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The pedagogy of space

Posted on 17 April 2018

By Vicky Leighton, Head of Art

The sweet spot

Is there a ‘sweet spot’ that connects a teacher with their learning environment; a place where a confluence of contexts, culture, pedagogies and environment generate optimum teaching and learning opportunities? 

As a visual art teacher, I have anecdotally observed that work displayed in the Innovative Learning Environment (ILE) of the school gallery space can influence student work significantly. It seems that when displays change, so does the physical work that is produced.  When a student is given the opportunity to display his work, the reflective practice of the student also appears to alter. This observation generates the thought that teachers may be able harness similar ‘architectural impacts’ to enhance learners’ experiences.

I am working on the basic premise that most spaces, or learning environments, have innovative possibilities that can be used by a teacher to impact learning. More controversially, I wonder if the success, or otherwise, of a learning environment may be linked to teachers’ ability to fully exploit their teaching space to maximise learning opportunities. I am aware, of course, that this assumes a direct connection between the environment and teachers’ spatial knowledge, awareness and beliefs.

Clearly, the validity of this proposition needs to be put to the test. Questions around whether a classroom can positively, and/or negatively, influence the quality of teacher practices, and therefore influence learning outcomes need to be empirically evaluated, my personal ‘Holy Grail’ in terms of teacher spatial research. I hypothesise that spatially astute teachers can consciously compose, design and manipulate learning spaces. They can do this by planning pedagogy to work with their classroom environment, a curation that specifically maximises spatial and learning potentials. Although working towards a theoretical, conceptual framework that will interpret function and functionality, a practical training tool for teachers is my aim.

One school of thought promotes the idea that the critical barrier to teachers’ fully utilising their physical learning environments is their lack of spatial ‘competency’ (Lackney 2008). I argue that for a teacher to achieve spatial competency they first need to be aware of, and then develop, a range of spatial skills to optimise the affordances of their teaching space (to enhance learning outcomes). 

Defining the case

A range of studies (explored in a literature review) explore the impact of ILEs on teaching and student learning. While this theorisation around how education engages with space is highly useful, there is not yet any generally accepted term, or even firm definitions, for the collective skills required by a teacher to successfully master learning environments to enhance their practice. 
For want of a better term, I am working with the moniker ‘Teacher Spatial Acumen and Astuteness’ (TSAA). I am offering this as a broad term that arguably encompasses the concepts of perception, belief and skill. Theories of spatial thinking, competencies and awareness form its core structure:

  1. Spatial thinking concerns a teachers’ spatial knowledge; their embedded beliefs connected to their practice; the ‘why’ practices that are occurring in a classroom.

  2. Spatial awareness concerns a teacher’s perception of space and their ability to consider the possibilities and capacities of a classroom environment; the ‘how’ a classroom is being used. 

  3. Spatial competency is related to classroom the teaching strategies employed by a teacher; their use of spatial affordances and a teacher’s classroom skills; the ‘what’ that is occurring in a classroom. 

There is a tantalising possibility that a spatially capable or astute teacher could potentially harness the interaction between learning environment, teaching and types of learning to maximise their impact in the classroom and enhance learner outcomes.   

Giannetti, L. D. and J. Leach (1999). Understanding movies, Prentice Hall Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.
Lackney, J. A. (2008). "Teacher environmental competence in elementary school environments." Children, Youth and Environments 18(2): 133-159.
Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space. Oxford, Blackwell
Lorenz, K. (2002). On aggression, Psychology Press.