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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 ( 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).

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