I want to understand what makes complex learning environments sing, and help others to curate convivial spaces for learning.
I am an ethnographer who is endlessly fascinated by how people use tools to learn.
Raised by a mother who was by nature and training a teacher, and a father who divided his time between the bush and commercial property development, much of my childhood was spent watching and waiting. In our house birds, plants, animals, currencies and financial markets all had names, characteristic patterns of behaviour and natural habitats. Holidays were spent in worlds conjured up by the books we read in solitude, or in the National Parks of Southern Africa where the exhilaration of coming face to face with the largest of land mammals was tempered by the interminable wait for a particular bird to appear and sit long enough for my father to photograph it.
It was during these times, sitting in enforced stillness and silence, that I learnt to soak up my environment – to differentiate between the everyday calls of the bush and a rising chorus of alarm that announced an intruder, and to discern the difference between the scent of the bush warming in the sun and the scent of vegetation disturbed by animal activity, ever alert to the one thing that changed in an ever-changing landscape. This might be the characteristic flick of a tail, the movement of a familiar shape in the distance, or the rhythm of flight played out in the shadow of a bird as it passed overhead.
Half a world away and now a parent myself, it was my sons’ experiences of learning, both in and out of school, that propelled me into a space in which thinking about how and where we learn was not only valid, but valuable. And, having found a space in which they flourished, I was driven by the need to understand what made this particular learning environment sing.
In short, it was the changes in place-based learning environments precipitated by mobile technologies that sent me back to university. But it’s the challenges associated with designing, curating, and participating as a productive member of these vibrant learning ecologies that keeps me here.
I have recently accepted a Senior Lecturer (Learning Spaces) position, in the office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Education), at the University of Sydney. With more than 1,500 hours of observational research under my belt this feels like the beginning of the third act. To those from whom I have learned, to those I currently learn alongside, and to those from whom I am yet to learn—thank you.
We never educate directly, but indirectly by means of the environment. Whether we permit chance environments to do the work, or we whether we design environments for the purpose makes a great difference.
John Dewey (1916/1938)