Learning space

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Draft 1

Editor: Brett Bligh, Learning Sciences Research Institute, University of Nottingham

Contributors: Mike Sharples, Learning Sciences Research Institute, University of Nottingham


The term ”learning space” highlights the mutually supporting ways in which learning as an activity and space as an environment construct and modify each other. Space mediates our thinking and is a vehicle for our objectified thoughts; it both shapes and is shaped by practice. Learning space is the product of design processes that rely on assumptions of relationships between forms of space and practices of learning. The ‘space’ component is intended to refer to physical space, although its meaning has been extended to include virtual and conceptual space.

Comments on the history

The concept of learning space has developed from many fragmented antecedents. The expression entered the lexicon in its currently understood sense around 2000. A common approach was to discuss the affordances inherent in design and to see space and learning as related representationally. For example, Monahan (2002) argues, firstly, that space should be ‘flexible’ in order to meet learners’ sensory and mobility needs and, secondly, that designers should adopt built pedagogy as their design philosophy, based on the need to influence individuals’ behavior and action through design. Other approaches have emerged that place increasing emphasis on contextual factors and the multi-voiced nature of learning activity. Boys (2011, p.81) argues that learning space should be understood as a series of intersecting aspects:

Engagement and adaptation: how people understand and are affected by their environment, and how they use space and transform it through their use;
Spatial routine: those everyday social and spatial practices which affect, and are understood by, others within a community;
Design: established repertoires of spatial designs and the process and outcome of attempted innovation.

Some use space almost entirely as a metaphor for how individuals manage their life-worlds (e.g. Savin-Baden 2008).

A parallel strand of work emphasizes that use and perception of learning space is intertwined with institutional visions and politics. Recently, some work has sought to shift the granularity of discussion about learning space, for example to focus on Universities as campuses. Neary et al. (2010) introduced the expression “learning landscapes”, suggesting that such spaces can embody the ’idea’ of the University as an institution and that campuses can be understood according to a profile, mapping measures of expression, efficiency and effectiveness against institutional visions.

Related terms

Classroom Design, Context, Learning Environments, Communities of Practice, Learning Design, Learning Landscapes.

Translation issues


Disciplinary issues

Learning space is an interdisciplinary field of enquiry by its very nature and remains fragmented across a range of perspectives. Van Note Chism (2002, pp. 7-9) catalogues several such perspectives that remain in evidence nearly a decade later, including:

- Basic research about space, perception and related factors, usually occurring within disciplines such as psychology and engineering. Factors studied include the effects of temperature, noise, etc. on performance, and individuals’ attachment to place (Gallagher 1993).
- Theoretical perspectives on space and learning, emerging from disciplines such as sociology, philosophy and education (e.g. Boys 2011; Vavoula & Sharples 2009).
- Design specification literature, often a product of service practitioners. Such work may often make only slight reference to other literature or else seek to derive its guidelines from basic research positioned as an authority.
- Investigating the impact of physical arrangements on learning, encompassing a range of work that investigates the processes and outcomes of fine-grained variations in classroom design.

A disciplinary perspective on learning space work that is not covered by Van Note Chism’s categories is phenomenological investigation, which is popular within architecture. A prominent example is Juhani Pallasmaa (1995/2005), who emphasises the importance of considering the holistic sensory experiences that occur when encountering space. Work adhering to each of these perspectives often seems to progress in isolation rather than either mutually informing or competing with other vantage points, resulting in ongoing fragmentation in how learning space is conceptualized. Boys (2011), for example, discusses at length the tensions between architects’, estates planners’ and educationalists’ conceptions of learning space. Such points could be made with equal validity about technology designers, learners, teachers, support staff, and policymakers.

Key references

[1] Boys, J. (2010) Towards Creative Learning Spaces: Re-thinking the architecture of post-compulsory education. London: Routledge.

[2] Gallagher, W. (1993) The Power of Place: How our surroundings shape our thoughts, emotions and actions. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Library.

[3] Monahan, T. (2002) Flexible Space & Built Pedagogy: Emerging IT Embodiments. Inventio, 4(1), 1-19.

[4] Neary, M., Harrison, A., Crellin, G., Parekh, N., Saunders, G., Duggan, F., Williams, S., & Austin, A. (2010) Learning Landscapes in Higher Education: Clearing pathways, making spaces, involving academics in the leadership, governance and management of academic spaces in higher education. Lincoln: Centre for Educational Research and Development.

[5] Pallasmaa, J. (2005) The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. London: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

[6] Savin-Baden, M. (2008). Learning Spaces: Creating opportunities for knowledge creation in academic life. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

[7] Van Note Chism, N. (2002) A Tale of Two Classrooms. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 92, 5-12.

[8] Vavoula, G. & Sharples, M. (2009) Meeting the Challenges in Evaluating Mobile Learning: A 3-level Evaluation Framework. International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning, 1(2), 54-75.