Space and time at New Urban Arts

I recently came across this vision of what the school might look like, written in 1967 by K. Laybourne, chief inspector of schools in Bristol, UK:

`By the year 2000 the schools themselves will move closer to the world. The school building will become a base from which children operate, rather than a place in which they are isolated for a fixed number of hours each day. Much of the teachers’ work will be to plan and interpret … The interpenetration of school and neighbourhood will be promoted by buildings in which design will become ever more open … the classroom ‘box’ will disappear … the school building will come to be thought of as a social centre … the main spaces will be very varied so that to pass from one to another will be a pleasing experience in itself.’

I read this passage in an article by Catherine Burke (1), who discusses in part how this vision has not come to be in the contemporary design of schools.  

As I read this quote though, I thought how this vision of school as social centre occurs in pockets of the community-based education sector.  (By that I mean, teaching/learning taking place outside schoolsschoolday `in the community’.)  

In some instances, these spaces not only provide alternatives for how and with whom teaching/learning takes place, but also reconsider the nature of learning environments.

New Urban Arts is thinking quite a bit about space right now as it deals with a good problem.  It seems interest among young people, artists, and educators far exceeds the space they have.  

Despite cramped living quarters for sometime now and in contrary to some of my own assumptions about the future, this large growth in numbers does not seem to be threatening its vibrant learning culture.  But being cramped isn’t New Urban Arts style, and they are thinking about the implications of this growth for space. 

I am going to reflect a bit on space over the next few weeks as a way of contributing to that conversation.  I am going to start with time.

For a long time, New Urban Arts never had a clock hanging on its wall.   People wore watches, clocks ticked on computers, and increasingly people started carrying mobile phones.  

But a public clock never told New Urban Arts’ time.  

Like so many of the cultural practices at New Urban Arts, this one probably emerged through the ongoing negotiation between young people directing the learning community and `the organisation’ (i.e. its salaried, nominal leadership) responding to/adapting to those interests.  

In this instance, nobody ever asked for a clock.  Because of the scarcity of resources, its leadership never bought a clock just for the sake of having one.  

In the end, New Urban Arts did not have its own time.  

Without its own time, the studio at New Urban Arts feels a bit like a casino (without the green felt, cards, chips, dealers, cocktail waitresses, CCTV, etc. etc.):  

Events are always unfolding, no matter the time of day.  People walk in and there isn’t a sense of arriving early or late.  

No one is disappointing someone else by not being there on time.  No one is exhibiting super-duper-diligence for being early.  

People are on their own time.  They pace themselves.  They come and go. 

The place becomes a social centre, as Laybourne describes, a base where people meet and direct when they do what where.  

If they stay in the studio, they become immersed.  But there isn’t a clock looming over their heads telling them they need to be somewhere else or that there is only so much time left. 

The impending bell doesn’t produce a rush, interrupt sentences, produce mayhem as the teacher’s disciplinary regiment can’t hold up any longer, call people to queue up in the next stage of their routinised non-adventure. 

In this sense, `workshops’ don’t really begin and end at New Urban Arts as some, including me, have described occuring there.  More accurately, people/work amass and wane.

Schools traditionally have been constructed as `collections of material bodies assembled for administrative purposes’ (2).  I see the community-based sector facing increasing pressure to appropriate the paradigms of schooling, so that its pedagogies arise through these instititional demands largely concerned with self-preservation [e.g. minimising risk, predicting and controlling the future (outcome), measurement, efficiencies, etc.] rather than the human interests of its participants. 

But timekeeping at New Urban Arts is one illustration of how this sector can critique schooling constructed as adjoined classroom boxes, legislated through timekeeping, and become a vibrant, open social centre.

I’ll happily take suggestions for my next reflection.  Perhaps: Openness?  Adaptivity?   Wall-lessness?  

(1) Burke, Catherine(2010) ‘About looking: vision, transformation, and the education of the eye in discourses of school renewal past and present’, British Educational Research Journal, 36: 1, 65 — 82, First published on: 24 April 2009 (iFirst) 

(2) Wolff-Michael Roth,  Yew-Jin Lee (2006) Contradictions in theorizing and implementing communities in education, Educational Research Review, 1, 27-40.