22 SES 06 B, Learning Contexts, Diverse Perspectives
In their review of international research evidence relating to the impact of the school environment on learning, Higgins and colleagues include the observation that, ‘Since different room arrangements serve different purposes, it is necessary for classrooms to have some degree of flexibility’ (Higgins et al., 2005: 7 and 28). Within higher education (HE), it is sometimes suggested that that flexibility is still more central, given requirements for high utilisation of space, the need for teaching and learning space to be suitable for a diversity disciplines and, increasingly, a desire for ‘innovation’ in approaches to learning.
Flexibility, however, is not a concept that is free of controversy. A flexible setting is only flexible within the boundaries of its design: a point made by the National Union of Teachers forty years ago in relation to the assumed flexibility of open plan space in British schools (NUT, 1974). There is also the issue of the balance between the flexibility provided by the physical environment and the concurrent flexibility that is therefore expected of users, both teachers and learners. Notably, working specifically within post-compulsory education, Boys contends that flexibility, as a concept to inform designing for learning, is ‘deeply flawed conceptually’ (Boys, 2011: 27) and argues that continued reference to it reflects an ‘inability to properly map learning onto space’ (Boys, 2011: 59).
This paper addresses this notion of flexibility in the HE context through presenting and reflecting on elements of a recent collaborative research and development project conducted within our university. The aim of this research was to explore students and staff experiences of the physical environment provided at Newcastle for HE learning, considering existing provision but also as a means to develop ideas for innovative spaces and usage. Our intention is to contribute understandings from a localised study to the research base within HE, which some researchers feel is lacking, specifically in relation to the learning environment (Temple, 2008), suggesting implications for institutions within and beyond Europe.
Our research questions are:
What is the existing situation, as experienced by students and teachers, of flexibility in this HE learning environment?
What are the needs and desires of users and managers of HE space?
What can new designs of furniture contribute in terms of flexibility and innovation in teaching and learning?
Alvesson, M. (2003) Methodology for close up studies – struggling with closeness and closure Higher Education 46: 167–193 Boys, J. (2011) Towards Creative Learning Spaces: Re-thinking the Architecture of Post-Compulsory Education Abingdon: Routledge. Duarte, A., Veloso, L., Marques, J. & Sebastião, J. (2015) Site specific focus groups: analysing learning spaces in situ, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 18(4): 381-398 Higgins, S., Hall, E., Wall, K., Woolner, P., McCaughey, C. (2005) The Impact of School Environments: A literature review. London: Design Council. NUT (England) (1974) Open Planning: A report with special reference to primary schools London: NUT (England) Temple, P. (2008) Learning spaces in higher education: an under-researched topic London Review of Education 6(3): 229–241
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