This upbringing led to a lifelong fascination with how people orientate belief towards certain places in the landscape and how these beliefs and the meaning we confer on a place affect how we interact with it. Before I became a teacher I studied Landscape Archaeology and worked as a field archaeologist and a built-heritage specialist. This experience has caused me to think a great deal about the importance of classroom design. In its simplest form all land is just space. It only becomes a place once people confer a special meaning on it. To the old men in the Burren, ringforts, which are the archaeological remains of late Iron Age farmsteads, are Fairy Forts and as such they are forbidden places. This belief has had a very real impact on the landscape. Today the ringfort is the most numerous archaeological monument type in Ireland with numbers in the region of 30,000-40,000 nationwide. A fear of the Fairies has traditionally preserved these monuments (and the loss of the oral tradition and the industrialisation process of the Celtic Tiger era has led to their mass destruction in more recent years).
What I have learned is that the places we create and the meanings we attach to them exert a profound influence upon our interactions and behaviours. Michael Lynch of Doon, Co. Clare once told me of two local men who became lost travelling to the local pub when they took a short-cut through a field with a Fairy Fort in it. He maintained that they were held there by the Fairies for this imposition. As a result, Michael and all of his neighbours always travel the two kilometres by road to the pub rather than travel through this field. Taking the road results in a much longer walk but the field is a place with specific meaning and not just empty space. It is to be kept away from at night.
Place-building is a phenomenon that is common to all people in all places. Usually the meaning conferred on a place is implicit. Think of how you behave when you are in a library. You are quiet and respectful of others. In the doctor’s office you are apprehensive. When you enter a church you take off your hat and lower your voice in reverence. Equally, when you enter a nightclub you are uninhibited and loud. You are relaxed and feel comfortable sprawling out in McDonalds. The meaning we confer on places affects our behaviour.
The question all of this raises then is what meaning do you and your students confer upon your school? Where there is a strong Mission Statement which is shared and lived students can form a coherent and overarching sense of community. Where the Mission Statement is not lived relationships between students are defined by clique and relationships between teachers and students are contractual. In these cases school is simply industrial, a space where people must attend because the law dictates. It has no deeper prescribed meaning nor is there a vast reservoir of feeling orientated towards it. How do we expect students to behave in such an environment? As an individual teacher you may want to ask yourself what kind of place is my classroom? What meaning do my students confer upon it and how does it affect student interactions, behaviours and achievement? You should be explicit in how you confer meaning on your classroom. Work with your students to define what this place should mean. In this Edspiration podcast I discuss ways that you as an individual teacher can work with your students to create a positive learning place.
You can find out more about storyteller Eddie Lenihan and his work here.