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Are You Teaching/Learning in a Space or Place?

Are You Teaching/Learning in a Space or Place? Banner Image

Recently I shared how the quality of space can affect learning outcomes in my article entitled “Outside the Curriculum: The Effect Environment has on Learning”. The building condition, HVAC systems, and acoustics were just a few items discussed which can affect student and staff outcomes. It’s clear from the research presented that modern, well maintained and comfortable environments do support improved outcomes for students and staff. 

The Purpose of the Learning Environment

When designing schools, we are often told that learning can happen anywhere, and I agree with that premise; however, I would like to explore how the curriculum, the subject matter and the pedagogy can be affected by the space they reside in. I contend that the design of a space, the physical layout of the room and the amenities provided within are just as important to produce positive outcomes.

Schools constructed in the last century, the one that is only 18 years in the past, and some schools yet today, support teacher-led pedagogies and curriculum that is delivered by the “cells & bells” model, the “sage on the stage”. Curriculum and pedagogy are forced into these “cells” with little acknowledgment of what is really needed to support programming, pedagogy and ultimately student learning.

A recent study by the Ministry of Education in New Zealand titled “The impact of physical design on student outcomes” points out that flexible learning environments designed to support specific programming found a 17% increase in student achievement. Today space needs to support the curriculum and pedagogy being delivered. We call this Educational Adequacy; a space designed to support the program, curriculum or pedagogy that is being delivered. Think of it this way, you have certain rooms in your house that are designed for a specific purpose: 

  • A bedroom is for sleeping, not for washing clothes.
  • A bathroom is for…well you know what it’s for, it’s not for not cooking.
  • A living room is for gathering, it’s not for parking cars.

You get the picture; a space should support the function. The same must be said for learning spaces. Think how efficient teaching, mentoring, coaching and learning could be if the space was designed to directly address what was happening in the space, what was happening in that place. The Ministry of Education of New Zealand also points out that

“Flexible learning spaces are intended to support the adaptable delivery of teaching and learning programs to meet the learning needs of all students. In order for teachers to maximize the potential of these learning spaces, the space must be explicitly considered as part of planning and delivery. This should not be limited to the space influencing which pedagogies will be most effective but should also recognize that teachers can actively configure or utilize the space to support the learning program being planned. When teachers do not use teaching and learning practices that are suited to the learning space, flexible learning spaces are less successful”. 

The design of a space is to invoke a behavior or methodology of use. When the space does not fit the intended use, a response other than the one anticipated is most likely to occur. This study also identifies how furniture is a key consideration for both student and teacher comfort and the impact of uncomfortable furniture can have a negative impact.

Space vs. Place

There is always a possibility that there will be a disconnect between a designed space and how it’s utilized. To better be positioned for success, teachers and students need to understand the intent of the space, the expectations of how learning and teaching will occur. Deakin University’s research entitled “The connections between learning spaces and learning outcomes: people and learning places?” suggests that place is more important than space. 

So is one more important than the other? Space? Place? I would suggest these 4 questions derived from the article “Power of Place” be considered when thinking about a space, a place and what it needs to be:

  • What is this place about? Do you comprehend the purpose?
  • How does this place make me feel? Do I feel secure?
  • Who am I here? What is my role in this context?
  • How does this place call on me to think and act?

As you consider space as place I would also suggest you consider how place needs to adapt to accommodate the pedagogies of today. Are “bells” required? Are teachers and other student influencers “coaches”? Are student movements between spaces to “get” content still valid? And finally, consider how the physical space can affect student and staff outcomes.

Robert Vajgrt, AIA, ALEP, CDT, LEED AP

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