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Changing spaces: preparing students and teachers for a new learning environment

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Pamela Woolner, Professor Jill ClarkORCiD, Karen Laing, Ulrike Thomas, Lucy Tiplady



Physical settings in schools have a complex relationship to the teaching and learning practices that take place in them. Research, current practice and historical experience all demonstrate the uncomfortable tensions that can result when the intentions of learners and teacher conflict with each other or with the affordances of the physical environment. Furthermore, any change to a learning environment may be difficult to achieve and stressful for those involved. The participation of pupils and the wider school community in the design process is recommended but is, in practice, often only partial or superficial. This paper considers a case where there has been minimal involvement of staff or students in the design of a new school, but there is a desire to prepare them for the changed environment. The changes will include an integrated curriculum and a focus on an “enquiry approach,” which it is hoped will be facilitated by large, shared spaces in the new premises. The paper discusses the findings from an “experimental week” of enquiry learning that took place in the middle of the 2010-11 school year with half of a Year 8 group (12-13 years old) at a secondary school situated in a relatively deprived area in the north east of England and was conducted in an existing large space (a school hall). Thus the alteration to the learning environment combines changes to the use of space and to the organization of learning time. We concentrate here on the student experience of learning in this new way, rather than the views of the teachers. The project used several methods including: annotated photographs; observations; evaluation sheets; and photo elicitation interviews. Overall, the students enjoyed the experimental week. An enquiry based integrated curriculum approach was enabled by the more fluid, flexible use of school space and time, resulting in altered learning relationships between students, and between students and their teachers. Nonetheless, students understood the experiment to be a limited experience rather than a permanent all-encompassing change to their learning environment. If these changed practices are to be successful they will need to be accepted by the students, who may not be particularly open to change at this (secondary) stage in their educational career. The challenge for those managing the change process is to remain mindful of the differing needs of students, and continue to develop a shared understanding among staff and students of what learning is or could be.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Woolner P, Clark J, Laing K, Thomas U, Tiplady L

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Children, Youth and Environments

Year: 2012

Volume: 22

Issue: 1

Pages: 52-74

Print publication date: 01/04/2012

Date deposited: 28/05/2012

ISSN (electronic): 1546-2250

Publisher: University of Colorado


Notes: Special issue: Reconceptualizing School Design: Learning Environments for Children and Youth