I Have a Dream (of a Different Kind of Classroom)

Learning Takes Place where Life Takes Place

Since the day that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his iconic speech nearly six decades ago in 1963, he has inspired thousands, if not millions, of people to dream bigger. Whether that means standing up against social injustices, volunteering in our community, or contributing to education reform, many of us have been inspired to leave the world a better place.

“The goal of an artist,” Tolstoy wrote, “is not to solve a question irrefutably, but to teach people to love life in all its countless inexhaustible manifestations.”

Teachers aim for something very similar: to inspire students to break down old paradigms and see life through sparkling new eyes, to help them cherish the individuality of every living creature and the dignity of every human being, to model for them a way of engaging the world and solving problems that draw on the intellect, heart, spirit, and body all working in concert.

As it happens, this is precisely the vision of society put forth by Martin Luther King.

The Traditional Classroom Model is Outdated

Over the course of my twenty-five years as a college teacher, creator of the Books Behind Bars education program, and humanities scholar, I’ve developed an approach to teaching that starts from this assumption: that the four-walled classroom in which teaching traditionally takes place is far too small to generate the kind of deep learning that helps develop fully realized individuals.

Learning takes place where life takes place, and life happens everywhere, all the time.

The traditional notion of a classroom, then, as a space in a building where knowledge is transferred from one mind to others—what Paulo Freire famously referred to as the “banking model of education”—is much too constrained to encapsulate either the geography of the human mind or the range of human experience that a student must encounter and explore in the pursuit of genuine knowledge.

Now, I realize that such a claim might seem impossibly grandiose. Admittedly, if I, as a college teacher, were to offer a course promising that my students would learn everything everywhere at all times, students would justifiably be so boggled they’d probably just walk away scratching their heads. Alas, as innovative people have long known, limits are often what begets creativity, whereas limitlessness can become so abstract and daunting as to lead to mind-exploding confusion.

And yet… here we are, almost two decades into the twenty-first century, and mind-exploding confusion is all around us. We’re a society in spiritual disarray. A society of ideological factions unwilling or unable to listen to one another. A society of individuals and groups for whom the words ‘government’ and ‘democracy’ carry so many different, conflicting meanings—from the ennobling to the oppressive—that there seems to be precious little holding our torn social fabric together.

If Abraham Lincoln was right that “the philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation becomes the philosophy of government in the next,” then we have a lot of soul-searching to do to figure out where education needs to go to get us out of this place.

Change Comes with a Change in Thinking

I don’t know the solution but I believe that searching for it should be a matter of national concern. And we must start our quest in the classroom itself.

When I visit many college classrooms today whose layout and instructional delivery methods look quite similar to the way they did a century ago—with their clear hierarchies between the knowing professors and passive, receiving students, with their physical layouts of the raised podium and the sea of seats perfectly embodying this hierarchy—then something, I know, is seriously amiss.

If such an approach to teaching didn’t work too well a few generations ago, leading us to our current morass, then why would it lead to better results in the future?

I Have a Dream of a Different Kind of Classroom Altogether

I dream of a classroom that is a microcosm of the world itself, where things—real things, complex things, unpredictable things, beautiful things—happen. A place where students push their comfort zones in order to achieve tasks, where their paradigms and expectations are challenged, where they are surprised and intrigued and intrinsically motivated to want to know more, to understand more, to be more.

I dream of a classroom where students and reality collide, where knowledge is not just communicated but co-created, where deep, authentic conversation takes place and human beings are engaged in nothing less than a search for meaning and truth, come what may.

This sort of classroom cannot quite be summed up in such tried-and-true monikers as  “student-centered learning,” or “active learning,” or “service-learning,” or even “experiential learning,” to say nothing of the much narrower, more traditional delineations by discipline. (As in: I teach literature, the guy down the hall teaches sociology, and the woman across campus teaches engineering, as if the ultimate goals of each of these three disciplines—human understanding—have little to do with one another.)

No, the classroom I’m dreaming of is a place much larger and more fluid than any of this, where boundaries are crossed, communities are formed and re-formed, and knowledge is created that is as large, alive, ever-changing, discomforting, and glorious as the world we live in. This classroom might be contained within four walls, or it might have no walls at all. What it is, ultimately, is a mindset, a reflection of how we want to relate to one another and the world around us.

The classroom of my imagination does not promote a unidirectional flow of knowledge from credentialed academic experts but rather the web-like circulation and creation of knowledge by everyone participating in the learning community:

  • It is a place where more than mere academic learning is valued, but also personal growth, meaning-making, and civic learning are considered just as important.
  • It is a place consisting not merely of transactional exchanges but transformative partnerships.
  • A place that empowers people not just to know but to serve, not just to do better but to be better, to commit to the improvement of our collective well-being.

It is in this special place, I propose, that the kind of learning happens that can heal our broken world.


Andrew Kaufman is the founder of Books Behind Bars, a program that sees college students teach Russian literature to incarcerated youth.



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Lion I Am
4 years ago

I’m a Lion and I love myself and respect myself. Feelings come and go. They are not me. Fear is a bug that flys around. I watch it in case it has an important lesson for me. Otherwise I swat my tale sand send it away because love and peace are more fun.
The poet Hafiz beautifully said “Have fun dear ones in the universe’s divine game of love.” Love
and wonder are openings to the infinite. In those moments when we lose ourselves watching a beautiful butterfly, sunset or waterfall our breath is taken away and we rest in peace or “Yummy Me.” Children live in this place of wonder much of the time.
Beyond words it’s the feeling of wonder and gratitude for just being alive. Watch as a child loses him
or herself with an insect, animal, small pebble. or even a faraway star. They are lost in the feeling of wonder and joy. We can all remember that as our natural happy place we lived in when we were young. We can reclaim this when we give space to and appreciate our children’s silent moments of wonder
and joy.
Animals can remind us of the simplicity of going with the flow. Look into the eyes of animals and they all seem to say “I love being Me.” Love is the only true currency on this planet.
Walrus, Hippos or Orangutans never need to explain why they are the way they are. That is something humans invented to protect their psychological sense of self. We developed this memory based sense
of self to try to attract love from others and to protect us from life’s many “owies.”
We all collect little inner Me’s over our lifetime that we hope will protect us from life’s “owies”.
We even unconsciously let them steer us around sometimes. These inner Me’s come and go and but in the end we all can rest in our own Yummy Me place of self love.
Looking up at the night’s sky or looking at photographs of our far away galactic neighbors millions
of light years away can momentarily release us from our sense of self by immersing us in wonder
and silence.
A mystic poet once said “We are all born of love. We come out of love. All of us are nothing but vibrations of love.”
We are sustained by love, and in the end we merge back into love. . . . This world is nothing but a school of love. Our relationships with our husband or wife, our children and parents, our friends
and relatives are the university in which we are meant to learn what universal love truly is.”
Flip through the pages with your children. Have fun with the animals. Let them help you laugh at
all your passing Me’s Let’s acknowledge them but understand that they don’t oversee life on Earth’s playground. That job is reserved for a strong relaxed watchful lion who watches things from his
resting place of Self love and wonder.
Lion I AM

Natali Anam Àire
4 years ago

Dear friends!

My heart skipped a beat when my eyes saw the people sitting around the campfire. Teaching at campfires had been great over thousands of years. Elders teaching youngers and vise versa as we all come from source and learn and teach each other. What a great Memory!!!

Life itself is our teacher!

With lots of love from an English teacher in Germany doing her best to pass love for language to those who are willing to listen (private students who come voluntarily)


4 years ago

I share your longing for authentic free creative and team focused interdisciplinary learning spaces. I was lucky to be part of a university experiment in Bremen in the 70s where we had just that. We focused on a chosen project in our sciences and worked together with all disciplines in groups and subgroups to learn about it , inform the public and stand up for new developments such as developing methane gas digesters for energy use , or learning about our local river and it’s pollution and fighting for its health.
Since then the university went back to conservatism but I know the longing you are describing is possible!!!!

Ray Bacon
4 years ago

This conversation brings back old memories and new realizations. Before I relocated to the Philippines, I was participating with a group of 10 or 12 adults in what we called a “small group meeting“. This happened to be based on a religious and spiritual Focus, but it would not have to be. The format was simple. We chose one book of common interest. Each week one person would lead a discussion based on a particular reading from that book. We would all take turns reading a small portion of the book, followed by the discussion, which was free flowing based on individual inspiration. So much can be learned by sharing and listening to the different nuances in meanings that come out of reading the same text together. In a world where we hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see, this exercise has a simple way of shattering that paradigm and opening up broadening in creative adventures in learning.
The second memory goes back a shocking 40 years, when I was involved in a masters level course in “Religious education“ where we sought to learn and explore new paradigms in teaching and learning. The two things that stand out from that time, were presented as elective “side courses” as it were, not the main subjects. They were PET, Parent Effectiveness Training, Which focused on simple techniques the parents can easily learn in teaching and training their children. The second was a practice called Active Listening and the use of “I Messages”, to improve effective communication, and get immediate response on the effectiveness of what was being communicated, so that a complete mutual understanding could be achieved. In my experience, both were extremely effective, easy to learn, and easy to share.

4 years ago

I love your thoughts, and it looks, from comments, that there is a groundswell moving towards a diversity of learning/ teaching/ encountering and, in time, the older model will evolve into something closer to what you describe.
i thinks it’s evolving as we recognise that all life is a learning, and part of that will be tuitional, part practical, as we learn to become doctors, artists, hairdressers, plumbers, and all the auxiliary talents we select along the way for variety and balance.
But yes, you are right. Small overfilled classrooms, too much sitting, these need to be jettisoned.

Joan Hibbs
4 years ago

The school can be as riveting as the best movie or digital game. The adult Masterclasses now sold on the internet is the ideal school for all ages. These classes cover any profession and are taught via video by the world’s best teachers. $90. for a full course. Study only what you love and want to be. Study at home or in a small classroom with only a few students and a monitor. Students all have a laptop for their class and workbooks go with it. Everyone has the best teacher. No big buildings, no teachers’ union, All physical education classes are in exercise gyms with coaches and teams. Social activities arranged there too.

4 years ago

Scattergood Friends School, in Iowa.

4 years ago

Maria Montessori and her followers have been doing this for quite some time now.

Lion I Am
4 years ago

please look at funnybirdproduction.com and see in the classroom how the children are honoring their own self and seeingg emotions as passing clouds. This book is available for teachers and adults wh want to bring more consciousness into their interactions in life. Lion I Am

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