by Karen Gravett and Tim Fawns
SRHE’s ‘Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures: prospects for space in higher education’ symposium series, delivered with Professor Sam Elkington and Dr Jill Dickinson, aims to foster continuous dialogue around learning spaces. Here, two of our presenters Dr Karen Gravett and Tim Fawns, reflect on some of the ideas and issues raised during the third symposium on ‘Assemblages’. This blog has been compiled by Sam Elkington, Jill Dickinson, and Rihana Suliman (SRHE Conferences and Events Manager.)
What is the role for human agency in these types of assemblages with human and non-human actors, so as not to feel helpless or a “cog” while respecting the need to de-centre the human?
Karen: Humans still have a key role within assemblages but the perspective is shifted from thinking about the relational connection between humans and nonhumans or materials. This enables us to ask new questions, for example with respect to teaching in a classroom, we might notice not just what the teacher is doing or student is doing, but how the space and objects within the class interrelate and entangle to shape learning in different ways. How do bodies and spaces work together and connect? How are relations shaped by object-space arrangements in classrooms and what inclusions or exclusions are produced as a result?
Tim: Agency is always relational, contingent on the agency of other elements. The agency of humans is constrained by the people, technologies and materials we are bound to or surrounded by. However, a complex understanding of constraint also allows for more agency, because by understanding how they are constrained, humans have more possibilities for action. We can more clearly where we can act on entangled relations. For example, by better understanding our place within a system, we can more easily see the different places where we might be able to reconfigure things to free up space to move.
The teaching approach at many HE institutions is heavily lecture-based. How does this lack of interaction with students affect the conversation we’re having around assemblages and learning space more broadly?
Karen: Teaching that does not include interactions between students and teachers or students and peers and that is transmission focused suits many of the traditional tiered teaching spaces that still dominate UK universities today. This is how we often assume teaching should ‘be done’ to students. If we think about these kinds of object-space arrangements we can see that they may not be conducive to creating meaningful dialogue, to fostering relationships, to engaging a diversity of learners, or to enabling innovative teaching to happen. Fortunately, there is also a lot of creative teaching that is happening both within and beyond these spaces that teachers can learn from. Teachers have always found ways to be subversive and also institutions are increasingly creating new and more flexible learning spaces.
Tim: I am wary of assumptions that there is no interaction in lectures. There is always interaction (and intra-action) in any educational activity; that is one of the premises of an assemblage. In this question, the lack of interaction is seen from the teacher’s point of view. It is important that we focus on what students are actually doing rather than what we assume they must be doing according to a particular teaching method. Spaces are always complex; there are always many things going on, many of which will divert from our expectations. However, the material configuration of a space (e.g. tiered lecture seating and a podium), and the scheduling of time, do impose real constraints on the activity that is likely to manifest. Within any method, we can tinker with these parameters of material and temporal configuration and, thereby, open up more possibilities for agency.
Where does collaborative learning happen in our future learning landscapes? We still seem to work in a very individualist learning mode, through assessment practices to curricula and beyond…
Karen: Yes there is a real need to move beyond values of individualism that are present within both academia and society, and to think about our relational connections and how these matter. Collaboration can happen everywhere and anywhere – via a student-staff partnership project; via dialogic modes of teaching, via group work, via walking and other creative pedagogies. Online and offline. We just have to value it and make it happen.
Tim: That our assessment processes and practices, and our formal structures of higher education, are so tightly configured around individualist learning is a challenge. However, it doesn’t change the fact that collaborative learning is inevitable and, to me, the primary form of learning, particularly if we are thinking of assemblages. As we continue to embed more collective and collaborative practices in education, such as student co-design, group work, and the integration of artificial intelligence technologies, alternative narratives will emerge that fit better with our experiences of collective learning and education. It will be fascinating to see if we adapt practices, policies and structures in response, and how the different narratives – collective and individual – will co-exist in tension and negotiation.
Some universities have created a lot of flexible collaborative classroom spaces – we find that when we create them at my institution, faculty either don’t know how to utilise them or prefer to still use them as lecture halls continuing the individualist learning. How can we create a space that ‘entangles’ both?
Karen: I find really helpful what Diane Mulcahy (2018, p 13) says about space, that “Thinking the term ‘learning spaces’ as something we do (stage, perform, enact), rather than something we have (infrastructure) affords acknowledging the multiplicity, mutability and mutual inclusivity of spatial and pedagogic practices”. In this case educators may need support to think about how they can make and enact the classroom to become an inclusive space. In my institution this happens via conversations for example as part of our PGCLTHE or other peer observation and mentoring practices. Perhaps teachers could be supported to see different ways to teach and to learn from others who are innovating and experimenting in the classroom.
Tim: The configuration of those spaces is actually a big step forward, even if practice and culture are slow to adapt to the new possibilities. A large part of what we need to do now is share practice and engage in open conversations about new possibilities. Individualist teaching may be the bigger barrier here: if we teach as individuals not as teams, and if we don’t talk enough about what we are all doing, we will have less exposure to alternative ways of educating. I think we are then less likely to develop practices that attune to wider contexts and possibilities.
Mulcahy, Dianne (2018) ‘Assembling Spaces of Learning ‘In’ Museums and Schools: A Practice-Based Sociomaterial Perspective.’ in Spaces of Teaching and Learning, Understanding Teaching-Learning Practice, edited by Ellis, E and Goodyear, P 13–29. Singapore: Springer
Dr Karen Gravett is Associate Professor and Director of Research at the Surrey Institute of Education at the University of Surrey, UK, where her research focuses on the theory-practice of higher education, and explores the areas of student engagement, belonging, and relational pedagogies. She is Director of the Language, Literacies and Learning research group, a member of the SRHE Governing Council, and a member of the editorial board for Teaching in Higher Education, and Learning, Media and Technology. Her work has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Society for Research in Higher Education, the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education, the British Association for Applied Linguistics, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Her latest books are: Gravett, K. (2023) Relational Pedagogies: Connections and Mattering in Higher Education, and Kinchin, IM and Gravett, K (2022) Dominant Discourses in Higher Education.
Tim Fawns is Associate Professor at the Monash Education Academy, Monash University, Australia. Tim’s research interests are at the intersection between digital, clinical and higher education, with a particular focus on the relationship between technology and educational practice. He has recently published a book titled Online Postgraduate Education in a Postdigital World: Beyond Technology. Personal website: http://timfawns.com. Twitter: @timbocop