by Pippa Yeoman
Wednesday June 14 saw the second instalment of the SRHE ‘Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures: prospects for space in higher education’ symposia series, delivered in partnership with series co-convenors Professor Sam Elkington and Dr. Jill Dickinson.
Sam drew the second session to a close with a question, “What matters most?”
I wanted to have my say then and there but I was watching delayed at a distance and in that moment, I wanted to say: “It is the care with which we anticipate what is to come and prepare accordingly that matters most”.
The session had been framed in terms of flexibilities. It was an opportunity for us to consider the myriad forces shaping the spaces in which we teach and learn including broadening participation, shifting patterns of attendance, mixed motivations for enrolment, and the blurring of boundaries in which polycontexturality and multi-chronicity now shape a university education.
To flex is to possess physical properties affording bending, a willingness to yield to the opinions of another, or to be characterised as capable of adapting to new or changing circumstance (Merriam-Webster, nd)
The choice of the plural — flexibilities — was intended to invoke multiplicities or an opening up to possibilities. This is an orientation I am ordinarily at home with but in this instance I must confess a reticence based on my preference for avoiding the use of the singular — flexible — when speaking of the built environment for learning. In my role at the University of Sydney, I am tasked with ensuring more than 900 learning spaces support our educational aspirations in the teaching of over 70,000 students and I have grown weary of calls for flexible furnishings and future-proof spaces. Rooms of requirement, however much they may delight our imaginings, are a fiction. At some point, decisions based on underlying educational purposes must be made and a single chair, table, or room cannot be all things to all people concurrently.
Reflecting on the purpose of a university education, Jeremy introduced us to Biesta’s (2012) categories of qualification or the acquisition of knowledge and skills, socialisation or enculturation into existing social practices, and subjectification or the individual process of becoming. Applying them to the learning landscape immediately multiplies the contexts in which we can be intentional about supporting students in becoming part of a community, developing as individuals, and working towards a qualification.
But to move from high-level educational purposes to practical plans, we need more than a stable design orientation or purpose. We need clarity about what is open to alteration through design and capable of supporting activity that we value, everything from quiet introspection and still imaginings to strident debate and active co-creation.
Framing activity in terms of emergence is helpful in this regard. Alexander (2001) explains emergence with the help of a whirlpool; a momentary vortex produced by the flow of water through a particular configuration of riverbed, banks and rocks. The vortex is not part of the river in the same way the riverbed, banks and rocks are. Rather, it is induced in the action of the whole. But if this analogy is to be of any use to us, we must identify the educational equivalents of the riverbed, banks and rocks.
We must ask, what are the underlying structures that support what students do, how they do it, and who they do it with on any given day? The framing of this question deliberately references the three dimensions of the Activity-Centred Analysis and Design framework (Goodyear & Carvalho, 2014; Goodyear, Carvalho & Yeoman, 2021) that are open to alteration through design. They are the epistemic design (task eg interview for a report), the set design (tools eg Bring Your Own Device), and the social design (people eg group roles). The fourth is not open to alteration through design. Instead, it is emergent. It is acts of co-creation and co-configuration or what is done with what has been proposed.
I have found this framing helpful in identifying the underlying structures of learning and in tracing students’ responses to them when they are free to do what they must in order to learn (Ilich, 1973). And this is not to mention the freedom that educators experience when they are able to respond to the needs of their students based on their understanding of what really matters and is within the realm of their influence on any given day. Learning to work with these ideas has produced some practical tools (Yeoman & Carvalho, 2019; Carvalho et al, 2023) that offer just enough, but not too much, structure.
Biesta’s (2012) core purposes of education make the task of tending the learning landscapes of unknown futures less fraught by providing a clear and steady orientation. The three purposes persist; it is how we anticipate and support them that varies, all the while honouring their singular multiplicity qualification-socialisation-subjectification. And the analogy of the whirlpool brings us closer to understanding what it means to say that place is produced in the interaction of the whole, neither fully determined in advance nor unyielding to perturbations in the doing.
Thinking through ‘flexibilities’ with the aim of supporting diverse cohorts to flourish as they make their way through the learning landscapes of unknown futures has certainly been productive and, based on my reflection, I will add to my initial response to Sam’s question,
“It is the care with which we anticipate what is to come and prepare accordingly — building the structure and yielding to the flow — that matters most.”
Pippa is a committed educational ethnographer and academic developer, with a deep-rooted passion for instructional and architectural design. As a Senior Lecturer (Learning Spaces) on the Educational Innovation team at the University of Sydney, she takes a central role in translating and implementing strategic initiatives related to the university’s built environment.
Her primary focus lies in the design and development of spaces that support diverse student cohorts throughout the day, across semesters, and throughout various degree programs. Pippa’s ambition is to contribute to the creation of a convivial learning environment – a campus that not only welcomes but also serves a purpose for every student. Her expertise is built on a comprehensive body of observational research, which she enriches through cross-disciplinary collaborations with academic and professional peers.
Alexander, C. (2001). The nature of order: an essay on the art of building and the nature of the Universe. Oxford University Press.
Illich, I. (1973). Tools for conviviality. Calder and Boyars.
Further resources from this event including sketch illustrations and a summary of discussions are also available from https://srhe.ac.uk/events/past-events/