Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Box and the Keyhole

Keymaster (HDR)
Box 3 _ Wooden Box

A few weeks ago, Brad Leithauser wrote a perceptive post in the New Yorker about two different lenses that can be used to view a piece of literature, a keyhole and a box:

Had I been still more articulate, I might have said that there’s a special readerly pleasure in approaching a book as you would a box. In its self-containment lies its ferocious magic; you can see everything it holds, and yet its meagre, often hackneyed contents have a way of engineering fresh, refined, resourceful patterns. And Emily might have replied that she comes to a book as to a keyhole: you observe some of the characters’ movements, you hear a little of their dialogue, but then they step outside your limited purview. They have a reality that outreaches the borders of the page.

Keyholes and boxes... As someone who spends a lot of time in classrooms with teachers, this metaphor immediately captured my attention. While each classroom is inherently unique, commonalities abound.  Teachers who see their classrooms as boxes attempt to control, measure, and confine the learning that happens within the walls of the school.  Teachers who see their classrooms as keyholes use inquiry to help students see the learning that surrounds them everywhere. 

I quickly came up with this list:

Classrooms as Boxes:

  • Have lots of "right answers"
  • Focus on content
  • Aim for skill mastery
  • Think that learning should be quantified in little bits

Classrooms as Keyholes:

  • Have lots of questions (that usually don't have a clear answer)
  • Focus on competencies (bundles of knowledge and skills)
  • Aim for authentic performance in the real world
  • Think that learning is dynamic 

At different points in my career, I've created both box and keyhole classroom environments for various reasons. (Perhaps there is actually a continuum between these two categories?) However, I currently work very hard to design my learning spaces in ways that emphasize the classroom as a keyhole. I want my students to see my classroom as the beginning, not the end. What do you think?

CC Photo Credits:
Keymaster by seanmcgrath
Box 3 Wooden Box by Brenda Starr


  1. I love this image. What a powerful way to check one's planning and delivery and to develop goals around student learning and opportunity. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Thanks for your comment. I also think this could apply to the way that teachers interpret curricular materials. ;-)

  3. Love this, sharing now, thanks for posting!



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