Spaces and Learning

Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect. Not the obvious way, which is to tear down Paris and begin again, as Le Corbusier suggested in the 1920s, but another, more tolerant way; that is, to question how we look at things.1

For reasons I’m not entirely sure I understand, I am on three different university level committees this semester concerning themselves either entirely or to a limited degree with the question of what the classroom of the future ought to look like. This is a particularly pressing issue here at George Mason because we are getting ready to build a major extension on our library and two new large buildings, each of which will house at least 10 new classrooms (or “learning environments,” as one of the committees now calls them) . On top of that, we are in the midst of a reconsideration of our strategic plan, one piece of which was the “Future of Higher Education” conference held here at the beginning of the month.

It seems obvious to me that there must be some sort of relationship between learning and physical space, but the decisions we’re making on these committees involve hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, not to mention the fact that whatever we approve will be the classrooms those buildings have for a decade or more. So the stakes are high. For this reason, I want research, data, on the relationship between space and learning, before we make these decisions.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot concrete out there just yet. A few scholars have begun to take seriously the notion that it is worth knowing how the space our students are learning in has an impact on that learning. But, as Christopher Brooks points out, “the study of learning spaces remains in its infancy, [and so] considerable work remains to demonstrate empirically the impact of formal learning spaces on student learning outcomes and practices”.2 Instead of conclusions, Brooks offers questions such as:

  1. “What characteristics of formal physical spaces contribute to the accelerated pace of learning in an ALC [active learning classroom]?;
  2. How do the formal learning spaces affect students’ perceptions of their learning experiences?; and,
  3. How does variation in those practices and behaviours caused by variation in formal spaces shape student engagement?”

These are all good questions, but they don’t help me now, this semester, with the decisions we need to start making.

Other work I found told me a lot of things I could have figured out for myself: good ventilation, good lighting, muted paint colors, all promote learning where their opposite detracts from the learning happening in the classroom.3

More useful for my immediate needs was the work of Sawyer Hunley and Molly Schaller, who argue that “Academic engagement was encouraged by learning spaces that were comfortable, open, flexible, and appealing. For example, students described classes in one of the innovative spaces as requiring more accountability on their part because there were few physical barriers between themselves and faculty. Students were most engaged in settings and in academic activities that encouraged interpersonal interaction and were supported by technology”.4

All of the research I looked at, by the way, seemed in agreement that when confronted with the standard classroom design, most instructors defaulted to the traditional sage on the stage mode of teaching.

What would “comfortable, open, flexible, and appealing” classrooms look like? I think we can all agree what they don’t look like, and that is the classrooms that are all over our campuses — rows of desks or tables, many of which cannot be moved, that promote sitting still and listening.

I think the answer lies in that quotation from Venturi, Brown, and Izenour that I led off with. To figure out what kinds of classrooms we need going forward from 2012, we need to change the way we look at learning. To do that right, we have to be very clear what we mean when we say “learning” in a discipline like history. Once we’re clear on that, then I think we need to be very self-critical when it comes to how we look at what is and isn’t happening in our classrooms. And then, and only then, can we ask the right questions about how the space and the technology in that space is or isn’t promoting learning.

There are a few useful models to work from in physics. The Scale Up classroom developed at N.C. State and the TEAL classroom at MIT. Both of these rooms promote small and large group collaboration by using round tables that are linked to large screens on the wall — the round tables promote small group interaction, the large screens show the rest of the class what is happening in all corners of the room. And studies of learning in both classrooms offered strong evidence that students learning in these rooms learned more content and acquired deeper levels of understanding of that content than students taking the same class in a traditional classroom.

Here’s a chance to look at learning in a different way. Take a look at this picture of students learning in this space and you’ll see the interactions taking place, but you’ll also see lots of empty space between the group tables. When we try to see learning happen, we don’t tend to look at open space. We tend to look at students. What would it be like to have that degree of comfort, openness, and flexibility in our classrooms? How would the learning change?

That amount of open, flexible, and comfortable space is almost impossible to come by on our campus. More commonly, we cram the maximum number of desks into a room so that we can maximize our productivity (teach more students at once) rather than maximize the learning that takes place. Also, we are under the gun financially and can expect to be under that gun for at least a decade, if not longer. Given that reality, how can we reconcile what we know — that open, comfortable, flexible, and appealing spaces help to maximize learning — with the need to teach ever more students with fewer and fewer resources?

That, my friends, is a political problem at a state supported institution like Mason. Without a new commitment of resources from the legislature or a sudden and unexpected infusion of cash from donors we haven’t even met yet, we can’t afford to create classrooms that maximize learning, because we won’t be teaching enough students per class session to balance our budget.

I think the best we’ll be able to accomplish in my various committees is the creation of a few new style classrooms in each of our soon to be built buildings. We have our own version of the Scale Up classroom opening in the fall, but it is a large room (70+ students) and will be mostly dedicated to science and engineering courses. Digital humanities courses are generally taught in smaller sections, but I think it’s fair to say, given the budget realities, that we won’t be able to count on more than a couple smaller rooms like the Scale Up room that we can use.

[NB: My colleague Kim Eby sent me this link today to more resources on this topic.]

  1. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form, p. 3 []
  2. D. Christopher Brooks, “Space matters: The impact of formal learning environments on student learning,” British Journal of Educational Technology (2010): 7 []
  3. Olle Sköld, “The Effect of Virtual Space on Learning: A Literature Review,” First Monday, 17/1-2 (January 2012) []
  4. “Assessing Learning Spaces” in  Diana G. Oblinger, ed. Learning Spaces, EDUCAUSE, 2006: 13.9 []

2 thoughts on “Spaces and Learning

  1. Liz

    Yeeeeees! I have been saying (mostly to myself and friends/former co-workers, and that awkward COMM100 test-out speech) that it’s a shame that academia hasn’t been borrowing from corporate adult learning mechanisms. College students, especially at GMU, are more like adult learners than the high school / adolescent students that “traditional” pedagogy targets.

    I am not surprised that you are a proponent of active learning spaces. 😉

    You might consider picking the brains of someone at Langevin: I don’t have any personal contacts there now to recommend — it’s been about three years since I’ve worked in the field and my cert class was in ’06, I think — but based on my experience, they would be excited.

  2. Pingback: History Spaces | edwired

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