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
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.
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.