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Teaching Space as a Teaching Lab

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and programme director for Civil Engineering.

Today I continue my physical journey into the research of space as I embark on my third road trip of the year. I am back in Winchester, where I spent so many hours, ten years ago, when working on the Oxford Brookes project I discussed in my previous blog.

The reason for my visit is to revisit the architecture practice I was collaborating with to ask them their views on pedagogy informed design in higher education. Before I go any further I need to come clean, I am a huge fan of what they do. I really enjoyed working with them on Oxford Brookes and I have a great respect for their work more generally. And I am not the only one, they have been short listed three times in the last four years as Education Architect of the Year.

Photo provided by Design Engine Architects

I was expecting our conversation to be simple, straight forward and pedagogy-focussed. Instead it was wide-ranging, chaotic, with ideas flying everywhere. I tried to keep up typing away. But my notes are so wide-ranging it’s hard to know what exactly to say. So, I will do my best to summarise two different overlapping conversations.

The first is around pedagogy informed design, at some point about one and a half hours into our conversation I asked, “When you design a building do you bring a pedagogy or do you respond to the clients pedagogy?” to which Richard Jobson, one of the directors, replied, “it’s a bit of both and we look for common meeting ground. Our job is to challenge people. You can learn and talk to people and move your own thoughts on”.

This led to a much richer discussion about not just pedagogy but all the different competing stakeholders on a university project and how each one comes with an agenda, each one has set requirements and also a vision for the future. And each one is constrained by time, money, but also the needs of other stakeholders. And that the challenge to these ideas by the architect was robust, sometimes fierce and charged with emotion. We discussed how, in our collective experience, pedagogy can be discussed and agreed before a project starts (which the literature suggests is ideal), as a project starts, or some point further down the process, even sometimes after the physical building has started to be constructed.

This led to the discussion that unlike for other stakeholders like library services there is often not a dedicated group of people who are already engaged in conversations around pedagogy and space waiting for the next large building project, that these groups need to be assembled ad hoc (or even post hoc) to try and engage with the design process. As a result, it is hard to have pedagogy before a project and too often the pedagogy comes at some later point in the projects development.

Which of course leads to a bigger discussion, and one we will hopefully be able to respond to in time. Why don’t we have a group who are interested in pedagogy and space who are constantly active? Not waiting for the next project but creating their own. Who are trialling and developing teaching methods in different spaces not as a one-off event but as an ongoing discourse in pedagogy. Maybe the BILT fellowships in space are the start of this. But it strikes me this needs to be a long-term question. Buildings takes years (Oxford Brookes took 7) from idea to completion and we need conversations which understand this and develop with both the buildings and pedagogy.

John Ridgett, the project architect on Oxford Brookes, thought aloud “why not have a teaching lab? A space dedicated to trialling new teaching, both physical and digital. It could be a large warehouse with internal partitions which is designed to be constantly reconfigured”. This strikes me as a fantastic idea which I would like to explore further.

I headed out of Design Engine to walk along the road to their neighbour Winchester University. Here I can see Design Engines work in action. I am currently sitting and typing in one of their spaces. The campus is compact and vibrant with a multitude of lovely design touches. As I am shown round campus by Mat Jane of estates I am introduced to a number of people including Dave Mason who is literally in the middle of looking at furniture layouts. He describes how they, at a smaller scale, do what Design Engine were just suggesting. They trial room layouts, they play and see what works. They notice which rooms are popular and which are not, and they carry out surveys with both staff and students on which spaces they enjoy learning in. The teaching spaces became teaching laboratories.

Take the example below. One of the many observations of a teaching space is that the front rows are often empty. So they have provided different furniture at the front. Comfy seats and sofas, and suddenly the front third of the room is more heavily utilised. Of course, if this hadn’t had the desired outcome a different arrangement can be tried, and another, and another.

And so, as I reflect on my day, I am left asking myself “why haven’t I thought to do this before?”. It seems so simple, with hundreds of rooms, there is no reason why we also shouldn’t experiment, prototype and explore a wide variety of teaching spaces with a view to exploring what works and what doesn’t. Rather than wait and then refurbish large swathes of rooms with untested approaches we should play, learn, reflect and improve.

My sincere thanks go to Richard Jobson and John Ridgett of Design Engine (designengine.co.uk) for giving up two hours of their time to have such a wide-ranging conversation about the design of space and to Mat Jane who showed me around Winchester University with such enthusiasm and pride and also for all his insights on sustainability around the campus (including my free cup made from recycled chewing gum).

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

Digital classroom
Education Enhancement Funds

Building Confident Engaged Researchers Through Active Partnership and Problem Based Learning

A Teaching Innovation Grant was awarded to Dr Chris Kent and Dr Jess Fielding for the academic year 2017/18 – you can find a summary of the project they undertook with their grant below. If you would like to read the full report, please contact bilt-info@bristol.ac.uk

Project Summary

This project was designed to assist the redevelopment of our research methods provision at Year 1.

The newly developed course will focus on active learning in small groups and continuous, low-risk, assessment. Specifically, it will address four main aims in our Year 1 teaching:

1. Enable students to programme and conduct their own experiments within TB1

2. Provide weekly continuous formative feedback on knowledge and understanding

3. Enable effective small group peer support via ‘homework clubs’

4. Embed a culture of student participation in lectures via interactive smart-phone response systems (SRS).

The BILT grant facilitated the redesign and comprised two main work packages

(WP). WP1: development and evaluation of a self-contained series of lab sessions designed to deliver design, programming and analysis skills to Y1 psychology students (meeting aims 1 and 3). WP2: developed a set of home and class activities for summative and formative assessment (meeting aims 2 and 4).

Conclusions

We feel the grant was extremely helpful to us. We have meet our aims and are in a much better place to implement our redesigned research method training courses.

Students, who undertook the pilot, showed a keen interest and disposition to research methods once they were exposed to a hands-on approach to building experiments and understanding why programming and statistics were important (via problem-based learning and active participation in work shops). The students left with a positive disposition towards further exploring research methods and we highly positivetowards the way in which the material was delivered. All students managed to develop their own independent research question, programme an experiment to test it, collect and analysis the data; this is quite impressive given the short six week time scale!

The research skills we developed by actively engaging students in research from the get-go, by showing them they could develop their own simple experiments and analysis with a few simple tools. The problem-based approach to introducing new software was successful and students felt confident in exploring the software.

News

‘Evolution or Revolution? Teaching in Uncertain Times’: Second Annual Pedagogy and Education Conference

On Tuesday 26th June, we attended the second annual Faculty of Social Sciences and Law Education and Pedagogy conference in the School of Education. The conference’s title was ‘Evolution or Revolution? Teaching in Uncertain Times’ and asked us to question the changing landscape of higher education in the UK and abroad.

Paddy Ireland, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law, opened the day with a reflective lecture on the changes he has seen since he started teaching in the 1970s. He mused on the increase in student numbers and their expectations, as well as the expectations of academic staff. He believes that we have moved from elite to mass education, with the student as the consumer and universities increasingly being seen as businesses, rather than what they ultimately are, which is educational institutions. Paddy welcomed the theme of the conference and asked us to be brave – what we teach will not always be what the students want; that we have to show commitment to our subject, as well as a commitment to teaching. We must prepare to be innovative and give though to education. He believes we must balance measures such as the REF, TEF and NSS with the importance of spending time thinking about what we are doing and maintaining a passion for our subjects.

There were a number of sessions to choose from throughout the day covering topics ranging from a the BME Attainment Gap to Clinical Legal Studies. All the sessions we attended were outstanding but, to save you a ridiculously lengthy post, have summarised just two of the sessions below.

Our mid-morning session was a 40-minute lecture delivered by Paul Howard-Jones, which looked at the connection between brain development throughout history and the way we learn. This was a highly stimulating lecture and provided us with an accessible insight into the way we engage, build on and consolidate new information. He highlighted studies he had undertaken, in which learners who were given ‘rewards’ for correct answers showed improved memory and attention, whilst learners suffering from anxiety were less likely to learn as their working memory was taken up, reducing the ability to process information. Questions from the audience asked what, if any, impact technology had on the brain (it does – it is making us be able to process more yet remember less) and whether there truly is a difference between female and male brains (there is – but culture has a far bigger impact on behaviour differences). The lecture left the audience enthused to learn more, at which point Paul handed out flyers for the book the lecture was based on – ‘Evolution of the Learning Brain (Or How You Got To Be So Smart)’.

The afternoon’s keynote was a lecture from BILT’s Director, Alvin Birdi, who (somewhat accidently) tied in his lecture with Paddy Ireland’s opening musings, highlighting the difficult balance between freedom and state intervention. He delivered a ‘critique’ of Bristol Futures, in which he wove literature, educational philosophy and history into a neat, 50-minute lecture on the intellectual underpinning of the ‘Bristol Futures’ vision.

He split his animated and exciting lecture into five key areas: context (in which he introduced the concept of intellectual freedom vs. state intervention/ government funding), history (conflicts between conservative and utilitarian purposes of university), protheses (universities as a way to supplement society’s needs and how  universities reflects society), eyes (highlighting how we need ‘blink’ to ensure that we are seeing and hearing properly; that we are effectively reflecting on our practice), and ways of educating (students looking at and working across different disciplines; solving real-world problems while gaining knowledge from scholars), concluding that Bristol Futures was marrying an imbalance we have seen in universities for the past three hundred years – a balance between intellectual freedom and intervention from the state, by providing students with the opportunity to explore difference areas, which, in turn, creates an awareness of civic and global responsibility and resilience to challenges.

The day highlighted the need to explore and innovate in teaching practice, placing knowledge and students at the heart of all we do. Alvin’s lecture ended with a quote from Derrida, and is fitting to consider for the conference theme as a whole:

Beware of ends; but what would a university be without ends?

(Derrida, 1983: 19.)