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Exploring learning entanglement

Lucila Carvalho Pippa Yeoman

Learning spaces are changing. Classrooms, once filled with uniform furnishings and distinct ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ territories, are being reimagined to provide learning spaces that support different forms of learning activity over the course of a day, week or year. In many instances these spaces are being (re)designed to accommodate technology-rich learning that engages students in scaffolded inquiry and teachers in team teaching, and opportunities to learn through synchronous and asynchronous dialogue.

Similar transformations can be seen in other learning spaces such as museums and libraries. As a result, there is a growing need for theory and methods capable of supporting design for learning across a range of settings (Beetham & Sharpe, 2013). Educators are calling for better alignment between the designed environments for learning and new curricula (Woolner, 2010; Carvalho & Yeoman, 2018), and educational researchers for new methods to explore this growing complexity.

‘Our research explores the material, social, and conceptual structures of learning and their combined influence in indirectly shaping learning activity over time and space.’

Our research explores the material, social, and conceptual structures of learning and their combined influence in indirectly shaping learning activity over time and space. In our recent article in the British Journal of Educational Technology we provide an overview of a number of methods we have used to explore learning activity across formal and informal settings including schools, universities and museums. These methods have been adapted from archaeology and design – fields that have long theorised the relations between materials and people – and they reveal nuanced and actionable insights into the complex task of designing for emergent learning activity (Carvalho & Yeoman, 2019). While fields such as archaeology and design may seem peripheral to educators, we argue that we have much to learn from them. Indeed, many of the analytical tools we have ‘borrowed’ from archaeology and design have aided our own efforts in theory-building across contexts (Carvalho & Yeoman, 2018).

Our recent article, which will appear in a forthcoming special issue on theory and methods in the British Journal of Educational Technology (Carvalho & Yeoman, 2019), explores the use of tools such as ‘tanglegrams’ and ‘path dependence’ (Hodder, 2012) that provide powerful visualisations of many of the elements and skills found in healthy ecologies of learning. Building on this type of detailed analysis of specific moments of learning activity, we have developed a card-based design method to support the work of educational design teams that explicitly connects research, design and practice.

In our work we talk about design for learning in two distinct phases (Goodyear & Carvalho, 2014; Yeoman, 2015; Carvalho & Yeoman, 2018). The first involves advanced planning or reflection-on-action, which we refer to as designtime. This is when we as educators think about the nature of a specific task, tool or social arrangement, and it may involve designing something completely new or reshaping an existing design after a period of analysis or reflection. The second phase involves reflection-in-action, as the learning of the day takes its distinctive form, which we refer to as learntime. We argue that understanding this distinction is crucial because in the first phase educators are anticipating certain forms of human activity, and in the second they are responsible for channelling what actually happens on the day in response to intended learning outcomes.

We have found that those involved in educational design and in teaching often find it difficult to draw connections between what has been designed (planned ahead of time) and what learners actually do (learning). We offer these methods and processes as theoretically informed contributions to the task of designing for learning across a range of settings. For educational researchers, we offer nuanced ways of (re)framing emergent learning activity that accounts for the many and varied relations between assorted elements of different dimensions of design, and multiple degrees of granularity (macro, meso, micro) in any learning ecology.

This blog post is based on the article ‘Connecting the dots: Theorizing the learning entanglement through archaeology and design’ by Lucila Carvalho and Pippa Yeoman, which is published in the British Journal of Educational Research and will be free-to-view for a time-limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Wiley.


Beetham, H. & Sharpe, R. (Eds.). (2013). Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing and delivering e-learning. Falmer: Routledge.

Carvalho, L. & Yeoman, P. (2018). Framing learning entanglement in innovative learning spaces: Connecting theory, design, and practice. British Educational Research Journal, 44(6), 1120–1137.

Carvalho, L. & Yeoman, P. (2019). Connecting the dots: Theorizing the learning entanglement through archaeology and design. British Journal of Educational Technology. Advance online publication.

Goodyear, P. & Carvalho, L. (2014) Framing the analysis of learning network architectures. Carvalho, L. & Goodyear, P. (Eds.), The architecture of productive learning networks. New York: Routledge.

Hodder, I. (2012). Entangled: An archaeology of the relationships between humans and things. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Woolner, P. (2010). The design of learning spaces. London: Continuum.

Yeoman, P. (2015). Habits & habitats: An ethnography of learning entanglement. Doctoral thesis, University of Sydney. Retrieved from