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Find the space to learn

A coffee shop is not a dependable place to study.

By Richard Klayman / July 23, 2007



BOSTON

Nearly 40 years of classroom teaching has provided me a perch from which to appreciate what works – and what does not – in building learning skills.

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At a time when city, town, and state budgets are challenged by almost continuous shortfalls, it may be useful to reflect upon those simple aspects of daily life that are critical to the success of the classroom.

Continuity is key in mastering a discipline, as is teaching oneself how to learn. The classroom is far from the only place that the process for assessing, attaining, or otherwise synthesizing impressions and information occurs.

A kitchen table, dining room table, a familiar corner of a room, or a few feet of flooring remain essential venues for the repetition needed to master any discipline.

Historically, families offered a place where education would begin – the site of and, frequently, a source of inspiration for all that learning signified.

Well beyond the classroom, the imprimatur of a family's support and blessing for education nurtured recognition of how learning and familial support were interrelated.

Finding a modicum of repose, shelter, or some other manifestation of roping oneself off from the world to focus on schoolwork was an essential family function.

Sometimes a room of one's own existed, sometimes it did not. The definition of space was less critical than certitude of having such a place.

Through the years I often asked my students if they had found a place to do their work, and I wasn't shocked to learn how many individuals had never done so. They tried. Some studied in automobiles, buses, and trains, or in coffee shops. They were nomads, and it was unsurprising how dissatisfied they were with this reality.

When they attended my classes at the community college, their average age was 28 and they had worked and schooled, in some fashion, for a decade beyond high school.

In many cases, they had begun families of their own. Many were also parents and had made it a point to inspire their own children to build an educational ethic. They also provided for their offspring what they had lacked – a set place to do schoolwork.

Many times the quest for a familiar place to study remained unresolved, and "home" was the least likely place to get anything accomplished. As one of my students ruefully observed, "There were seven kids in my family. My father was my mother's second husband. Now she has married again, and I love my family but I cannot live with them."

Sadly, public libraries are too overwhelmed by their own struggles to always solve this problem. Libraries are half-way houses of last resort, and video and Internet exchanges.

Budgetary crunches are often visited upon public libraries when cities and towns seek relatively easy cuts to be made. Also, decades of underfunding for books or journals have woefully ill-prepared libraries for keeping current.

Social changes have become powerful obstacles to a student's focus. Financial pressures and overextended schedules rob the learner of time and energy to ponder, to meander, or otherwise to experience an unscripted educational moment.

They stop us from knowing what it means to discover. The spontaneity of bumping into knowledge is under threat.

What students need today is what students have always needed: Someone to believe that their work is important.

Clearly, the family, however it is constituted, must strive to provide the "space and time" that every student requires. So much of learning occurs through self-teaching, and that can only take place in a setting that is dependable.

This is far more critical than any piece of software or hardware. After all, the confidence to learn begins with a simple but earnest expectation that a student can advance.

Richard Klayman, chairman of the history department at Bunker Hill Com-munity College in Boston, is the author of "America Abandoned: John Singleton Copley's American Years, 1738-1774: An Interpretative History."

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