Town Hall I ~ The Design of Learning Spaces: Perspectives from Across Fields and Disciplines

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Review by Christian Smith

Panelists
Kathleen Blake Yancey, Florida State University
Russell Carpenter, Eastern Kentucky University
Edward D. Gomes, Jr., Duke University
Susan Whitmer, Herman Miller
Robert Beichner, North Carolina State University

Given the theme of this year’s conference, the first Town Hall appropriately opened the conference with a thoughtful discussion of space and design in our educational practices. Due to the varied backgrounds of the speakers this was discussed from a variety of perspectives, though—by the end—a common theme did emerge: the need for spaces that were adaptable to a variety of pedagogical goals and could accommodate student difference.

The first speaker, Kathleen Blake Yancey, opened with a discussion of the newly renovated William Johnston Building on Florida State’s campus. Yancey noted that this particular building—with its traditional 19th century exterior and its very 21st century interior— is indicative of the tensions that exist in education with regards to technology and materials.  Discussing the innovative spaces she has worked with and in, including the Digital Studio housed in the Johnston Building, Yancey notes that they were all renovated spaces and renovation itself can be a useful metaphor. We are all, as educators, called to renovate the structures—physical and otherwise—we work within.

The next speaker, Russell Carpenter, discussed his experiences directing the Noel Studio for Academic Creativity at Eastern Kentucky University. Much of Carpenter’s early experience in that role was spent considering the kinds of spaces that facilitate creative and critical thinking. For Carpenter, this meant spaces that would allow students to work alone and in a variety of group configurations. It also meant spaces that could easily incorporate low and high-tech tools into student work. By designing such spaces, Noel Studio  would be “inviting, engaging, inspiring, and intuitive” for both students and instructors. Towards the end of his talk, Carpenter asked the audience to think of the kind of immersion often experienced in digital environments and how this experience might be replicated in our physical learning environments. During the discussion, projected images from the Noel Studio demonstrated just how that particular space was designed to provide an immersive learning experience for students and faculty at EKU.

The third speaker, Edward Gomes, discussed Duke University’s innovative teaching and learning center, The Link. Inspired by the interior spaces of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gomes prompted us to think about the kinds of occupational spaces our students will inhabit after college. Gomes observed that such spaces are increasingly allowing workers to simply “sit and be and do,” as we become more conscious of the relationship between environment and creative productivity. As Gomes walked the audience through images of The Link we could see that it was geared towards private reflective spaces—one such space showed students working feet-up seated in front of a wide green vista—as well as areas for collaborative group work. One notable image showed a group of students who—after filling several white boards in the room—continued to write on the windows! Gomes ended by noting the importance of first observing activities of instructors and students and then designing multi-purpose spaces that can both accommodate those activities and anticipate how they might be used in unexpected ways—like windows that can easily double as writing surfaces.

Part of the research and design team at Herman Miller, Susan Whitmer, spoke next and followed Gomes’s call for the importance of research when designing a learning space. According to Whitmer, we must identify who will be using the environment and how they use the environments they are currently in. Noting the relationship between particular learning environments and larger ecological issues, Whitmer discussed the need for learning spaces that are adaptable, social, stimulating, healthful, resourceful, and sustainable.

The last speaker for this Town Hall was NC State’s own Robert Beichner who discussed the Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies, or the SCALE-UP project. SCALE-UP is a nationwide project to redesign large enrollment science and engineering classrooms that will allow for greater collaboration and interaction between students and instructors. One notable example of a SCALE-UP environment is M.I.T.’s Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) project. Beichner discussed how students were able to configure within SCALE-UP spaces and the pedagogical affordances this allowed. His presentation also demonstrated the many ways students could use SCALE-UP spaces for things simply not possible in conventional classrooms—like the lecture hall we were  presently sitting in, a space that Beichner humorously observed only facilitated “distance learning.”

The Town Hall ended with a brief Q&A during which Kathleen Blake Yancey noted that working within innovative spaces may mean that we have to re-think and re-configure our current assessment models. For me, Yancey’s comment demonstrates the profound link between space and pedagogy and the changes needed if collaboration and shared knowledge production become the prominent modes of learning in education.

Christian Smith is a doctoral candidate in the Composition and Rhetoric program at the University of South Carolina. His research investigates the intersection between rhetoric, media, and cognitive studies.

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