Post by Meredith Hinze (University of Melbourne) and Katie Freund
After considering the affordances of spaces, let’s look specifically at the “active learning” spaces which are appearing at more and more universities to see exactly how and why they are different.
A shift in pedagogy
Active learning has increasingly become the standard in higher education, which has challenged institutions to design learning spaces that align with active learning approaches (Rands and Gansemer- Topf 2017). “This spatial-educational transformation is implicitly underpinned by a socio-constructivist teaching and learning philosophy, where students experience social, dynamic, and engaging learning, and are positioned as active directors in their own knowledge construction.” (Acton 2018:1). We discuss active learning and constructivism in a previous course, and also connect active learning and lecturing in this post.
The term “active” suggests that students want to engage with the content and material, participate in class discussions, and collaborate with each other (see Stanford, 2019). This understanding is important because it signals a much more significant change in pedagogy than space – but the right spaces still help!
Characteristics of active learning:
- Less didactic, instructor-led teaching
- Students are more involved in their learning
- Encouraged to share thoughts and values
- Instructional strategies like small group discussion, problem-based learning, simulations, peer questioning, authentic assessment tasks, journal writing (Rands and Gansemer-Topf 2017)
It’s often difficult to carry out pedagogical change with existing infrastructure that was designed for other styles of learning (van Merriënboer et al 2017), and new active learning spaces or buildings are being constructed. Here at ANU, the Kambri Precinct development includes the new Marie Reay Teaching Centre, which opened in February 2019. This building was designed to include custom-built active learning spaces, and does not include any lecture theatres or other, traditional classrooms.
Other recent examples include:
Let’s look at some active learning spaces, including some from the Marie Reay Centre. What are these rooms telling you about their “spatial pedagogy”?
Components of active learning spaces
There are four common design components for active learning spaces that make them different from some other types of spaces (Acton 2018):
- Learner-centricity – spaces are student centred, designed to motivate, be comfortable, support wellbeing
- Connectivity – ability to discuss, connect, social collaboration (such as allowing movement, shared social spaces, unstructured learning areas)
- Flexibility – space can support multiple teaching and learning approaches, movable and adaptable furniture and fittings (such as writable walls and chairs with wheels)
- Affordances – embedding technologies and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), technologies can provide more affordances for exploration and blended learning
The design of active learning spaces promotes activity and participation. They enable student centered learning, complex conversations, collaboration, inquiry and group work, through greater flexibility, connectivity and use of multiple technologies for students. The main purpose for these rooms are to breakout into project or discussion groups. For example students collaborate working together in groups for a short time, gathering ideas, references, media, etc and then present back to the whole class via the screens. In a sense, every group is the front of the room, and every group can take a turn in leading the class.
Translating these characteristics into spatial elements, means these spaces have larger flat floor spaces with moveable and flexible furniture, possibly high tables and stools, multiple screens and input points, power supply points, stable WIFI, handheld and lapel mics, room dividers or transparency curtains to split the room in half or create huddle groups etc. Tables are designed to form different sized groups, with no ‘head of the table’ dominance.
Often these spaces do not have front of room projection, and have a minimalist or non-fixed teaching point, with wireless keyboard and mouse. The teacher is no longer the centre of attention, but moving easily around the room, standing alongside students, and participating in student-directed discussions. The focus of these spaces is on interaction. Teachers move around the entire room switching from addressing the whole room, to speaking to groups privately. Collaborative rooms enable discussion and the interplay between table groups, whereas project groups foster creation around a device.
These spaces de-centralise power, are learner-centred, and encourage students to take a more active approach (and responsibility) to their learning.
An example from the University of Melbourne
Dr Guy Morrow from the Faculty of Arts describes how he uses active learning spaces to facilitate project based learning for his students in Arts and Cultural Management. In these spaces, he describes how his role as a teacher shifted significantly and the impact on student experience in the course.
Have you ever taught in an active learning space? How was it similar or different to other spaces you have used? What opportunities or challenges did it present for you? What would your ideal active learning space look like?
In tomorrow’s post, we’ll explore learning activities that are designed to suit these types of spaces, and share some ideas around how to adapt your existing teaching to better suit active learning environments.
- Acton, R. (2018). Innovating Lecturing: Spatial Change and Staff-Student Pedagogic Relationships for Learning. Journal of Learning Spaces, 7(1). Retrieved from http://libjournal.uncg.edu/jls/article/view/1556
- Rands, M., & Gansemer-Topf, A. (2017). “The room itself is active”: How classroom design impacts student engagement. Journal of Learning Spaces, 6(1). Retrieved from http://libjournal.uncg.edu/jls/article/view/1286/1028
- van Merriënboer JJG, McKenney S, Cullinan D, Heuer J. Aligning pedagogy with physical learning spaces. Eur J Educ. 2017;52:253–267. https://doi.org/10.1111/ejed.12225