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Possibilities, Perceptions and Practices: Visibilising the Impact of Flexible Learning Spaces

Visiblising Pedagogies

In: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy
Author:
Lynne Connor School of Teacher Education, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Abstract

In recent years, school building policy in New Zealand has emphasised the development of flexible learning spaces (fls). Through deliberate design choices, flexible learning spaces are intended to promote student-centred and collaborative teaching practice, creating an innovative learning environment which is adaptable and future-focussed. However, this intended practice is not always realised. This article draws on data from a study examining the practice of seven English teachers working in a flexible learning space in one New Zealand secondary school. Using Lefebvre’s spatial triad of conceived, perceived and lived space, the author will argue that elements of the learning space are imbued with layers of visual symbolism, highlighting the tensions between the rhetoric and the reality of innovative practice in flexible learning spaces. While the policy intent of the flexible learning space is made visible through elements of its design, the use of the space by teachers and students indicates that their visual interpretations of these elements can serve to reinforce teaching and learning practices that flexible learning spaces are designed to disrupt. These findings highlight that teachers require increased spatial competence and critical awareness of visual learning space elements to maximise the potential of fls for innovative teaching and learning.

Feature
Feature

Lynne Connor’s article comprises a video, which can be viewed here.

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 8, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10045

  1. This article is part of the special topic ‘Visiblising Pedagogies’, edited by Andrea Delaune, Toni Torepe and Jayne White.

1 Introduction

The advent of the 21st century brought about an increased interest in school building design, with a focus on questioning established norms of classroom design that have been in place since the Industrial Revolution (Dovey & Fisher, 2014). To varying degrees, schools worldwide have explored the potential of open and flexible classroom space, in an attempt to tackle the challenges of future-focussed education. Large scale building projects in Portugal (Veloso et al., 2014), England (Patel, 2005) and Iceland (Sigurðardóttir & Hjartarson, 2016) have focussed on designing school buildings which reflect changing modes of education, emphasising flexible and varied use of space. In New Zealand, where this research was conducted, a number of schools were built under the mandate of the Ministry of Education’s property strategy between 2011 and 2021 (Ministry of Education, 2011), where large, open plan learning spaces were a requirement for any new or refurbished school buildings. While this requirement has now been relaxed under the latest iteration of the property strategy (Ministry of Education, 2019), the legacy of the earlier strategy remains, and such spaces are a common feature in many New Zealand state schools, from primary through to secondary. In addition, despite not being ruled by the ministry mandates, flexible spaces have also become common in many private schools, highlighting the prevalence of this trend in the New Zealand context.

The reason behind this approach to school architecture becomes evident when considering the shifting views surrounding the nature and purpose of education. Traditionally, education in New Zealand and other developed countries has been a standardized model which valued transmission modes of teaching and regarded a student’s success in relation to their ability to reproduce knowledge (Gilbert, 2007). While this was seen as appropriate for the industrial age, it is generally accepted that this model is no longer suitable for our modern, changing world (Fullan & Langworthy, 2014; Gilbert, 2007; Wood & Sheehan, 2012). Increased use of technology, globalisation and highly complex social issues combine to suggest an uncertain future which requires more flexible and responsive approaches to teaching and learning (Bolstad et al., 2012; Carvalho & Yeoman, 2018; oecd, 2018). This future-oriented approach is characterised by a focus on competences, such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving (Fullan & Langworthy, 2014; Saavedra & Opfer, 2012; Wood & Sheehan, 2012).

The importance of learning space design in enacting such change is highlighted by Gislason (2007) who argues that “a building is more than merely a physical structure, as it is also packed with visual and spatial messages about how to feel and act in a certain location” (p.6). However, this article will argue that these visual and spatial messages can be open to interpretation, thus rendering the relationship between space and activity somewhat more complex than suggested. Referring to data from a larger study into the use of learning spaces within one New Zealand secondary school and drawing on Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (Lefebvre, 1991), I will argue that the visual elements of learning space design communicate potentially conflicting messages that either support or constrain the enactment of pedagogical innovation.

2 Lefebvre’s Spatial Triad

Lefevbre’s (1991) spatial triad provides an insightful tool to analyse the use of space and illuminate gaps and tensions between the intent of a space and its lived reality. Lefebvre’s model represents a shift away from earlier beliefs that space is simply a container to be filled. Instead it explores the idea that space is socially produced, through the interaction of three modes: representations of space (conceived space), spatial practice (perceived space) and representational space (lived space). Lefebvre asserts that conceived space is the realm of architects, policy makers and planners who design the space and establish its assumed purpose: essentially, the imagined and ideal use of a particular space. In contrast, perceived space refers to the built form of the space and is the physical translation of the plans and policies; it is what we can see, hear and touch in the space which then influences the daily routines and common-sense practices that occur (Kellock & Sexton, 2018). However, such practices may or may not overlap with the ideology of the conceived space. Finally, lived space moves beyond the ideological and the daily practices, to consider the ways in which space is invested with symbolism and meaning. Lived space can be produced and modified over time, reflecting the feelings and responses of those who operate within it.

This triad indicates “a unity between physical, mental and social space” (Elden, 2004, p. 190). In relation to learning space design, this suggests that all three modes need to be in alignment for the intent of the space to be enacted successfully. However, tensions can arise when the conception outlined by the policies and architectural plans is not in line with the perceived and the lived space. To fully examine this unity, or lack thereof, it is firstly necessary to establish the nature of the spaces under discussion.

3 Learning Spaces: Definitions and Characteristics

The learning spaces under examination here are known by various terms, such as innovative learning environments, modern learning environments, flexible learning spaces, new-generation learning spaces and non-traditional learning spaces. In this article, the term flexible learning space is adopted, in keeping with the New Zealand Ministry of Education perspective that this term describes the physical space, while innovative learning environment refers to “the physical, social and pedagogical context in which learning occurs” (Ministry of Education, n.d., Understanding Pedagogy section, para. 4). This differentiation recognises that it is more than just the physical manifestation of a building design that leads to innovative practice. It is also in keeping with the theoretical perspective of Lefebvre’s triad and the notion that the three elements need to be aligned: in relation to the enactment of an innovative learning environment, the policy intent (conceived space), the flexible learning space (physical space), and the understandings and meanings apportioned by the users of the space (lived space) need to align in order for this to be successful.

However, regardless of the chosen terminology, these learning spaces share a range of characteristics which differentiate them from traditional classrooms which have been a feature of schooling since the industrial era. These characteristics and their distinction from those of traditional classrooms are outlined in Table 1.

T1

It has become accepted in the literature on contemporary learning space design that these characteristics communicate particular ideas about the intended pedagogical activity within each space. These ideas are summarised in the following section.

4 Theory of Learning Space Design

Dovey and Fisher (2014) and Edwards and Clarke (2002), referencing Foucault’s concept of the disciplinary function of space, argue that the traditional design of a school, with enclosed classrooms accessed from a single corridor, reinforces set ways of teaching and learning that are associated with rules, surveillance and control. The rigidity of these spaces reflects the industrial-era paradigm of education, which views learning and knowledge as one-dimensional and linear (Gislason, 2010). In addition, the traditional classroom layout of a teacher’s desk and whiteboard positioned at the front, with student desks arranged facing this “fireplace” position (Reynard, 2009, para. 1) emphasises teacher-centred pedagogy by reinforcing the teacher’s position of power in the hierarchical classroom relationship. Gislason (2007) has identified that such a teacher-led focus leads to a playing out of Freire’s “banking concept” of knowledge, where students are simply required to memorise the content presented, in order to reproduce this at some later date for assessment purposes. In summary, a traditional classroom is centred on teacher direction of student learning and has an emphasis on knowledge retention and reproduction.

In contrast, open and flexible spaces offer the prospect of flexible and dynamic ways of learning, are more in tune with a future-focussed view of education, and provide opportunities for collaboration, creativity, innovation and knowledge building (Alterator & Deed, 2013; Dovey & Fisher, 2014; Gislason, 2010). Features such as the layout of desks in groups, the lack of a single focal point and the variety of furniture all suggest multiple modes of learning. The openness and flexibility in these learning environments allow for disruption of traditional practices and encourage a change in the student-teacher relationship with greater opportunity for student agency and student-directed learning (Byers, 2017; Deed, 2018; Deed & Lesko, 2015). This loosening of teacher-student hierarchy allows for greater use of collaborative, knowledge-building pedagogies, with approaches such as inquiry or project-based learning being prevalent.

Through the perspective of Lefebvre’s triad, this idea of the relationship between space and pedagogy suggests an alignment between the conceived and perceived space. The physical elements of each space can be seen as a visual representation of the conceived notions of educational purpose in each context. However, this presents a somewhat dualistic view of learning environments. The suggestion that traditional classroom spaces lead to a teacher-centred and hierarchical approach, whilst flexible learning spaces initiate greater student agency and allow for collaborative knowledge building fails to take account of the third element of the triad: the symbolic, lived dimension.

The idea of a direct and causal link between learning spaces and the actions that take place within them is supported by some literature (Joint Information Services Committee, 2006; Oblinger, 2006) with the assertion that changed space will lead to changed practice. However, there are warnings elsewhere that such a simplistic notion is unhelpful and limiting, as it does not take into account the complex relationships at play in any classroom (Mulcahy & Morrison, 2017; Sailer, 2019). There is a need to consider the relationships between the environment and the individuals within it, and the way that character of a space changes as the practice within it changes. (Deed & Lesko, 2015; Gislason, 2010; Mulcahy, 2015; Tse et al., 2019a; Woolner et al., 2012). The key here is that space is not fixed, but is instead fluid and open to change and adaptation as individuals see fit. It is here that the notion of lived space becomes evident. The following exploration of existing research into learning spaces in practice sheds some light on the tensions created when lived space does not align with the conceived space.

5 Learning Spaces in Practice

The complex relationship between space and pedagogy can be highlighted by considering previous studies which have examined the use of flexible learning spaces and their impact on pedagogy. A common theme apparent in these studies is the difficulty of enacting sustained change. Byers et al. (2018) found that, while teaching practice changed to include more student-centred strategies in a flexible learning space, this was not consistent across all classes and teachers within the spaces. Investigations into the impact of large-scale school building projects in Portugal (Veloso et al., 2014), Iceland (Sigurðardóttir & Hjartarson, 2016) and England (Tse et al., 2019b) indicated that teacher-centred pedagogies remained dominant, despite schools being designed and built with the specific intention of disrupting this mode of teaching. Furthermore, a study of two Austrian schools regarded as being innovative suggested that any changes in practice were superficial and not embedded in classroom practice, with teachers retaining control of the learning and students expected to reproduce the knowledge provided to them (Schrittesser et al., 2014).

Various constraints have been suggested as reasons why innovative practice is so difficult to embed and sustain. These include inherent structures, particularly in secondary schools. where timetabling and the organising of the curriculum into discrete subjects impact on the fluidity of learning by requiring particular content to be learned at particular times (Bolstad et al., 2012; Lai, 2014). There are also concerns around the emphasis placed on assessment and the expectation that the main purpose of secondary schooling is to prepare students for such assessment (Fullan & Langworthy, 2014; Woolner et al., 2014; Wright, 2017). However, one of the more prominent explanations provided is that of teacher mindset, with the argument that teacher practice is informed by past experience which can be limiting when it comes to the implementation of innovative practice. Examples of this are identified by Saltmarsh et al. (2014) who describe teachers imposing routines and structure to cope with the uncertainty posed by flexible learning spaces, as well as attempting to ‘rewall’ spaces through the strategic positioning of furniture. What remains unexplored in these studies is detailed analysis of the specific elements of the physical environment and the symbolic interpretations placed on them by teachers, which may go some way to explain why the intent of the space is not being realised. It is through such an analysis that the present study intends to further understanding of the use of flexible learning spaces.

6 The Study

The data presented here was collected as part of a larger study which aimed to understand the influence of learning spaces on the practice of teachers in one New Zealand secondary school. This co-educational state school was situated in a satellite town of a larger city, with a roll of approximately 1000 students. Informed by actor-network theory (Latour, 2005) and using ethnographic methods of classroom observation and semi-structured interviews, data was collected over a period of six months. All participants were English teachers working in flexible learning spaces in the school which had undergone a significant rebuild in 2017; thus at the time of data collection the flexible learning spaces had been in use for three years. Four classes were observed once each week during the data collection period and each class was taught collaboratively by two of the participant teachers. Observations aimed to establish the affordances and limitations of the spaces, through careful examination of the practices occurring within them. The semi-structured interviews explored the participants’ interpretations and understandings of the intent of the space, as well as their opinions and feelings about working in the space. Interview transcripts, along with observation fieldnotes were coded using Nvivo software. This coded data was then analysed using the spatial triad framework to identify elements contributing to the conceived, perceived and lived spaces, and their interactions. Analysis of the data revealed that teachers’ conceptualisations of the space aligned with the policy intent, but that this was not always enacted in practice. Video 1 explores this tension in more detail.

7 Rhetoric to Reality – Interpreting the Built Environment

Video 1
Video 1

Rhetoric to Reality – Interpreting the Built Environment. (See here.)

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 8, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10045

8 Discussion

The analysis presented here highlights the complexity of the relationship between space and practice. While elements of the conceived space are apparent in the building design and in teachers’ understanding of the intent behind this, many of the spatial practices seem to contradict the accepted ideology of an innovative learning environment. Lehtiniemi and Trifuljesko (2023) suggest that the mental conceptions and the sensory perceptions of space are often in tension with one another: thus, the lived space is produced out of this tension and our attempts to make sense of it. This was apparent in the participants’ experiences as they expressed a desire to use the space as it was intended, but gravitated towards habitual practices which relied on routines and structures that were more akin to traditional learning spaces. This finding is in line with that of several other studies into teachers’ use of flexible learning spaces, with Deed and Lesko (2015) asserting that teachers fall back on such practices as they grapple with the uncertainties of the new space. However, this reasoning still leaves the question as to why teachers do so, particularly when they are clear about and supportive of the changed practices the space is intended to support, as was the case with this study’s participants. Further consideration of Lefebvre’s spatial triad offers some insight.

Lefebvre suggests that an already established space can be decoded or read in a particular way. Although this space and the concept of an ile is regarded as new, the combination of school policies, national education policy, timetables and physical design elements cause the space to be read in a way that aligns more closely with traditional notions of schooling where there are specific rules and expectations about how to behave. Furthermore, Lefebvre argues that space is claimed and modified through its use; however, in this case, the space is re-claimed. Users of the space gravitate towards physical elements of the space that connect to their long-held notions of what constitutes a school, a teacher or a learner. Teachers find ways to recreate authoritative space in the classroom, through their positioning and the placement of objects, and students respond to this through their seating choices. In addition, the seemingly common-sense routines, such as students lining up before entering the classroom, create a perceived space which projects competence and cohesion (Lefebvre, 1991); however, this competence and cohesion is more aligned to traditional concepts of schooling, rather than the innovative practice expected in this space.

It could be argued that, in the case of this particular school, the physical design was not far enough removed from a traditional school design to disrupt such ingrained practices. However, as previously discussed, it takes more than a redesigned building to redesign practice. McPherson and Saltmarsh (2017) refer to the idea of ‘haunting’, (p. 834) where relics of previous discourses about education compete with the new. This notion can be applied to Lefevbre’s conceived space, suggesting that, in fact, two conceived spaces are in competing existence: the space as conceived in the future-focused policy, and the broader, more traditional conception of schooling that remains in the consciousness of those who occupy the space. This tension leads to a constant negotiation and renegotiation of what it means to exist in this space, with the future-focused ideology being enacted to a greater or lesser extent, depending on which conceived space dominates.

9 Conclusion

The framing of space through the lens of Lefebvre’s spatial triad reinforces the idea that changed space is not enough to change practice. In addition, it highlights weaknesses in policies that fail to recognise the legacies within the concepts of school and education that cannot easily be changed. For more sustained and meaningful change to be enacted, teachers and schools need to be given the freedom to interrogate the conceived space, as well as develop greater critical awareness of space and its messages. Placing more emphasis on dissecting the ‘common-sense’ practices within a learning space and questioning their appropriateness for a particular space, opens up the possibility to enact a learning space where the conceived, perceived and lived elements are aligned.

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