The Archaeology of Classrooms

The Archaeology of Classrooms

I learned Physics along side 299 other biology first year students. We sat in a tiered auditorium with a mezzanine as a Professor of Physics demonstrated the Doppler effect, the speed of light, momentum, force, speed and acceleration on a stage full of  speakers on wheels, strobe lights and various flying and falling objects. There wasn't a bad seat in the house as this master teacher-performer kept all of us engaged.

This large dynamic learning environment has stayed with me through my forty years as a professor and dean. Time and again I have thought about this formative learning experience during discussions (and arguments) about the assumed negative relationship between class-size and learning.


Despite this assumption, most educators would agree that good teaching can and does happen in a variety of settings. My first anthropology teaching assignments were in 52 seat “discussion” classeswhere students sat  facing me listening to some version of a lecture/presentation, taking an occasional note and answering a question now and then. The magic number 52 was simply the number of tablet chairs that could fit into the assigned classroom. Architecture rather than pedagogy determined class size.  I have since taught Anthropology in large Irish lecture Halls of 250 students as well as small seminars, archaeological field settings, labs and even in  Irish Pubs.  The challenge has always been to fit the learning to the setting.


I have been thinking about my teaching experiences  as part of assessing my return to the classroom after 20 plus years of studying classroom learning and observing educators across most disciplines as a liberal arts dean.  As part of this evaluation I have developed an archaeological perspective of the classroom to contribute to understanding how classrooms work.

The Archaeology of Classrooms?


When I teach archaeology I ask students to imagine our classroom as a 4 dimensional archaeological site.  We envision the classroom asa cube that passes through time as classes proceed through daily, weekly, semester and annual schedules.  The beginning of each class is a snapshot that reveals the 3 dimensional spatial relationships between me and the students within the bounds of the classroom. The use of the classroom changes during the class-time.  Artifacts (e.g. pens, books, backpacks, and chalk) as well as site furniture such as chairs and tables move. Relatively permanent features such as worn out spots on the floors,  walls, and black boards change from repeated use.

This behavioral archaeology methodology helps me to understand  the learning flow of a class. My thesis is that while the size and spatial set-up of a classroom may set up constraints, its dynamics can also contributes opportunities for learning: Therefore, it does not prescribe or predict the effectiveness of the learning that will occur. This may appear obvious as most educators understand that classroom pedagogy is the most determinant factor for student engagement and learning. However, archaeology teaches us that it is the relationship between the physical and social environment of a site and the use of these environments that determines what actually happens at a site. An archaeological approach helps us test this thesis. For example, in my experience (anectdotal but extensive), the best learning experiences have been at the two ends of the class-size spectrum.  Let’s look at the behavioral archaeology of the three main types of classrooms (leaving field sites, labs and pubs aside for another time) to explore  this thesis,


Lecture Halls are set up for performances.  I began this piece by describing my physics professor’s outstanding performing skills.  I could also cite an art history professor who took to standing on tables and shouting to the mezzanine when he wanted to make a provocative point. I also attended lecture hall performances that werelimited to reading from scripts projected on screens and pre-fabricated power-point presentations created by the textbook publisher.  In between these extremes were classes that interspersed films and  videos and a few that  used  feedback clickers where  students  answer short questions during the course of the lecture to provide the instructor with ongoing feedback. Here, Often bar graphs or pie charts of correct and incorrect answers reveal a running measure of how much students are ‘understanding’.  I have also seen demonstrated the Harvard Assessment Model of dividing a class of 300 into study groups of 4 within a large lecture hall, so that students could interact during and between classes.


Seminars and labs are meant to provide intimate settings for learning. They are set up for conversations.  I have usually taught research andmethod and theory courses in these settings where 10-15 students intensively read and discuss materials and write within a weekly schedule of edit-revise-edit. Sitting around a table may be necessary to have a conversation, but it is not sufficient to guarantee one. I have been a part of and witnessed seminars that resembled lectures within a conference room.  A basis for the expected conversation has to be explicitly developed and maintained short termto spark a conversation for a particular class as well as longer term to meet course goals.  We have all been at ‘deadly’ meetings where interaction was not even expected around a conference table.


Discussion rooms of 30-50 students seem to present the most difficult physical setting for an interactive learning environment. These  classes are usually set up with rows of seats or tables facing an instructor. When students are asked to participate they  look at and speak to each other's backs. To add insult to injury, linear discussion classes often suffer from the use of tablet chairs, perhaps the most uncomfortable piece of furniture ever invented. ( Lecture Halls and seminar rooms usually offer upholstered furniture).  


The dynamics of my classroom  was in my mind each week during a recent seminar on archaeological research methods.  The assigned classroom was filled with long but moveable tables. Each week my class arrived to an arrangement of three rows of tables that stretched across the classroom. Each week we rearranged these into a seminar setting of one conference table that accommodated our seminar.  When they arrived for their first class, the students were happy to sit in back-to-back rows. I have to admit that I was somewhat annoyed when I first had to ask the students to move the tables and chairs in this so-called seminar room before that first class.  Interestingly, there was a note on the blackboard after the second week that asked us to rearrange the tables and chairs to their normal positions. This continued for another week or so after which one student questioned, what in fact was the normal arrangement of the classroom.  By this time, the physical re-arranging of the classroom-site had become a part of our seminar and as such helped shape the behavior of the students into a seminar. The students automatically rearranged to tables as they arrived, settled in and conversed with each other.  It was, to me, similar to setting up a campsite where the placement of ‘things’ were contingent upon their anticipated use.  In my archaeological eye, I could imagine the classroom as a prehistoric Irish fishing camp that was re-inhabited over time by various groups, who perhaps, had different ideas of how a fishing-camp should look and function.


Concluding Remarks


Archaeologists traditionally re-create sites from material remains.  In order to do so, they have to infer the behavior of sites from the spatial arrangement of artifacts, furniture and non-moveable features.  Archaeologists are now using the techniques of virtual reality to re-recreate sites so that visitors can virtually imagine walking through an historic or prehistoric house or village to ‘see’ how people behaved in that place at a particular time.  At the core of this interpretation is an understanding that behaviour is dynamic and therefore that its remains are a summation of the varying ways the site was used.  I would offer that we can use this same ‘archaeological’ approach as we design our classrooms in ways that maximize the flow of conversation and learning.