Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Space Strategies for the New Learning Landscape

It takes a great deal of heavy duty stimulus before I can manage to have anything like an idea. It is testimony to the clarity and innovative thinking to be found in this piece from Educause that I found myself having a number of ideas even before I'd finished it.
It is an HE focused paper but has a great deal within of use to all who have any involvement or interest in the secondary schools rebuilding programme, BSF. You can download it from
The analysis of learning spaces that maps the specificity (spectrum from single-use to multi-use) against the formality (spectrum from informal/unscheduled to formal/scheduled) on the x and y axes of a graph was very thought-provoking. (page 2)

It is an analysis that I think would reveal unintended patterns within the space planning going on in some BSF projects. While secondary schools are going to need a large number of formal scheduled spaces, the new approaches to curriculum and learning do indicate a need for some informal and unscheduled spaces.

The author, Shirley Dugdale, advocates a 'Learning Landscape' approach to building design. This encompasses "the total context for students’ learning experiences and the diverse landscape of learning settings available today—from specialized to multipurpose, from formal to informal, and from physical to virtual." The goal is to "acknowledge this richness and maximize encounters among people, places, and ideas, just as a vibrant urban environment does." In HE students will learn most of their stuff outside the lecture theatre and seminar room, so the thinking makes a lot of sense in that environment. My understanding is that is what BSF is trying to help young people develop towards during their secondary school experience. If I'm right, then this paper should have some important insights for BSF.

To make life easy Shirley explains her top strategies for getting this done. The following ten are described in the main section of the paper.
"1. Analyze the whole campus as learning space.
2. Develop insights from user engagement.
3. Plan to support multiple types of learning.
4. Leverage space strategies to enable experimentation.
5. Leverage growth in hybrid courses to gain improved space utilization.
6. Seek strategic partnerships to develop informal learning space.
7. Consider diffuse vs. centralized distribution of functions.
8. Link space performance to learning assessment.
9. Develop workplace settings that foster learning organizations.
10. Recognize learning space beyond the campus."

These ideas stood out.
In relation to the first of these strategies Shirley asserts "In the future, space types are more likely to be designed around patterns of human interaction than around the specific needs of particular departments, disciplines, or technologies." Which in schools might mean, design in less of those single use spaces like science labs and more highly flexible rooms, because technology is making it easier to do experiment-type stuff with ICT in someones front room (perhaps only virtually but you get the drift). But if the spaces aren't specialised around content or subject based categories, what? Shirley thinks that the answer is "Multiple Types of Learning". She offers the following taxonomy.
  • "collaborative, with active learning and group work,
  • blended, with learning and other activities happening anywhere/anytime, enabled with mobile technology,
  • integrated and multidisciplinary,
  • immersive, with simulated or real-world experiences, and
  • hybrid, combining online with faceto-face learning activities, augmented with mixed-reality experiences."
For schools this means, I'd guess, that they need to ensure that the range of spaces they are planning allows for all of these learning experiences. That doesn't just mean the rooms, but also the spaces between them and around. For example she makes the following very clever observation "Food can be a powerful attractor for social learning, providing destinations for diverse campus groups to cross paths and connect. If these destinations are designed as compelling places, they can support learning discourse and the sharing of experiences, as well as strengthen community bonds." How many schools would consider the dining room as a learning space? They probably do, outside the eating times.

The paper suggests that the timetable is not a very helpful tool for learning. Here's why. A sequence of lessons will include a variety of types of learning. Yet the timetable fixes all of these to particular rooms for the whole year, regardless of what learning type each lesson might be. Perhaps devolving responsibility for individual rooms would be better. If the school is divided into sections for each department then in each section there could be spaces for all the different types of learning. Students would know which section they were going to at lesson change-over. The department would manage allocation of spaces to classes based on what the teacher had planned to do.

Another solution to this is build in enough flexibility into each room to allow reconfiguration between lessons for different learning types. The problem with this is teachers finding the energy between lessons to move around furniture and ICT.

I was impressed just by the title of the 4th strategy: "Leverage Space Strategies to Enable Experimentation". As Shirley says "learning space strategy is more likely to stimulate institutional change if it can make a variety of teaching settings available to a greater number of faculty". In other words like the chicken and egg you need both the innovative spaces and the willing staff before any innovation is possible.

Number 8 "Link Space Performance to Learning Assessment" is actually about evaluating the effectiveness of the learning spaces. The paper asserts that "Institutions need to develop an ongoing process for researching students’ and faculty members’ experiences with learning spaces". It is hard to disagree. This only makes sense if the buildings that come out of BSF have the adaptability to be reconfigured in response to the insights arising from such evaluative work.

For me, the most important idea developed by this paper is that school designers need to be thinking about the building and its environs as an entire learning space. It won't do to envision students independently learning throughout the school day if the designers only consider the rooms as learning spaces. BSF needs to look at the variety of types of learning that the building will support, at the balance of formal versus informal spaces and at the number of single use versus adaptable and flexible spaces. I have a hunch that getting these balancing tricks right will be a very important part of creating a successful school building.

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