Wednesday, March 3, 2010

On the meaning of space and masking tape as a teaching tool

Canadians have a national myth of being a people shaped by vast, majestic open spaces - a myth that is played upon/perpetuated by TV commercials for some fairly awful tasting beer. Reality is that the majority of Canadians live in cities and suburbs, and see wide open space as something to be driven across as quickly as possible to get to the next city or suburb. Most Canadians are barely more familiar with vast tundra or endless moose-filled woods than are teens living in Vienna or Hong Kong. Nonetheless, Canadians do have a very different sense of space than do people elsewhere I've lived or visited. We expect to have lots of personal space wherever we are, and to have a fair bit of quiet, too. It may be because of the myth, but I suspect it's more because the average Canadian kid increasingly grows up in a detached, 4-bedroom suburban home with two-car garage and a yard. At least, that seems to be the experience of the majority of students in my classes.

I teach a 3-hour evening course called Environment and Urbanization in Developing Countries. Although it's a 4th year class, and one I'd like to run as a seminar, I can't - there are 80 students in it. 3 hours is much too long to stand and lecture at them, so it's necessary to have some form of interaction and discussion. But being interactive and engaging with 80 students is difficult to do without considerable noise and occasional near-chaos erupting. So to introduce a recent unit on housing challenges in developing-country cities, I decided to use the noise and chaos to my advantage.

We were to discuss in class an assigned reading on the Baan Mankong program, one where the urban poor in Thaliand are encouraged to form cooperative associations to acquire and develop proper housing. As in many developing countries, Thai cities host large numbers of very poor people living in makeshift homes on hazardous land without any legal tenure, and consequently have few if any basic services like running water or sanitation. But how can I expect a suburbanite Canadian student, whose only housing experience is a comfortable detached home, to appreciate the reality of living conditions in a Bangkok slum and therefore appreciate the significance of programs like Baan Mankong?

I used masking tape. I told the students to get out of their chairs and form "families" of four. I then walked around the class and gave each family a roll of masking tape and told them to claim their living space within the lecture hall, the only requirement being their space must touch an outside wall (so they could exit the space). Once they claimed their space, they were to decide where they would sleep and cook (no need for toilet space, they could use the public washroom down the hall). No other instructions were given, and no attempt was made to give them all a roll of tape at exactly the same time.

The noise and confusion was fantastic, and so was the mess. There was masking tape draped every which way. Adding to the fun was the irregular shape of the lecture hall. After twenty minutes, we stopped, quietened down and took stock. What we found was that some groups, particularly those who got their tape first, had claimed very large spaces (as compared with the others), often with creative shapes. No space went unclaimed. One group taped the ceiling and declared they were going to add a second story to their rather small space (why not? No one said they couldn't). We took some measurements; I guesstimate the average size of the space claimed was 150 square feet - about the size of a child's bedroom in a suburban Canadian house. The smallest space claimed was roughly half that. Most had decided to put their cooking areas toward the centre of the lecture hall, which we quickly recognized would become a heat and fire hazard (a very real phenomenon in informal settlements).

The discussion that followed was fantastic - the students virtually taught themselves everything I hoped they'd gain from the unit. We also found something quite remarkable: the plan view of our taped up classroom looked remarkably similar to the plan view of an informal settlement shown on this Baan Mankong website (see example 3 - land sharing). It wasn't a perfect lecture, and next time I'll use string instead (the wads of discarded tape did take up space in the garbage cans). But hopefully when we all returned to our respective homes that night, and took a last look around their rooms before drifting off to sleep, we were all a bit more appreciative of the space and quiet we enjoy.

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