Best Practice

Next Generation Learning Spaces

Generation Next: What should I think about when planning a new learning space and why does it matter?  

This is the title of a talk myself and colleague Dr Sarah Mulrooney delivered at this week’s Next Generation Learning Spaces Launch. Sarah is a lecturer in architecture and I am a lecturer in learning and teaching. So what could we possibly have in common?


For the purposes of the event, Sarah and I met and worked on some common themes about the connections between space and learning. Having a PhD in pedagogy and architecture means that Sarah has a keen eye for the structural elements of a building – acoustics, materials and design as well as a deeper understanding of how this relates to learning. One of her site visits involved exploring and interacting with students and teachers at FAU in Sao Paulo, Brazil. As one of the lecturers exclaims ‘the building is the best class’ – students engaging in learning within a space which also teaches them.

My own work is around how lecturers can engage constantly in a process of interrogation of space – how does the space in which we teach influence learning? How might space impede or enhance the learning experience? As part of the Certificate, Diploma and Masters in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, our students, who are educators from across the university and also external to UCC, engage and explore their teaching contexts via discussions and reflections about learning spaces. Fundamentally we want to know: What do these spaces tell us about teaching and learning in higher education?

As we move towards more dynamic modes of teaching, new learning spaces need to reflect this change. The passive-style ‘sage on the stage’ is now being replaced by ‘guide on the side’ as students are being encouraged to become actively engaged advocates for their own learning.

In our exploration of pedagogy before technology and learning-driven (and indeed learner-driven) design, Sarah and I discovered a list of common themes which we believe are vital for educators and planners to take into account when thinking about the development or redevelopment of a new space for learning. These are:

  • Flexibility – e.g. moveable furniture, writable surfaces, accessibility
  • Ownership & use – who can access the space? How will it best be used? Is it sustainable?
  • Individual & collective – is there the possibility for the space to be used for individual study as well as groups?
  • Form & function – allowing a space to become what it is over time – organically e.g. large stairs which may be used for people to sit and chat instead of only functioning as stairs; large pods where students might sleep as well as study.
  • Internal & external – e.g. external light sources, open windows etc
  • Micro & macro – small vs large interventions e.g. writeable desks in a space might be the one change that is needed
  • Physical & psychological – how the space can change, even our own psychology can change depending on our relationship with the space – how does it make us feel? Physical space is also changing as we embrace technology
  • Practice & pedagogy – how can space reflect our pedagogical influences? E.g. socio-constructivist approaches where students learn from one another. How can this be maximised in practice in a space design?

There are clearly many overlapping elements here and many ideas which can be explored.

Finally, at the heart of any design there needs to be:

Open consultation with the stakeholders – we are concerned with both teaching AND learning. This means harnessing the student voice.

These are exciting times.

Note: Slides from Dr Supple & Dr Mulrooney’s presentation are now available on the Resources page of this website