The Importance of Belonging | Day 18

At a fundamental level, we each seek to find our place in the world – a niche that we can carve out and claim as our own. We desire belonging, external validation, and an affirmation of our importance to our greater community. If we are to accept the assumption that the social element is the defining attribute of an education, then the process of identity formation merits closer examination. To what extent does one’s sense of belonging influence the quality of one’s social, and therefore educational, experience?

Immediately, we can posit that it is indeed very important to have a sense of belonging – anyone who has experienced some form of social exclusion can attest to its detrimental effects. However, what is important here is to establish how one’s sense of identity is shaped and how an educational program can be designed to better facilitate a positive sense of belonging. Implicit in our investigation is the assessment of where traditional approaches are lacking and how alternative models can fill the present void.

To begin, we must recognize that a sense of identity is merely the software of the mind, which is deeply shaped by the de facto hardware – the structural realities of our physical plane of existence. Physical space is deeply important in shaping interactions in the same way that the design of an educational program can affect the intensity of those interactions. We are operating here with the assumption that more contact and more connections are better, but we recognize that such may not be optimal for all personality types.

If we take a traditional research-intensive university, we can observe all of the faculties and departments acting as silos – disconnected units that occupy their own positions over a dispersed campus. Were it not for the student-run initiatives, life on campus would be one of entrenched alienation. The community element of university is one that forms in spite of the institution, not because of it. Residences, students clubs, sports teams, politics, and the like all contribute towards a sense of belonging; however, a sense of community is often lacking in the actual learning environments. Large lecture halls dominate half of your university experience until you can take your upper level seminars and actually engage in meaningful discussions. I believe I stumbled upon a solution to this structural dilemma with my time at Bitmaker Labs.

The learning environment at Bitmaker Labs is one of an integrated nature, adopting the co-working space model. There is an open area for general work where interaction is encouraged along with individual study rooms for those periods where you need to block out the world and focus on the task at hand. Moreover, we have an enclosed lounge area of couches that is good for napping or reading; we have a kitchen area complete with a mechanical coffee machine that enables us to truly feel at home. Finally, the distance between the instructors and the students is non-existent – one can approach an instructor at anytime should help be required. The important aspect here is that this integrated physical environment facilitates a sense of belonging that borders on the familial – because there is no need to leave the space and we all spend most of our days here. By virtue of unifying all that is needed into a single location, you’re creating the perfect storm for connections to develop and for a collective identity to be formed, in which each constituent individual finds his or her place.

As much as the physical environment is pivotal in influencing how identities are formed, we need to pay attention to one more element: the structure of the program. The semester model employed by institutions of higher learning seems to mimic their campuses: dispersed and disconnected. However, in this case the dispersion is one of chronology and the disconnection is one of relevance. In what way does an education dispersed over four years aid the individual? As far as actually acquiring an understanding of the material is concerned, not very much. Why? Because those four spent in study lack intensity. I’m not sure if I speak for everyone but I can state with confidence that material studied for exams in April are often lost by the time September comes around. Of course, if we understand an education as a social experience then the dispersed fours years actually makes sense – with time, the individual gets to evolve from naivety into something approaching maturity. Furthermore, an experience that lasts nearly half a decade is a great way to solidify relationships that will be beneficial in the years to come, especially on the professional front (remember, business is done best with those you trust).

Unfortunately, this dispersed model of instruction is ineffective for achieving the actual aims of learning, even though it helps satisfy the social element. I feel that the intensity of the bootcamp model, where one devotes ten to twelve hours a day, for several weeks, to a single discipline is much more effective. Imagine if you could have spent your four years of higher learning in a series of focused bootcamps – just imagine how much you would have actually learned and how many people you would have actually developed bonds with. The fact remains that spending nearly your entire waking hours with a small group of people helps to foster relationships that are far more meaningful than those in a typical classroom setting. For example, my experiences at Shad Valley – essentially, a summer camp for nerds – four years ago are comparable to a bootcamp and I’m still friends with the individuals I met there, even though the actual experience was only a month long. In short, intensity matters and there is much to be extracted from the bootcamp model that can be applied to the traditional setting.

In the end, the importance of community to an educational experience cannot be overstated: the existence of a community and the finding of one’s place within it are extremely important. In order to facilitate the development of such a collective identity, and the affiliation of various selves to this identity, structural and programmatic considerations need to be thought through carefully. It would appear that the best policy is always to err on the side of physical integration and programmatic intensity. With these environmental factors at play, the individual is sure to find himself feeling a sense of belonging, whereby his operational effectiveness as a student is sure to increase.

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