Sunday, July 1, 2012

Educational Style - The Self-Imagined Space

Source: The New York Times
The New York Times Sunday Styles Weddings / Celebrations page is a brilliant space. It is a coveted, scrutinized, august section that thrives in its own artificiality. The genius of the page's construct lies in its fabrication. It is always the same, week to week. Its readers expect and delight in its self-imposed consistency. The weddings page is a perfectly realized, self-imagined space that surprisingly raises a lot of questions about education.

Most hometown newspapers use their wedding announcements like obituaries, to drum up cash in a column-inch fee schedule. The New York Times is different. It has established a unique information delivery mode -- predictable, with its own set of rules, diction, and syntax. The weddings page especially succeeds in its unvarying photos, with each couple identically framed in size and expression. The NYTimes makes these standards clear, outlining on its "How To Submit A Wedding Announcement" page that, "couples posing for pictures should arrange themselves with their eyebrows on the same level and with their heads fairly close together."

Source: lolololori, ASIDE 2012
The New York Times didn't have to design its page this way. The format was completely open. But the layout has now become entrenched as the self-perpetuating gold-standard for esteemed couples-to-be. This uncontested template is much like some academic molds in our school systems that are only now beginning to be challenged. Fixed classroom designs are now opening to technology access and collaborative learning. Homework worksheets are now being replaced by flipped methods and streaming video.

The design of space and information is integral to learning. The consistency of format at once helps students feel comfortable in familiar environments, but it can also lead to staleness and conservatism. In The New York Times and in the classroom, the medium reinforces the message.

It's important to ask if some educators still rely on rigid routines in their classes. Do they recycle in-class worksheets, matching columns, PE drills, current event reports, and other time-honored but questionably relevant practices? Do some teachers create their own jargon and customs? Do they demand that students conform to their own rules and peccadilloes, and is this a good thing? Structure, or failure to update to meet current learner needs, can be both a student's best friend and worst enemy.

Source: The New York Times
Until recently, The New York Times weddings page carried the air of exclusivity, of elite access granted to a pedigreed few. Prestigious independent schools once embodied this same upper-crust status. Changing admission policies, competition for applicants, and evolving technologies in learning, though, may be refreshing their reputations. For its part, The New York Times made a deliberate policy to throw off the snobbery cloak. To wide approval, the paper began to recognize public service in its pair's resumes, just as schools now promote outreach as essential to citizenship. Even more noteworthy in 2002, it welcomed same-sex couples to its pages, just as many schools today embrace diversity and highlight LBGT affinity groups.

Source: Doug Savage, George Graham
The creation of a public space is a careful, deliberate task. Its culture and its customs must be clearly delineated. For these reasons, we give the newspaper's Style page high marks. For all its cache and mystique, it lists its expectations in black and white. Everyone knows the guidelines and where the bar is set, just like the best schools that demand much of their students, but make those standards unambiguous.

An independent school should not be a night club, with velvet-rope rules at the whim of a doorman. The applicants and attendees should understand the protocol, to live up to the caliber of academics and traditions. Instead of using aristocratic argot or pretentious patois, schools should design information delivery to reach the most and to champion everyone.

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