What do spaces tell us about the relationship between teaching and learning?
In Day 1, we briefly discussed the theoretical underpinnings of learning spaces. The importance of space and its configuration to learning is like headphones/speakers to the enjoyment of music – not forgetting that this is spatially situated as well – where a series of material and immaterial considerations contribute to the experiences of the activity.
Today’s post look more closely at the affordances of current learning spaces, asking: how do spaces affect the way we teach and learn?
The affordances of spaces
According to Monahan (2002), physical spaces and its configuration have the ability to embody cultural, psychological and behavioural attributes that shape teaching and learning. This is known as ‘built pedagogy’, which can be defined as:
“The belief that the physical classroom space is linked to and embodies specific pedagogical practices, and shapes student learning experiences and behaviour.” (Byers, Imms & Hartnell-Young, 2014, p. 7)
The teacher’s position in the learning space or environment, for example, is significant as the material site, where verbal and non-verbal content and resources are delivered and performed by the teacher, creates a predisposition, or an assumption, to the way we teach and learn (Lim, O’Halloran & Podlasov, 2012). Space and its elements within speak to us (telepathically!) as they are signs and symbols, albeit ones that are socially constructed, that we relate to. Think about it: why do we behave differently in pubs versus at libraries? Not simply because a librarian shushes us but because something in the environment, the orderliness or disorderliness of spatial objects, the lighting, the furniture, etc. prompt us to behave in a certain manner. This is no different in a learning space.
However, rather than ‘built pedagogy’, I suggest the use of the term ‘spatial pedagogy’ though as we are increasingly moving towards more flexible, constructionist and non-material (i.e. virtual) approaches to learning spaces that are not necessarily associated to a ‘built’ environment (see Lim et al., 2012).
How do different spaces affect the way we teach and learn?
In Day 1, you reflected on how each of the spaces shown to you may shape you teaching practice. So what are does the literature say about some of these spaces? Let’s investigate some of the more common learning spaces in detail below:
Large lecture theatres
As a student, I remembered being in this exact lecture theatre: uncomfortable, ‘militantly’ structured and unyieldingly inflexible. Being a ‘rebel’ student and sitting right at the back, I could barely see the screen and much less the blackboard.
According to Byers et al. (2014) and Lim et al. (2012), traditional teaching spaces like lecture theatres are authoritative spaces where it is teacher-centric. The lecturer or teacher is often placed in a position where they are the centre of attention (e.g. at the front of the space) and is able to control and monitor all students who are seated in static and standard rows. However, while you may be able to see which students are present, the teacher is unable to discern if students are paying attention – particularly with the advent of mobile devices. There is also a lack of space for much movement by the teacher and more so by the students.
Implications of the space on teaching:
- More didactic style of teaching where the dissemination of information becomes the primary activity
- The lecturer or teacher as the authoritative figure in the space
Implications of the space on learning:
- Encourages passive learning where the learner is a receiver of information
- Students may also feel disempowered: They are immobile and sitting in cramp and sometimes uncomfortable seats surrounded by their peers while facing the authoritative figure – don’t be surprised if students are actively trying to avoid your eye line if you are teaching in these spaces!
Seminar Rooms and Tutorial Spaces
Seminar rooms and tutorial spaces can take on many shapes, sizes and configurations. As you can see, some seminar rooms are tiered like lecture theatres while others maybe flat with moveable furniture. However, the spaces generally cater to a smaller cohort of students than lecture specific spaces, allowing for more intimate interactions. They are also ‘flatter’ even when tiered, and are more spacious to encourage movement, particularly by the teacher. Adapting Lim et al.’s (2012) concepts of learning spaces, seminar and tutorial rooms are a combination of authoritative, surveillance and interactional spaces. While you still have elements of an authoritative space with a lectern or teacher’s desk at the front of the space, the teacher can move away from being the centre of attention and mingle amongst the students. However, being the main moving entity, teachers are also able to supervise what students are doing – standing behind them or listening in on their conversations – and have better visibility of what is happening in class.
Implications of the space on teaching:
- More opportunities for personal engagement with students
- Semi-didactic with possibility of integrating small group or pair work
- Allow teachers to be in the authoritative, supervisory or facilitator role
Implications of the space on learning:
- Expectation of more peer-to-teacher or peer-to-peer engagement – Moving between passive and active learning
- Fear of being supervised
- More empowered to direct their learning
What types of spaces do you commonly teach in? Is it a theatre, lab, field site, seminar room, or another space? What are the implications and affordances of your spaces on teaching, and on learning? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Some other examples of how learning spaces and their affordances are linked to pedagogical approaches, activities and principles can be found below.
Taken from a draft framework developed for the Department of Education and Training (Victoria) on Linking Pedagogy and Space (Fisher, 2005).
As you can see in this chart, there are a range of types of room configurations that can support approaches like active learning. We’ll discuss active learning spaces specifically in more detail in tomorrow’s post, but for now, let’s consider what happens when rooms and pedagogy do not align.
What happens in a mismatch of space to teaching practice?
We sometimes get timetabled into learning spaces that do not match our style of teaching. I remembered teaching four repeat flipped classroom seminars in four different venues – one of which a large lecture theatre for 30 students. Group work became evidently difficult and ineffective in this space and student experience decreased as they were confused – their expectations did not match the space we were in. What can you do?
During the course of writing this post, I learnt that beyond ‘active learning’, we need to ‘activate learning’ (see Thomsen, 2015). While the learning space may not necessarily be designed for active learning, we can put in place certain activities to achieve a different outcome – and activate students’ learning experience. Below are some tips to help you deal with a mismatch with space and intended teaching practice:
- Be prepared: Understand and plan for the learning spaces you’ll be teaching in
- Know your objectives: Your teaching method and pedagogical approach should be aligned to the learning outcomes of your course
- Have a few tricks up your sleeve: Familiarise yourself with a few activities that can be used in various spaces – think-pair-share, one minute papers, speed dating/sharing, in-class polls are some activities that are easy to implement in different settings.
- Be flexible: Read the room!
While space can affect teaching practices, they do not necessarily change it – space, pedagogy and changes in practice are relational but not absolutes (see Mulcahy, Cleveland & Aberton, 2015). Should you modify your teaching to suit the space? Certainly, but at the end of the day, you need to weigh in on how much change is necessary based on learning outcomes, student expectations, the objectives of the course, etc.
- Reflect on the concept of ‘activating learning’ – do you think it is useful in helping you shape your teaching practice? Share some of the activities or experiences you may have had to activate your students’ learning.
- Have you ever been scheduled to teach in a room that did not align with your teaching approach? What happened?
Byers, T. & Imms, W. & Hartnell-Young, E. (2014). Making the Case for Space: The Effect of Learning Spaces on Teaching and Learning. Curriculum and Teaching, 29 (1), pp. 5 – 19.
Fisher, K. (2005). Linking Pedagogy and Space: Proposed Planning Principles. Department of Education and Training, Victoria, available at: https://www.education.vic.gov.au/documents/school/principals/infrastructure/pedagogyspace.pdf [Accessed 13 Feb. 2019].
Lim, F.V., O’Halloran, K.L. & Podlasov, A. (2012). Spatial pedagogy: Mapping Meanings in the Use of Classroom Space. Cambridge Journal of Education, 42 (2), pp. 235-251.
Mohanan, T. (2002). Flexible Space & Built Pedagogy: emerging IT embodiments. Inventio, 4(1), pp. 1-19.
Mulcahy, D., Cleveland, B. & Aberton, H. (2015). Learning spaces and pedagogic change: envisioned, enacted and experienced. Pedagogy, Culture and Society, 2015, 23 (4), pp. 575 – 595.
Thomsen, L.H. (2015). Tips for student-activating teaching. Medium, available at: https://medium.com/cultivate-grow-your-teaching/tips-for-student-activating-teaching-fe72ae0c8de9 [Accessed 13 Feb. 2019].