August 31st, 2018—Summer is coming to a close and students from Kindergarten through graduate school are heading back to classrooms to continue their educational journey. How they experience the classroom will directly impact the depth and complexity of their learning. In learning spaces where rules, protocols, and prescribed curriculum is the norm, students are likely to approach learning as a transaction. They adapt their intellectual and personal behavior to align with teacher notions of “right actions and right thinking” in exchange for a good grade. In such classrooms the emphasis is on behavior rather than learning. When the course is finished—the grade is given—and there is little need to retain the knowledge. In contrast are the classrooms that strive for “moreness” where students and teachers “…go beyond what we were and are and become something different, somehow new” (Dwayne Huebner). In this classroom, knowledge as commodity is abandoned in favor of holistic understandings of wisdom as transcendent, mysterious, and transformational. The language and experiences of spirituality replace the technocratic, product, and procedural definitions of learning. Learning as “moreness” favors a trajectory toward newness for teacher, student, and text. The classroom is alive with the possibility of change and growth for all.
How might a teacher go about creating such a classroom? What are the markers of the classroom as sacred space where teacher and students participate in shared activity that transforms the content and personal understandings into “moreness” that invites educator and learners together to “become something different, somehow new?” The idea of sacred spaces—a place where the extraordinary occurs—has been a part of the human experience for ages. Long before the advent of written language and the spiritual codices that followed, the understandings and learnings associated with sacred spaces found expression through art on cave walls. Sacred spaces are most commonly associated with places of and experiences with a connection to a power greater than human knowing. The language and practices of sacred spaces as learning spaces is rich with possibility when applied to classrooms striving for an experience of “moreness.”
One of the early stages of sacred space formation is shifting power dynamics away from the dichotomy of me and you (teacher/student) and towards an overt recognition of being in relationship to something greater than either of us. The separation of individual selves becomes unified—not homogenized—around a shared experience of awe, exploration, and reverence. It is an easy leap to envision curriculum as something greater than both the student and teacher, therefore worthy of a kind of relationship characterized by reverence, awe, and mysticism. Parker Palmer invites educators to ask, what is this “great thing” in the curriculum toward which we are willing to dedicate our life-energy in the service of understanding; even while knowing that our knowledge will always be tentative and transient? When the choices of curriculum (texts and experiences) are influenced by transcendence (moreness) rather than goals (transaction), educators move toward classrooms as sacred spaces. Curriculum is no longer static knowledge to be mastered. Instead it becomes a doorway to newness—a passage that has always been present—but now students and teacher alike have the refined ability to see the doorway. What was once illusive and perceived as separate from the learning space is now transparent and available to all.
The second aspect of classrooms that lean toward sacred space are the forms of pedagogy that invite learners into a transformational relationship with self, others, and the curriculum. In the field of education it is known that certain forms of teaching confine and constrain learners. For instance, an overemphasis on lecture elevates teacher knowledge over learner agency. In contrast, there are ways to teach that empower learners to own their intellectual and personal growth. For example, assessments that encourage students to choose the best form of expression to demonstrate mastery of the content as well as reflections on ways that the content has “changed” the learner. Consistent with sacred spaces a good pedagogical question for educators to ponder is, what are the rituals, practices, and traditions in my classroom? Do they open up or close off student agency toward learning, sense of self as transcendent, or shift the lens of power away from individuals to something greater than self? How does the history of our shared time together as learner and teacher infuse the classroom with the sense that we are experiencing sacred space—a different form of education—where we take off our metaphorical shoes? The rituals, practices, and traditions of classrooms as sacred space can be as simple as beginning every class session with a minute of stillness to allow everyone to transition into the learning space. Or as intricate as assessments that invite learners into deep reflection on changed behavior toward others, expanded intellectual understandings, or a more nuanced sense of self in the world.
My tepid orientation toward structure and instructional authority are not meant as a call for elimination; structure, authority, and instructional intentions are a necessary element of any well run classroom. But I do think it matters toward what end formality serves; transaction or transcendence? And when teachers work toward sacred space in their classroom a third quality, beyond curriculum and pedagogy, mystery is a helpful guide to instructional choices. Do the rituals, practices, and traditions create more or less opportunity to experience and learn from ambiguity, spontaneity, and the unexpected when the candle of knowledge burns brightly for a student? Learning as transcendence is mysterious. It can be a permanent feature of the classroom when students expect a moment of stillness as they settle in. And at the same time transcendence is illusive, temporary, and can feel mysteriously absent from the learning space. This means that during any particular instructional moment one student can experience transcendence while another sees only content to master. Structure helps with transcendence but the spirit of learning is too illusive, mystical, and mercurial to yield to a programed appearance.
Curriculum, pedagogy, and mystery are the hallmarks of classrooms as sacred space. How might you change one of these elements to achieve a greater sense of transcendence in your classroom?