Aligning pedagogy and space: part 2

In my previous post I tried to make a case for improving the ability of teachers to align the space and activities in their teaching. What I didn’t go into is how this might be done. I don’t have all the answers to that question, but whatever that answer may look like, I think it will need to address 3 challenges:

  • A critical awareness of the relation between space and activity amongst educators
  • Pedagogically lead design of learning space
  • Processes to allocate suitable space reliably

Critical awareness

Learning design isn’t an exact science. There is relatively little ‘knowledge’ about how learning ‘works’. Instead learning activities are designed with the help of a framework of generalised patterns of successful practice. Language, as I have argued in the article ‘Why Language?‘, is a critical component of this framework as it allows labelling of these patterns in a way that supports reflection, dissemination and reuse. Introducing space, and a language for space, into learning design alongside activities should not be overly complicated. Despite the conservative image of education, many teachers are often very active in exploring new approaches to teaching and evaluating their success. This will simply be extending that practice with new variables.

Creating suitable spaces

Suitable space from a pedagogic point of view is defined by its alignment to learning activities. Currently this requirement is often sidestepped by introducing the idea of flexibility. A flexible space doesn’t need alignment in its design because it can be aligned to any pedagogic requirement on the spot. Some flexibility is definitely useful and important, but too often flexibility is a fig leaf for project managers not to have to find out what the real requirements are, or for educators to take a shortcut in the articulation of their requirements.

The only way to create suitable space is to ensure that the design of these spaces is truly pedagogically lead and driven. Estates departments, local authorities and architects may implement these ideas and even help articulate them. They might also organise the general qualities of spaces (light, ventilation etc.). But the affordances and design of the space need to be driven by those who design learning. Meaningful engagement with a design process is not easy and will require a significant investment from educators. More challenging perhaps is that it would also constitute a significant shift in the power dynamics in most institutions. Both these complications are likely to lead to a lot of resistance if this change process isn’t scaffolded very carefully.

Allocation processes

For large and diverse organisations, such as universities, this is a major challenge. Part of this is again a communications problem: how do we make sure the timetabler understands the requirements of the teacher? A clear and common language can again be of great value: When you ask a timetabler for a ‘seminar space’ you should be able to trust that they understand this means a room where people face each-other in order to facilitate a plenary discussion. The timetabler should of course also know which of the available spaces actually qualifies as a ‘seminar room’ in that definition. None of this is extremely complicated, but it will require an alignment of often diverse and imprecise use of language (the same language that would be introduced under the first heading).


The allocation challenge is not just a communications problem though. It is also a planning challenge: How do we ensure that all pedagogic requirements of our courses can consistently be met. And this is where all 3 of these challenges are interrelated. A learning designer needs to be able trust that the space required their designs will be available when the course is delivered. If that trust isn’t there, which it often isn’t in universities, teaching will be designed towards a lowest common denominator, which is unlikely to lead to the best possible learning experience. Predicting these requirements over hundreds of modules with fluctuating enrolments from year to year is incredibly complicated. The complication becomes even more apparent when you turn the question around: How do we ensure that the spaces we design today will support the course we design and deliver over the next 10 years?


A ‘total’ solution is certainly not around the corner (unless it is cleverly hidden from my view). But I think that the development of a language that will help us critically think and communicate about the pedagogic qualities of a space will help us tackle the lower hanging fruit: A critical awareness amongst educators, and more effective allocation processes for space allocation and management.

Je Suis Charlie

As most people, I am appalled by the assault of free expression in France today. The best response to attempted censorship is rampant sharing on the internet. So there, please share widely and indiscriminately #JeSuisCharlie

If Muhammad returned …

If Muhammad returned …

Aligning pedagogy and space

There is an increasing interest in the relation between space and learning. But I wonder if this is really the right question, or whether we should focus on the relation between space and pedagogy instead?

Everyday natural learning occurs spontaneously as a response to our experiences. Changing those experiences can change what we learn. The relation between space and learning is often considered in this context: how does a change in the experience of space change our experience and in turn affect our learning? Unfortunately these investigations yield few significant reproducible results beyond the common sense notion that an environment that generally supports our well-being (not freezing, plenty of daylight, etc.) is also good for learning.

Learning in an education setting has a very specific property: It consists of events pedagogically designed with the intention to achieve defined outcomes. Unfortunately there is an inherent uncertainty between these designs and how they are realised in practice. This is because practice is not the result of design but rather a response to it (Wenger, 2011). Similarly learning could be seen as a response to an experience, rather then a direct result of it. The nature of these relations make it impossible to simply extract algorithms for optimised learning from accounts of learning (Goodyear, 2002). This, in part, is the reason why pedagogic practice varies so greatly. The perfect learning design just doesn’t exist (although very poor design certainly does!).

One way to mitigate against this uncertainty is by aligning design elements. Biggs (2011) argues that ‘constructively aligned’ teaching is likely to be more effective then unaligned because there is maximum consistency throughout the system. Biggs focuses his attention on the alignment between the successive steps in the teaching process: formulating goals, designing activities and designing how to assess outcomes. But we could look at the ‘system’ of learning design, and it’s ‘systemic integrity’ in another way:

Goodyear (2002) looks at learning design in a broader context. A learning situation consists not only of the learning activities, but it also exists within the context of a social and physical environment. A complete learning design therefore considers space and organisation as well as tasks. While Goodyears original diagram depicts these elements as fairly separate, I would consider them dimensions of an integral entity. I have created an adapted version of his diagram accordingly, which can be seen in the figure below.

Learning Design, adapted from Goodwin (2002)

Learning Design, adapted from Goodwin (2002)

Biggs’ argument on systemic integrity and alignment should also apply here. A design that does manage to align organisation, task and space is likely to lead to a more effective learning practice. Creating better spaces for education is perhaps not about understanding what the perfect classroom looks like. Perhaps it is about improving the ability of teachers to align space and task when they design their learning.


Biggs, J. & Tang, C., 2011. Constructively aligned teaching and assessment. In Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill, pp. 95–110.

Goodyear, P., 2002. Psychological foundations for networked learning. In C. Steeples & C. Jones, eds. Networked Learning: Perspectives and Issues. London: Springer, pp. 49–76.

Wenger, E., 1998. Synopsis: Design for Learning. In Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 225–229.

Re-Imagining Learning Spaces

Today I attended the EDUCAUSE ELI online fall focus sessions (it does roll of the tongue doesn’t it), titled “Re-Imagining Learning Spaces: Design, Technology, and Assessment”. I will spare you a long winded summary and reflection, and in stead collate some of the useful ideas and references. For those that are interested the events have an active twitter presence via #ELIFOCUS

FLEXSpace (Flexible Learning Environments eXchange) is something that already has received a lot of attention elsewhere. It’s a collection of case studies on learning spaces. The actual repository requires an account, but you can read all about the initiative as well as request that account on the project site.

Some very interesting research was presented from the University of Minnesota. The UoM has developed some great spaces. More interestingly thought, they’ve also done a lot of research on how these spaces work, and in particular the social and relational aspects. All of their ideas and findings are easily accessible via their Learning Spaces Research page.

Another great research resource is the survey wiki developed by Tanya Joosten from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The wiki contains a lot of the instruments that Tanya has used to research technology implementations in education.

Tomorrow’s session will focus on the Learning Space Rating System, which I actually reviewed on this blog in September. If the session leads to dramatic new insights I might have to expend on or amend that review.

The psychology of rules

I came across this interesting article form New Zealand, about a school that has gotten rid of all the little rules regulating their playground. The unexpected result: A safer school with more confident children.

Follow the rules

Follow the rules

It’s a pattern I’ve often observed. In the Information Commons we try and minimise rules and give students the ownership and responsibility for their space (have a look at our code of conduct). It isn’t a perfect solution, but largely it works well. Taking into account the volume of visitors (1.3M per year, and growing), we have surprisingly little behaviour problems, thefts etc.

I’ve thought about the dynamics of this a lot. A side effect of a rule it seems, is that it moves responsibility away from an internally motivated judgement to something external, generic and anonymous. There are 2 main risks linked to this. The first is that human judgement is far more versatile then a rule. It is almost impossible to define a rule that covers all possible circumstances adequately. The second problem is that we’ve removed the development of an internal motivation to moderate behaviour. People tend to be far more casual about braking an externally imposed rule, then an internally motivated behaviour.

When we find people are no longer always internally motivated to obey our rules, the response to that is often to introduce sanctions, an external motivation to comply. Sanctions and punishments however also introduce a new problematic side effect: The sanction now becomes the most ‘visible’ consequence of breaking the rule. In stead of weighing up what the effects of their actions are, people might now just consider whether the risk of incurring a sanction is a price worth paying for breaking a rule.

It’s a funny dynamic. Rules seem a great way to solve a problem on paper. But in my experience they seldom work as expected. That is not to say that all rules are bad of course, but we often are far too casual introducing them to solve a problem in my view. This school seems to have found an interesting solution where the group as a whole discusses and commits to a possible rule or guideline that is deemed to be required to solve a problem. This means people are still internally motivated and engaged with moderating their behaviour, which might circumvent the problem. I’m glad some research is being done into this, and great results like the outcome in this New Zealand school are achieved.