Head shot of Prof. Bruce Macfarlane

Freedom to Learn at University


Abstract

The student engagement movement has become a worldwide phenomenon and national student engagement surveys are now well-established internationally. Curriculum initiatives closely associated with student engagement policies include compulsory attendance requirements, class contribution grading, group and team working assignments and reflective exercises often linked to professional and experiential learning. These types of initiatives grade students for their ‘time and effort’ and commitment to active and participatory approaches to learning. They are justified largely by reference to improving retention rates and achievement levels. However, these policies have led to practices that constrain the extent to which higher education students are free to make choices about what to learn, when to learn and how to learn. Three forms of student performativity – bodily, participative and emotional – have been created that demand academic non-achievements to be acted out in a public space. A higher education is, almost by definition, intended to be about adults engaging in a voluntary activity but the performative turn in the nature of student learning is undermining student rights as learners – to non-indoctrination, reticence, choosing how to learn, and being trusted as an adult – and perverting the Rogerian meaning of ‘student-centred’. This presentation will be based on arguments presented in a recent book entitled Freedom to Learn (Routledge, 2017).

Bio

Bruce Macfarlane is professor of higher education, Head of the School of Education at the University of Bristol, UK and distinguished visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. He has previously held chairs at a number of universities in the UK and Hong Kong. Bruce’s publications have developed concepts related to values in higher education such as academic freedom, the ethics of research and teaching, the service role, and academic leadership. His books include Freedom to Learn (2017), Intellectual Leadership in Higher Education (2012), Researching with Integrity (2009), The Academic Citizen (2007) and Teaching with Integrity (2004).

News

Three visits, three takeaways

The following post was written by James Norman, a senior lecturer in Civil Engineering and a BILT Fellow. 

Over the last three weeks we have visited three different universities who have recently (last ten years) built new teaching-focussed buildings. First, we visited the University of Northampton, who recently opened their brand new Waterside campus, bringing all they do into one location. We then visited Oxford Brookes’ John Henry Brookes building, which is a £100m new build on the Gypsy Lane campus, which was opened roughly six years ago. Finally, we visited the ‘Spark’ at Solent, which was opened in 2015. From these three visits I have taken away three key observations.

  1. The Atrium

The first is that all three buildings include large atrium spaces. These spaces, rather than being sterile and boring, feel alive. Filled with creative furniture and buzzing with people, they mirror in my mind the large chancel of a cathedral as people bustle in or out before a concert or the turbine hall at the Tate modern as people congregate, intrigued by what they are about to see, or debate what they have just seen. I always find these spaces inspiring; the huge headroom creating space to dream or imagine. And whilst we can’t magically create these spaces in our existing buildings, I trust and hope that we will aspire to them in future buildings.

  1. The Acoustics

The second take home for me is the sound of the spaces. This may seem strange, but there is something about the acoustic quality of these spaces. They feel warm and buzzing- not like walking into a bar where you need to shout to be heard, but neither like standing in an old library where you are self-conscious of every footfall and breath as people turn and stare at this noisy new intruder disrupting their thoughts. In these spaces the acoustic feel right. I am sure there are technical phrases for this but as a non-acoustician (and in my former life as a Structural Engineer working with -or against- acousticians I have often been skeptical of what they do) all I can say is that they sound right. Neither to loud, or too quiet, but just right. Of course, people associate acoustics and acoustic design with new buildings, and yet many of the acoustic devices that are used can just as easily be retrofitted to existing buildings as they can installed to new buildings. It is not the fabric of the building that makes the acoustics so good. I should know- I designed much of the exposed concrete at the John Henry Brookes building at Oxford Brookes, which left untreated would have led to awful acoustics. Instead, it is the strategic placement of noise absorbing finishes that make the difference, and these can be added to any building.

  1. The Furniture

Third, and finally, it is the furniture. It is only coming to these new (and reused) buildings that the importance of the furniture comes to life. The conversation is not just about the design of lecture theatres or types of chairs, square tables or plectrum, fixed furniture or movable. There are just so many options and we have seen a wide variety of different furniture approaches being implemented in these three buildings, though admittedly not all successfully. But this attitude of playfulness and experimentation is refreshing. One of the great things about furniture is if it doesn’t work you can try something different. So much of our furniture is rectangular tables (on wheels if you are lucky) but there are so many different options. And you don’t need to build a new campus or building to put new furniture (or repurposed furniture from a different space) to be playful and thought-provoking about how we use space to enhance student learning.

So, over the last three weeks, we have seen three new buildings and taken away three lessons on what you can achieve in both new and (more importantly) existing space.

(L-R: University of Northampton Waterside Campus; John Henry Brookes building at Oxford Brookes; The Spark at Solent)

Amy Palmer, Lisa Howarth, Neil Davey, Christian Spielmann and James Norman visited Northampton University and Oxford Brookes – see this blog for more details of the trip.

Amy Palmer, Lisa Howarth and James Norman visited Solent to visit Professor Tansy Jessop who is a Visiting Professor at the University of Bristol with BILT.  

 

 

 

 

 

News

Bristol Conversations in Education: Does School Design Matter? 16/1/2018

Professor Daniels presented an account of AHRC sponsored research that sought to address the need for learning environments to better respond to changing needs of curriculum and pedagogy.

I am a BILT Student Fellow working on the theme ReThinking Spaces and on the 16th January 2019 I attended a seminar by Professor Harry Daniels from the University of Oxford entitled ‘Does School Design Matter?’. I was particularly interested in the relationship between design and pedagogy and lessons that can be learned for the redesigning of spaces at the University.

Professor Daniels began by describing the impact that a building or physical space has on the way that we behave within it. He gave the example of starting a new job and using the built environment to help to determine the expectations for behaviour, communication and interaction. This is partly affected by physical features such as the furniture layout, lighting, and decoration, as well as the way that people interact with the space and with each other.

Professor Daniels’ journey into this area began around 2003 when, noticing the impact of wall displays in schools, he asked himself; ‘if a wall display can be powerful, what about the building itself?’ This has led him to research the perception and actions of students and teachers at four secondary schools in Kent, which were part of the Building Schools for Future (BSF) programme introduced in 2004 and were newly built or refurbished between 2010 and 2012.

Professor Daniels emphasised that the way that a space is used is not necessarily how it was designed to be used. The four schools in question were designed to promote the personalisation of learning, with teachers to be viewed as coaches or mentors. The County Council deemed that:

  • learning spaces should be versatile and flexible to cover all curriculum areas
  • there should be breakout areas and informal learning zones
  • students should have greater independence and agency over their learning
  • teachers should share many spaces with students and other staff
  • staff should teach in teams
  • there should be a high degree of visibility with the use of glass and an open plan design
  • community engagement should be promoted

The School Connectedness Questionnaire was distributed to children at the end of primary school, at the beginning of Year 7 and Year 8, and every time there was a change of headteacher. The research found that when teaching practice aligned with the design, the connectedness score was significantly higher than when the practice did not align with the intended design.

Whilst some schools found positive outcomes, with improved behaviour of students and better formative assessment practices by teachers, others struggled to use the space effectively. Two of the schools closed off open areas with glass panels or furniture, effectively attempting to reverse the radical changes that had been made. Professor Daniels explained that these differences in success can partly be accounted for by different approaches to school leadership and management. In places where high visibility was seen by management as allowing passive control and surveillance, teachers and students felt watched over, whereas in more relaxed settings where visibility was viewed as a way to promote a sense of community and belonging, staff and students enjoyed being able to collaborate and socialise more easily with others.

Where the redesign was successful, there was a strong vision from the start and an excellent programme of staff training in how to successfully work in the new spaces. Staff continue to collaborate to solve problems related to design issues and students are included in this dialogue. Staff report that students feel wanted, have improved confidence and aspirations. The open-plan environment mirrors the professional working environment and develops the skills that the commercial world is demanding. Professor Daniels highlights the importance of learning from other similar learning environments when redesigning educational spaces.

So, what does this teach us about the relationship between design and pedagogy, and what can we learn from it? This seminar highlighted to me that redesigning space does not necessarily transform pedagogy. This requires an ethos of trust where staff feel confident enough to be observed and to collaborate with others, and where staff are trained in teaching practice which aligns with the space design. In Higher Education, we need to learn from similar institutions which have redesigned their spaces to align with the shift towards more active, collaborative and inquiry-based learning. Yesterday, BILT visited the new Waterside Campus at the University of Northampton who are doing just that, and BILT are gaining staff and student perspectives on teaching spaces, as well as providing resources to staff, in the hope that our space will be fit for an imagined future.

References

Harry Daniels, Hau Ming Tse, Andrew Stables & Sarah Cox (2018) Design as a social practice: the experience of new-build schools, Cambridge Journal of Education, DOI: 10.1080/0305764X.2018.1503643

News

No lecture theatres? No problem!

The following post was written by Amy Palmer, BILT Digital Resources Officer.

In 2012, the University of Northampton decided to embark on a challenge that would set them apart from all other UK universities.

Six years later their new, £330 million ‘Waterside’ campus was launched with one key difference – there are no lecture theatres*. All courses have been redesigned and adopted active-blended learning as their pedagogical approach, which has transformed the way students learn. Further to this, all staff offices (including the VC’s!) have been removed in place of communal workspaces and hotdesking. The eradication of passive learning experiences and focus on active, activity-based sessions is a daring and challenging move that has taken a huge amount of courage, time and commitment. The creation of a learning design team, as well as the support of both academic staff development and learning technologists has been central to the success of this project, as well as the unwavering support of senior management.

When asking the Dean of Learning and Teaching, Professor Alejandro Armellini, what really works about the Waterside project, his answer was clear – everything. Apart from the addition of a few more plug sockets in their ‘Learning Hub’ (a grand, multi-purpose building housing libraries, teaching and social spaces, though with no signs or labels defining these areas), there is nothing they would do differently. It’s too early to see how the new campus and educational approach will affect learning gain and student recruitment and retention, but the feeling so far is that it is working well.

This new and daring approach to higher education took a number of years to achieve and was only possible with the support of the Vice Chancellor who, when announcing the plans, told staff ‘you either get out of the way, or get on the bus’. Some staff did get out of the way, and many that stayed were hesitant to ‘get on the bus’, often feeling that the change in approach was a personal attack on their style of teaching. When the learning design team spoke with individuals and asked what they really valued, it was never ‘standing up in front of people speaking’ but rather ‘when I see my students have learnt something’ and ‘when students are engaged’. Extensive research was done into how to engage students with active-blended learning – you can read their findings here.

Teaching hours for staff have increased across the piece with students now split into groups of (max) 40 students, who they will stay with throughout their degree, with the intention this creates a sense of community and belonging among fellow students. This will no doubt help with issues around wellbeing and first-year student retention, though there may be some protests that it is very much like school and not the ‘traditional’ university experience where you anonymously sit in a huge lecture theatre and take down notes.

The Waterside project will be interesting to follow over the next couple of years, especially when it comes to crunching the data. They openly admit that there are some staff who are still lecturing at their students but believe that will change; the focus on teaching is gaining momentum yet there are still some who are yet to be caught up in it. We have invited colleagues from Northampton to visit us when the new Temple Quarter campus is built – we hope that some lessons can be learnt from our trip there!

*Okay – there is one lecture theatre, but it only seats 80 and is used mainly for external speakers.

An interview with...

An interview with… Kris Roger

The fourth interview in our series is with Kris Roger, who, with his colleague, presented an interesting and informative lecture on the transformation of learning spaces at LSE at the second BILT annual symposium, which launched our new theme, ‘ReThinking Spaces’. Kris’ is a Senior Learning Technologist at LSE and his expertise includes flipped learning, learning spaces design, active learning methods and educational use of digital media. 

What benefits do students experience through a better understanding of learning spaces?

With appropriate learning spaces design we can enable teachers to embrace pedagogical approaches that are based on student activity and experience rather than transmission of information. Appropriately designed spaces will create opportunities for students to engage in activities where they are making, discussing, and analysing collaboratively. Such spaces allow teachers to move around the room while they observe, listen and guide their students through the construction of their own knowledge. It is also possible to design flexibility into such spaces to allow for those occasions where there may need to be some transmission of information required or to consult online content while in class. Some institutions are establishing or switching to programmes of study founded on student-based active approaches to learning, such as team-based, problem-based and flipped learning. Designing social learning spaces that students actually want to use will also encourage students to stay on campus and hopefully instil a sense of belonging to the academic community of an institution.

How can Universities help students to understand these benefits?

One of the key ways we can help students understand these benefits is to fully involve our students in the design of social or informal learning spaces. This isn’t always easy, we sometimes need to make the benefits of contributing to the design of such spaces clear. We need to help students feel a sense of ownership over their spaces – it’s an opportunity to shape and create their own work and study environment. In addition to being involved in the initial design, this sense of ownership can be encouraged through making those spaces flexible and giving control over certain aspects of the environment – such as lighting and placement of furniture. In terms of understanding the benefits of the design of classrooms it’s more important that students understand the approach to learning enabled by flexible learning spaces design. This is more about setting clear expectations for active learning so that students see the value in actively participating and engaging. Also, if spaces designed for active learning are primarily used for lecture-based teaching then students are unlikely to see and understand the benefits of such classroom designs. Therefore, it is key that we work with our teachers to help them understand the possibilities enabled by modern learning spaces.

What are the most common problems you tend to observe with current learning space design?

As education professionals we are interested in all potential learning spaces that our students use – from bedrooms at home or in halls, to the local coffee shop. However, we can only really influence the design of our own spaces on campus – such as classrooms and spaces where students work independently of their teachers. Space is a critical part of shaping learning and teaching and one challenge that we face is to ensure that these learning spaces are fit for the learning and teaching needs of our students and teachers. What does that mean? Many classrooms and lecture rooms continue to be built around a traditional teacher centred approach, without interrogating alternative pedagogical approaches. Students are arranged in rows, for efficient space planning, or in a horseshoe, with all eyes on the teacher at the front of the room. Is that the best layout if the curriculum demands that students partake in collaborative activities in class? Extending this line of questioning, do universities provide sufficient space for students (and staff) to collaborate in groups outside of class. Often, the library is the place to go for independent study where the expectation is silent individual study. Additionally, students value workspace proximity – they like their independent workspaces to be near to where they will be attending class. We therefore need to create attractive modern workspace environments wherever we can find space on our campuses, ranging from those that enable a short stop between class to spaces for working in groups for an extended amount of time.

In terms of design, we often face a number of tensions. How do we enable pedagogical needs to have primacy over other requirements, which are often the first considered, such as the need to maintain the capacity of a particular space? How do we define value for money? Sometimes when we are asked to cut costs or “value engineer”, these initial savings result in a fatal compromise in the design of a space. Also, limited attention is sometimes given to the environmental properties of learning spaces – light, colour, textures, temperature and noise. Our learning spaces need to be engaging, inspiring and comfortable.

Finally, we need to ensure that we design spaces in collaboration with students and teachers. Too often new or refurbished spaces are created as copies of existing spaces without consultation with those people that will be using the spaces. This requires an institution wide collaborative approach that involves multiple stakeholders including educational development professionals, learning technologists, estates, timetables, technology support and more.

What is your favourite learning space in your university?

My favourite learning space at LSE is actually a collection of spaces in our Clement House building. It is the project that I feel closest to, as we had full creative control over a variety of space types. The idea was to create a set of experimental spaces in response to student demand for more independent and collaborative workspaces, where they could charge their devices, work, eat (without having to buy something) or simply chat with friends. The spaces range from comfy armchairs designed for reading to a space with little in the way of seating, but the walls are covered in writable surfaces. We also created individual identities, based on global cities, for each space. Outside of term time, I even use some of the spaces myself when I want to work away from the office.

What inspired you to first start looking at learning spaces and advocating change?

My interest in learning spaces, as a learning technologist, started with my involvement in creating a “Flipping the Classroom” staff development workshop. In the workshop we would discuss various alternative classroom activities with our teachers and they would always ask “How can I do this group discussion activity in a lecture theatre where the seats are fixed and nobody can move around easily?”. So, with our head of learning technology, I grew my interest and involvement in transforming LSE’s ‘traditional’ teaching and learning spaces.

What one film/book/resource would you like to share with the academic community?

A good place to start is Diana Oblinger’s “Learning Spaces” book published back in 2006, available as a free PDF download. While some of the case studies are now a little out of date, it provides an excellent outline for the rationale behind the movement to rethink teaching and learning spaces in higher education. It was probably my introduction to the field of learning spaces design and I’d say my favourite chapter is “The Psychology of Learning Environments” by Ken Graetz.

If you could change one thing about HE in the UK what would it be?

Like others I’m deeply wary of the increasing marketisation of HE in the UK and the unintended consequences of measuring things that are difficult or impossible to measure. But, I am keen that reward and recognition for teaching be given a higher priority in (some of) our institutions.

Who was your favourite teacher at school/university and why?

My favourite teacher was Jim Fanning who taught me history in my 1st and 2nd years at secondary school. He showed immense enthusiasm for the subject, took us on many field trips and always taught with a great sense of humour. He truly conveyed the idea that we would understand the subject if we could imagine how it felt to be a particular person at a particular point in time. It wasn’t about learning dates and facts, it was about actively experiencing history, as far as is possible.

News

The Five Principles of Learning Spaces

The principles below are intended to provide a pedagogical framework for the design of teaching and learning spaces. Each of the five principles is oriented towards facilitating active interaction and ensuring flexibility as follows: 

  1. The interaction of students with the content or material being learned.Encouraging active, tailored and accessible learning.
  2. The interaction of teaching and learning spaces with social and recreational spaces and the wider environment.Encouraging a cohesive learning experience and promoting well-being.
  3. Interaction between students. Encouraging peer to peer, cooperative and collaborative learning.
  4. Interactions between teachers and students.Encouraging the effective support and facilitation ofresearch-rich learning by teaching and research staff.  
  5. Flexibility in relation to current and future pedagogies.Encouraging evidence-based practice and innovation in teaching and learning. 

The Five Principles

  1. Teaching spaces will allow all students to actively engage with content through appropriate design and technologies that support multiple modes of teaching[1]. The learning that takes place in these spaces will be accessible to all students
  2. . The University will foster a welcoming environment for students beyond timetabled teaching activities, to include social, learning and recreational spaces so that students’ experience of time spent at the University is coherent and integrated and supports their well-being. 
  3. Teaching and learning environments will encourage active collaborative interactions between students.  Peer learning, multi-disciplinarity, in large or small groups, through and with technology, will be key to supporting students to create, develop and extend their own understandings and learning activities.  Teaching spaces should therefore be designed to an appropriate size to allow for meaningful and comfortable interaction. 
  4. Our teaching and learning spaces will allow interaction between teachers, students and others, and will thereby encourage the active facilitation of student learning.  This learning environment will be flexible, incorporate appropriate technologies, and have space to move around in by staff and students. 
  5. Teaching and learning spaces should be designed using the best current evidence-based practice and flexible enough to allow for emerging and future pedagogies.

Notes:
By flexible we mean that there is no fixed furniture. That tables and chairs can be moved easily into new and different configurations. Whiteboards will be available on many walls. Technology and charging points will be available for all users of the space.  There will be no fixed lectern, multiple screens will be available.  Storage space (for spare furniture) and storage space for coats, bags etc, will be available.

[1] Finkelstein, A., Ferris, J., Weston, C. & Winer, L (2016) Research-informed principles for (re)designing teaching and learning spaces.  Journal of Learning Spaces, 5 (1) 26-40.

We welcome any thoughts, ideas and changes you believe should be made to these principles, or any challenges you believe we would encounter by implementing these principles.