Judging a book by its cover…

Judging a book by its cover…

or a building by its exterior.

I spent last week in Melbourne. One of the first things I noticed was how happy many of their buildings are. The one in the image above is home to an architectural practice, and as I sipped coffee at the cafe across the street I wondered if they were responsible for some of the other colorful building I had noticed around the city.

I tried to imaging what it felt like to look out onto the world through this quirky exterior—how the shadows cast by this colorful exoskeleton altered the quality of light on the inside, which lead me to think about the relationship between the outside of a building and what goes on inside? More specifically, what should the outside of building designed to accommodate learning say to us as we pass by, and how does its form shape the learning it accommodates?

I was in Melbourne to speak with people teaching in the new home for the Faculty of Arts—Arts West—at the University of Melbourne. Having entertained these thoughts over coffee, my first impulse was not to stop and consider its exterior, but to climb the stairs and find a vantage point from where I could look out onto the world beyond. But I’m going to present you with the ‘cover’ first. Because, if I were to judge this particular book by it’s cover I’m not certain I’d have picked it up to read, let along be so willing to admit to being entranced by the perspective it gave me on the world. So, the wavy metal on the left, in the image below, is the exterior of the new Arts West building.


Below is one of the views from inside. From this perspective it all makes perfect sense. This ornate exterior is a giant diffuser, creating learning spaces flooded with natural light and a gentle sense of movement across the views of an ever-changing landscape.


Many of the people I spoke with mentioned the abundant light in these teaching spaces, and I spent hours thinking about how the landscape changed as I climbed the stairs to the sixth floor. I have to admit to becoming slightly obsessed with my ability to navigate the inside of this building based on what I could see outside—how much of the clocktower, trees or various buildings were visible as I rounded a corner or emerged from a secluded informal learning space.

But what does any of this have to do with learning, and why should we care about light or expansive views onto the world outside—when this is a space for learning?

The University of Salford’s, HEAD (Holistic, Evidence and Design) Project, lead by Professor Barrett (2013), demonstrated that 16% of the annual variation in progress of 3,766 primary school students could be attributed to the physical characteristics of their learning environments. Stated another way, if one were to move an average student from one of the least effective classrooms to one of the most effective classrooms, this change in learning environment could be expected to contribute to an advancement of 1.3 sub-levels per student, per year. Taking into account that the typical student in this study made progress equivalent to 2 sub-levels per year, this change is marked. And, whilst no single factor was dominant in this muli-level model, it is interesting to note that of the seven most significant factors (light, temperature, air quality, flexibility, ownership, color and complexity) it was light that ranked highest.

In the Clever Classrooms (Barrett et al., 2015) summary report, the researchers note that “Good natural light helps to create a sense of physical and mental comfort, and its benefits seem to be more far-reaching than merely being an aid to sight.” They also make a series of helpful recommendations about how to create learning environments that make the most of naturally available light.

But I want to know how light makes a difference to learners in any given learning space. Is it sufficient to assert natural light as a basic human need? And, if so, how do we balance this need with the needs of the digital classroom? Or more broadly speaking, how do we make decisions that take in the learning whole: set design (designed environment, tools and texts), social design (roles, divisions of labour and community) and epistemic design (task) and the learning theory that underpins it (Goodyear & Carvalho, 2014)?




Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Davies, D.F., & Barrett, D.L. (2015). Clever Classrooms: Summary report of the HEAD Project. Retrieved from University of Salford Manchester website: http://www.salford.ac.uk/cleverclassrooms/1503-Salford-Uni-Report-DIGITAL.pdf

Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J., & Kobbacy, K. (2013). A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning. Building Environment 59, 678–689. doi:10.1016/j.buildenv.2012.09.016

Goodyear, P., & Carvalho, L. (2014). Framing the analysis of learning network architectures, in: L. Carvalho, & P. Goodyear (Eds.), The Architecture of Productive Learning Networks (pp. 48–70). New York, NY, Routledge.


The story behind the story

The story behind the story

People like stories. The stories we tell ourselves help us to make sense of the world.

In my last post, I briefly celebrated the creation of a new green space on campus.  It was my interpretation of what I saw. An unloved building pulled down and in its place, not a shiny new building, but an open rectangle of grass. I marvelled that the land had been valued for its capacity to act as a momentary horizontal pause, between buildings, and not for its potential to accommodate vertically enclosed work space. All of which is true, but there is more to this story.

The ugly unloved building actually had a name. The Transient Building. Erected in 1945 in the inter-war functionalist style, it was considered a temporary means of accommodating a rapid increase in student numbers, generated by the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme for returned ex-servicemen. The digital historical record of the building includes mentions of its flexible and functional architectural properties, its persistence despite its name, news of its demise, a flurry of images precipitated by its demise and even a dedicated FaceBook page.

It seems that I am not the only person interested in the story of this space. Ten days ago, as I wandered past considering the practicalities of setting up a time-lapse camera to see how people colonised it over the course of a week, a month, a year……when I saw someone else setting up a tripod. I stopped to chat and found that they were taking photographs for an article in SAM (The Sydney Alumni Magazine).

I’ve not thought anymore about how to set up a time lapse camera. I got diverted, thinking about how to communicate interest rather than surveillance. But I have had further cause for celebration. The other morning as I rounded the corner, I came to a halt. For, there on the grass, were two formations that were instantly recognisable to me as learning-circles.


The story of ‘the learning circle’ deserves a blog of its own.  But for today, my intention was simply to recored their emergence on the green rectangle, where the transient building had stood for over 70 years.

Perhaps progress is non-linear and sometimes requires the intentional creation of open space into which learners are free to move.

habits & HABITATS

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habits & HABITATS: An ethnography of learning entanglement – in PhD form – is finally finished.

Four years in the making it will be accessible via The Sydney eRepository, shortly. Clicking on the image above will take you to an interactive time line that will give a feel for the learning environment that inspired my work.

I am indebted to all who made this journey possible: staff, students and parents alike.

Ethics approval for this work was grant under the following HREC Approval Number: Ref. 14289. NBCS, the school in which this study was conducted is well known for its innovative approach to learning and teaching, and has asked to be named. Whilst the school is identified, people have been given pseudonyms and images include only those for whom I have signed consent.

Present at a distance and distant when present…

The past two and a half years have been punctuated with moments in which I have become acutely aware of being both the object of my research – the learner; and the subject of the enterprise of – learning. So it comes as no surprise that the 2014 Networked Learning Conference provided me with pause for thought. In this post I will reflect on the experience of learning with and from the same people: at a distance and in person.

Before the conference began the organisers hosted a number of online ‘Hot Seats’. More often than not I was an active but silent participant. I did engage and if learning is measured by change in the learner – I did learn. This learning was unseen, happening at a distance in silent asynchronous dialogue with people unknown. And it was not until I was invited to contribute something of myself, in the form of a sketch detailing my learning practice that I was visibly drawn into the online dialogue. I am interested in the places of learning and how they shape the activity of learning and this was an invitation to turn the mirror on myself. It was also something I could talk ‘knowledgably’ about in a legitimate academic space in a way that, somewhat inadvertently, made me knowable.

I followed the contributions of others to this thread with interest and – in an odd sort of way I came to know those with whom I ‘chatted’. Many of the themes of our asynchronous dialogue remain delightfully unresolved in my mind and I continue to mull over them at odd intervals.

Today, however, I’d like to reflect on the experience of being physically co-present and yet mentally distant. This is in no way intended as a criticism – it is merely an observation. For dialogues are two sided and I was at liberty to initiate conversation – and yet I didn’t?

It was not until the conclusion of the conference that I returned to the thread and rereading it I noticed the quality of the exchange. I think we often equate physical proximity with higher degrees of engagement. Consciously or unconsciously we track eye contact, gestures and posture looking for clues about when to speak, how to speak and how are we are being received. All of these traces are apparently absent in asynchronous dialogue and yet I had had the opportunity to speak in person with these very same people. The ones with whom I had shared a lively, engaging and often personal dialogue – and, in the most part, I didn’t?

I think this is interesting on at least two levels. First, there was something about the nature of that task that is worth exploring; and second, our characterisation of dialogue at a distance, as being distant – some how impoverished – needs revision.

I’ve hinted at why I was initially drawn in. It was something that interested me and I felt I could speak with both authenticity and personal authority. It invited personal reflection on changes in practice in a world in flux. It gave me an opportunity to be known at a distance. Philippa Sheail, spoke about a project in which a Google map was used to encourage geographically distant participants in an online course to introduce themselves. They were not asked to place a marker that pined them, immutable and immobile, to their official places of residence. Rather, they were invited to populate the map with short, multi sensorial traces of their lived experiences of the places that were important to them. Examples included a note marking a favorite run, complete with the ability to visually travel this path at a distance, using ‘street view’. A second contained two images and an audio file: the first a desk complete with books, papers and a black cat, the second a view from the window alongside the desk and the audio file carried with it the sounds of the black cat purring.

So I have something to say about why I think these types of task are valuable in bridging distance. As to our notions about presence at a distance, and distance when present – well, I will have to think about that a bit more. Suffice to say – they are not as fixed as we may have once thought?

Lense three: Observing the role of the curator

Mr Alexander arrived five minutes before the lesson started. Using furniture, he created a teaching zone. He was visible to the students as they entered the building – his eyes smiling as he waited for them to join him. He greeted them, and as a critical mass was reached, he began talking to those present. He went over what had been done and as the last students took their seats he detailed the work for the day. There was something about the way he managed the transition that was both welcoming and expectant.

On receiving their instructions, the students were free to choose, within limits, where to work. They were not shushed into silence, nor were their movements stilled. And, as Mr Alexander moved amongst them, I could see him looking for signs, and listening for sounds that prompted redirection and encouragement from him. He gave general instructions and kept track of time. With the final reminder that time was up, pairs dissolved and the group reformed.

Having actively co-opted the technical help of two students Mr Alexander was free to gather the group and watch with them, as their digital montage played before them on the whiteboard. In delegating, he had become one of the audience, yet he remained their ‘pied-piper’ as he complimented them on their work and sent them on their way.

The pull of the narration is strong, an end fitting? There is, however, a silent presence that has not been acknowledged. Mr Alexander is part of a larger whole, one in which he is encouraged to explore, experiment, fail and try again. He is part of a community which works on ameliorating the effects of constraints in the learning environment.

And in that, we seem to have come full circle, from the particular to the general. We have considered the art of ‘holding’ people in a prepared environment – such that a deep engagement with learning cannot help but precipitate through the mix.

Please note that this series of one, plus three first appeared in the  extended research proposal of my PhD  (2012). I am sharing it because it is a central part of the evolution of this project. Where posts include in text citations I will add the full citations to a post I shall call – Bibliography! As with all my writing please note that pseudonyms are used for people. However, the school in which I conducted my observations is very real – and I have their permission to refer to them by name.  

Lense two: Observing the latent power of place

The large welcoming entry acted to draw the students in. Situated at the top of a rise, adjacent to two outdoor seating areas, there is generous space on both sides of the doors and the transition from one area to the next is gradual. Once inside, Marcus had sight of five different zones: to his left a gallery displaying student work; alongside that, an audio visual immersion zone, and directly ahead a double volume teaching space. Beyond this was the outdoor garden room and to his right, past the stairs, he could see his teacher within the curve of a seating arrangement.

Marcus made his way towards him, greeted him, and sat within the crescent alongside his classmates. Gathering, they discussed what had been done and the details of the task for the day.  After which the students were free to work within agreed upon boundaries defined by both physical elements – in the form of walls, a stair case, and furniture – and by the requirement that they were to remain within line-of-sight of their teacher.

In the angle where the stairs rise is a nook which houses a few small tables. Marcus and his partner made their way towards the tables, but didn’t stop. They continued on to the point where the underside of the stairs meets the floor. There, they made themselves comfortable on the carpet.

Busying themselves with their work they moved from the physical, to the virtual and back again. The ability to do this was taken as given by both the students and the teacher. Movement in the service of learning wasn’t confined to traversing between the physical and the virtual but was also apparent in how students and staff configured and reconfigured formations of furniture to create different places in which to work. A second, less visible layer of controls ensured a temperate climate and task-appropriate lighting, audio zoning and video projection.

In this description it is the spatial formations of gathering, dispersal and regathering that fascinate me. How the simple act of creating a semi-circle and standing within it cued the introductory discussion, whilst standing behind it initiated the joint viewing of the students’ work. During the phase of dispersal the teacher did not remain anchored to any one point but walked through the space. Is this common-sense, just good practice – or does it warrant further investigation?

Part of the process of describing how materials participate in practice is accounting for their forms of presence – it is in turning to these forms of presence that we begin to see the latent power of place.

Watching it all in motion it is hard to point to the combination of things which ‘held’ that group, engaged in that place, on that particular day. However, one can’t help but notice how the provision of these elements enabled a different style of interaction and how those interactions facilitated engagement that appeared to be an ongoing dialogue calling forth a place, in which doing became thinking.

Please note that this series of one, plus three first appeared in the  extended research proposal of my PhD  (2012). I am sharing it because it is a central part of the evolution of this project. Where posts include in text citations I will add the full citations to a post I shall call – Bibliography! As with all my writing please note that pseudonyms are used for people. However, the school in which I conducted my observations is very real – and I have their permission to refer to them by name.  

Lense one: Observing the materiality of things

The doors through which Marcus entered the learning environment were generous, allowing him to pause as he entered. He moved through the entrance, visually scanning the space. He located his teacher within a semi-circular seating arrangement, made his way towards him, and took a seat. Was any of that material? Did the presence of large doors, leading Marcus to a central point from where he could quickly scan the environment, contribute to an experience of materiality?  How did the seating configuration act to cue the students about what was to come? What was it that kept the laptop, pencil case, and books inert, resting on his knees as he waited?

How did knowing that the verbal instructions were mirrored in the online class environment change his experience of sitting, watching and listening to his teacher?

Did having the freedom to choose where to sit and work change his engagement with the lesson? Was it the choice in and of itself – the tailoring of the environment to suite his preferences – or was it something else?

Without further instruction Marcus and his partner settled themselves, opened their laptops and began working. They referred to their individual physical work journals, and one laptop was used to access online learning resources, whilst the other was used as a recording device. A school-wide Wi-Fi network facilitated this and Marcus and his partner navigated without hesitation between the physical and virtual environments.

With paper and pencil firm in their grasp, their fingers skipping across the keyboard, they initiated, paused and re-recorded their work. The meter of their voices calmed as they practiced, and they changed their physical orientation on the floor countless times. On receiving a reminder about time constraints they emailed their audio file, the only trace of their work, and returned to the red amphitheater. This time the focal point was not their teacher, who stood behind the semi-circular seating arrangement, but the whiteboard, on which their work appeared. Today’s work, in the form of an audio track, provided the sound track to a previously compiled visual montage.

If materiality is, as Sorensen (2007) describes, the ability of an object to relate to other objects through a particular arrangement of socio-technical elements, how then do we begin to make sense of this arrangement. How do we leverage the available tools and plan learning encounters that apprehend the affordances of materiality?

Please note that this series of one, plus three first appeared in the  extended research proposal of my PhD  (2012). I am sharing it because it is a central part of the evolution of this project. Where posts include in text citations I will add the full citations to a post I shall call – Bibliography! As with all my writing please note that pseudonyms are used for people. However, the school in which I conducted my observations is very real – and I have their permission to refer to them by name.