MicroCPD: Learning Spaces

This week Chris Ribchester considers how the use of learning spaces can affect dynamics between teachers and students

Erica McWilliam argues that building the creativity capacity of students should be a priority of educational systems. Creativity here is not narrowly defined in terms of artistry but as “epistemological agility”, including comfort when working across disciplinary domains. She argues that people with such agility are both highly employable and essential to tackle contemporary global challenges, such as climate change. They show imagination, display a willingness to collaborate and experiment, and can see components as part of a bigger whole. 

Within this context, McWilliams acknowledges that there is a role for the ‘Sage-on-the-Stage’ and indeed ‘Guide on the Side’ in contemporary teaching, but that both imply some degree of distance between tutor and student. In contrast, the ‘Meddler-in-the-Middle’ is firmly situated in the “thick of the action”, located in the optimal position to encourage creativity by challenging and questioning students. The Meddler aims to facilitate a learning environment that is characterised by low threat but high challenge. Whilst not doubting the value of knowledge, she questions whether teachers should feel they need to be ‘all-knowing’ and that “it is much more important to model how to be usefully ignorant, and to assist students who fear not having all the answers all the time”.

Although the main focus of McWilliam’s article is not specifically the use of teaching spaces, it is heavily implicit in the language that she uses – consciously or unconsciously our use of learning spaces is likely to reflect our underlying philosophy of learning and teaching. Richard Reynolds nicely summarises the key point: “Space is never neutral. It separates or it includes. It can be used to reinforce or challenge power-based relationships”. Similarly, Diana Oblinger stresses how the design and use of space “whether physical or virtual—can have an impact on learning. It can bring people together; it can encourage exploration, collaboration, and discussion. Or, space can carry an unspoken message of silence and disconnectedness.”

Further Reading

McWilliam, E. 2009. Teaching for creativity: from sage to guide to meddler. Asia Pacific Journal of Education. 29:3, 281-293, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02188790903092787

The EDUCASE e-book, entitled Learning Spaces, edited by Diana Oblinger (2006), provides a wide-ranging review of the relationship between learning spaces and student learning, including case studies from educational establishments from across the world. Available at:

Dr. Chris Ribchester, Academic Practice Advisor, HEFi