change its ways, and we do not bat an eyelid at conducting meetings in such a hybrid mode.

This got me thinking about how it is a commonplace at educational fora and literature to compare photos of a classroom from a century ago with one of today:

It seems to me that sometimes the pundits who do so miss the point, or at least do not get the comparison completely right. Let me explore this by referring to another passion of mine, aviation. In a USAToday article entitled “This is what it was like to fly in the 1930s” you can find some beautiful photos of cabins from the 1930s, almost a century ago. The cabin layout is remarkably similar to that of any passenger plane today:

Airliner Cabin

There is a reason why the cabin layout has not changed significantly: a tube with wings remains the most feasible structure for a passenger airplane, and, in such a structure, this is the most efficient way to accommodate passengers (though in some airlines the word accommodate may not be the best one, perhaps "to fit" would work better). Likewise, the layout of most classrooms has not changed significantly because it is an efficient way to maximise the use of space in our schools. 

What is significantly different, though, is the fact that almost a century ago only a minority could afford to travel by airplane whereas today (or rather, before COVID-19), aviation has become accessible to hundreds of millions of passengers a year. Also, while the travellers in the 1930s flew in planes with limited range, today’s airliners can travel distances that are measured in the thousands of kilometers (if you are curious you can learn about the 10 longest flights here). For example, today you can fly from Perth to London nonstop, a trip that decades ago would have required many stopovers along the way and would be measured in days, not hours. 

Back to the classroom then. Education has experienced the same transformation that aviation has, even if in most classrooms students are still sitting in the same way. Any student with access to a computing device and an internet connection can travel to what I called the “eLibrary of Alexandria”, a wealth of resources that is simply mind-boggling and in which it is possible to get lost… or to find opportunities for collaboration and to extend beyond the physical limits of a classroom.

There is a silver lining in every cloud, as the saying goes, and I believe that we have had to adapt to use technology in a way that, had COVID-19 not struck us the way it did, it would have taken significantly longer. This does not mean that technology has been implemented successfully throughout, but it does mean that we have explored the affordances of technology in education and opened doors that will add value to our current and future studios.