The City and the Classroom

“A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle-class people, many illiterates into skilled people, many greenhorns into competent citizens.” – Jane Jacobs

During the 1960’s, an urban dispute broke out between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses.  Nominally, the quarrel originated from Moses’s desire to build high speed expressways and master planned communities wiping out existing neighborhoods.  However, it was really an age old debate on how to build communities.  Moses favored a top-down process while Jacobs felt cities were best served by allowing neighborhoods to develop from the bottom up.  While watching the documentary Citizen Jane which explored this era, it occurred to me this topic is universal in nature and applies just as well in education.  If cities, as Jacobs said, transform illiterates into skilled people, certainly schools do the same.  What can we learn from this era?

The challenge Moses faced was how to integrate a new technology (automobiles) into cities and relieve overcrowding.  Urban renewal was not a new phenomena.  The streets of Paris were widened and many older, medieval neighborhoods cleared out by Georges-Eugene Haussmann between 1853-70.  Modern Paris largely owes its appearance to Haussmann’s efforts.  Moses’ efforts were less successful integrating the automobile into the existing city and along with his master planned communities broke down crucial social connections.  As the saying goes, bridges, not walls, build cities.  Moses’ work effectively built walls in the city.

Cross Bronx Expressway dividing north and south Bronx. Credit: NYCEDC

Things came to a head when Moses proposed to build a highway through the SoHo and Little Italy neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan.  A grassroots resistance effort led by Jane Jacobs put a stop to this plan and began the downfall of Robert Moses as a major power broker.  Jacobs was opposed to master planning and felt cities become great organically by problem solving decisions made on the street level.  As a result, there has been a tendency to view this as a you’re with us or you’re against us kind of debate.  The truth is, you need central planning to provide a framework for individuals to make those uncoordinated decisions to complete a city.

Moses left his imprint all across New York State and Buffalo was no exception.  Like New York City, neighborhoods were divided by the Kensington Expressway and waterfront access blocked by the Niagara Thruway.  An expressway was constructed across Delaware Park that was designated as vacant land on the planning maps.  Does this prove planning inherently to be a bad idea?  Not when you consider the parkway system destroyed was master planned by Frederick Law Olmstead in the 1800’s.  The highly successful existing street plan had been designed by Joseph Ellicott based on the same blueprint his brother used for Washington D.C.  What differentiates good planing from bad planing and what can we take from that from building communities in classrooms?

Olmsted park and parkway system (green) complimented, rather than disrupted, the exiting city plan. This map of Buffalo is from 1896.

Infrastructure should not be viewed only as a means of moving material, but transporting and exchanging ideas as well.  This was Moses’ key mistake.  Interstates can move tens of thousands of cars in and out of a city, but unlike city streets, are not places for people to exchange ideas or build social connections.  When that aspect of a community is taken away, the community begins to decay.  When attempting to integrate new technology into the classroom, it has to be more than just delivering content, there has to be a mechanism in place to allow the class to exchange thoughts on the content delivered.  Many students I have talked to have felt alienated, especially in online classes, by the lack of interaction made available.

Ideological arguments often take the form of all or nothing stances.  In this case, whether discussing cities or the classrooms, we can’t look at it as all top down micromanagement vs. total freedom on the ground level.  It’s like saying you only need air or gasoline in an automobile engine.  One without the other will not make the engine work.  You need the right mixture for optimal performance and the same is true for planning vs. ground level innovation.  In education, the framework should be as follows:

A master curriculum for the course to cover, but allow the instructor the freedom to decide how to address it.  The instructor will know the students needs and abilities much more than the bureaucracy above.

Within the framework of the class, students should be allowed to explore their own interests within each topic after a minimum proficiency is proven.  In my course, this takes the form of discussion segments where students are allowed to present findings on a subject they have selected.  Students have to be allowed to breathe and choose how they delve deeper into the subject.

Going back to the city analogy, without an overall plan to provide a framework, the result is a free for all situation.  This would be reminiscent of when I lived in Houston during the late 1970’s when the city had no zoning laws.  You ended up with adult book stores, strip joints, and message parlors located next to schools, an obviously undesirable situation.  On the other hand, too much planning leaves neighborhoods devoid of any sort of vibrancy.  This was seen in the high-rise projects all across the nation that were eventually imploded.

When something implemented does not work out as planned, adaptability, rather than doubling down on a poor idea, is desired.  The aforementioned high rise projects looked great on paper, offering green space and play areas for children.  In fact, Jane Jacobs herself originally thought these would be great for city life.  Once the reality failed to match expectations, Jacobs reevaluated her position whereas Robert Moses did not.  The same is true for a lesson plan that looks great on paper but fails to light a spark in the class.  Keep what works, change what does not.

When introducing new technology into an existing classroom, it should compliment and enhance the current course structure.  While I teach online, I am wary of high-tech evangelicals who view the internet as a cure all for what ails education.  Technology can be a helpful tool. but the rush to “disrupt” the education sector can have the same results building highways in residential neighborhoods and parks did.  That’s not disruption, it was destruction.  We want to think in terms of improving the student experience, not to destroy it.

Come to think of it, that’s the approach to take in any community endeavor.

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