The quality of the physical learning environment can leverage good teaching but cannot replace poor teaching. Can we help teachers make better use of this lever?
A few weeks ago I asked a group of educationalists how much training teachers get in manipulating space. My thinking was, well shouldn’t they? After all space is complex, you can create all sorts of spaces for different things to happen. Indeed how you ‘decorate’ a space influences how people feel in it. How you arrange the furniture affects how you can effectively use different teaching approaches. The answer was, very little.
I reflected on my own question and began to wonder whether it was the right question, indeed is it a relevant question? Shouldn’t they be able to intuitively use the environment they find themselves in? After all they know what they want to achieve so shouldn’t the physical environment provide a natural response?
During a review of Portugal’s school modernisation programme several years ago, we were told that experts in teaching science were training science teachers in the newly refurbished schools techniques on how to use space better. It was about manipulating the arrangement of furniture to create different settings so that students could work in groups, individually or even didactically. While this was clearly about how to use space, it was more about pedagogical change – moving away from a scenario where teachers would use just one modality, to having a choice of several. While the ‘space’ offered the ‘opportunity’ more still needed to be done to enable it.
To this end the physical environment of course must be supportive of learning and teaching. It must enable teachers and students to use it in a way that suits them, but it must do so easily and and somehow feel natural to use.