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How do material properties and designed form indirectly influence learning activity?

Pippa Yeoman, University of Sydney Stephanie Wilson, University of Sydney Business School

Motivated by a desire to increase participatory forms of teaching and learning, the case study we present in the new special section of the British Journal of Educational Technology on ‘future learning spaces for learning communities’ (Yeoman & Wilson, 2019) involved altering the seating arrangements in a university seminar room – replacing a uniform linear arrangement with a curved tiered arrangement (see figure 1). Drawing on document analysis, observation and interviews, we make a measured case for exploring how material properties influence learning activity.

It is not difficult to appreciate how our epistemology of learning influences our designs for learning. If we believe that people learn through shared meaningful interaction, we are likely to design tasks that offer students opportunities to develop understanding working with others as they explore content in a context that is meaningful to them.

What is less easy to trace is how our ontology of materials influences our designs for learning. This is troubling because an ontology in which materials are stable bounded entities can lead to an epistemology of learning that is neutral or blind to materials (Ingold, 2011), an instrumental ontology of materials can lead to an epistemology of learning that is technologically deterministic, and an ontology of human–object equivalence can lead to an epistemology of learning that is powerless to effect change (Oliver, 2012). Our ontology of materials matters, and reflecting on it is foundational for all involved in designing or orchestrating the conceptual, social and material structures of learning (Carvalho & Yeoman, 2018, 2019).


Figure 1: From uniform linear arrangements to curved and tiered arrangements

The most striking quality of the new arrangement was its powerful point of shared visual attention. The locus and density of gaze oriented towards the mid-point of the open end of the ‘U’ had the effect of drawing the tutor out from behind the large offset lectern. Moving into this focal point, tutors held the attention of the group. and their proximity supported the reading of nuanced in-person communication for all. Moving to the side, tutors merged with those on the outer edge as they listened to another speak or viewed an inanimate point of shared attention. Moving to the back, in the absence of a dominant shared projection, initiated group work or the beginning of a student presentation.

‘In creating a strong centre of shared visual attention, and improving access to the whiteboards on the periphery, two zones emerged that supported students as they worked with ideas at different stages of refinement (prototype to pitch) and scale level (individual to group).’

In creating a strong centre of shared visual attention, and improving access to the whiteboards on the periphery, two zones emerged that supported students as they worked with ideas at different stages of refinement (prototype to pitch) and scale level (individual to group). Given the range of learning activity accommodated in this interstitial space (gathering, dispersal, roving, withdrawal, sketching, role-play, individual/group rehearsal and performance), we became curious about the relationship between usable-furnished-space and usable-unfurnished-space.

Educational infrastructure design often starts with a per-square-metre allowance per student. In more active settings this is arrived at by multiplying the number of learners by a factor of between two and three (SCHOMS, AUDE, & UCISA, 2016). Despite being derived from architectural standards, this rule of thumb is not meaningfully informed by learning theory. Drawing on this work, we offer a reconceptualisation of space for learning based on the ratio of unfurnished-to-furnished space (see figure 2). In each instance, the same floorplate accommodates the same number of students. However, each arrangement supports the emergence of a qualitatively distinct form of learning activity, which is indirectly influenced by the material properties and spatial distribution of the furnishings present.


Figure 2: The positive space in Room 2280 (5:1 sqm, 1.7:1 sqm, and 1.3:1 sqm)

Our article opens a window into a single seminar room: one of 33 equipped to seat 24, 30, or 60 using identical sets of ‘flexible’ furniture. In doing so, it highlights the importance of understanding the impact of decisions about materials on the quality of emergent learning activity. The value of this becomes clear when the consequences of getting it wrong, at scale, are viewed not only in terms of finances (1,290 identical chairs and 645 collapsible tables for two on wheels purchased in 2016 and being reconsidered in 2018) but in terms of diminished opportunities for students to engage in valued knowledge-oriented activity, in the company of others.


This blog post is based on the article ‘Designing for situated learning: understanding the relations between material properties, designed form, and emergent learning activity’ by Pippa Yeoman and Stephanie Wilson.

It is newly published in the British Journal of Educational Technology, and is free-to-view for a limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Wiley.


References

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. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/berj.3483

Carvalho, L., & Yeoman, P. (2019). Connecting the dots: theorizing the learning entanglement through archaeology and design. British Journal of Educational Technology, 50(5), 2090–2108.

Ingold, T. (2011). Being Alive. Abingdon, UK: Routledge,

Oliver, M. (2012). Learning technology: Theorising the tools we study. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44(1), 31-43. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2011.01283.x

Standing Conference for Heads of Media Services (SCHOMS), Association of University Directors of Estates [AUDE], & Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association [UCISA] (2016). The UK Higher Education Learning Space Toolkit. Oxford: UCISA.

Yeoman, P., & Wilson, S. (2019). Designing for situated learning: understanding the relations between material properties, designed form, and emergent learning activity. British Journal of Educational Technology, 50(5), 2090-2108. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bjet.12856