Who’s in Charge? You or the Room?




ISSoTL 2014 was held this past October in Quebec City. I was attracted to the conference not just because of the theme (“Nurturing Passion and Creativity in Teaching and Learning”) but also because of the location—I had not been to Quebec City before.

Quebec City WallI walked from the Hotel Claredon, reputedly the oldest hotel in Canada, to the conference centre through the gates going from the old city to the “new” city each morning. I couldn’t help but notice how different it felt from one side of the wall to the other. The transition zone was well marked and prominent.

On the winding narrow streets of the Old City, every bend held a surprise. Roadways and sidewalks were suggestions rather than rules and the pace was different—the chance of being mowed down by speeding cars was minimal. In the new city, however, traffic was whizzing by several lanes deep and the wide streets had none of the Narrow streets of the Lower Town of Quebec Cityfriendliness of the narrow winding ones. I found that I behaved one way as a pedestrian in the old city and in another way in the new city. Thank goodness for the demarcation of the gates! They were my cue for when to change my behavior.

In the conference sessions I also found that stepping across the threshold into the space cued my expectations, and subsequent behavior, depending on the furniture arrangement and size. In the large auditorium with all 500 chairs facing “the front” I had no expectation of interacting with others. I was there to listen politely to the person at the podium. In the space with round tables and different areas of focus, I knew I would be meeting people and discussing ideas. The space arrangements cued my expectations regarding what I would be doing and what would be expected of me in that space.

Two of the sessions I attended at the conference were specifically about learning spaces. I was fascinated about how changing spaces was changing how instructors were teaching and how obvious it was that a traditional lecture space commanded and conformed “all that enter here” to be in “listening-to-expert” mode. It would, of course, take great energy and effort to counteract the norms cultivated and conveyed by the space itself in order to integrate active learning! No wonder students are shocked when they are asked to do “work” in the lecture environment—the room arrangement has cued them differently.

The two sessions I attended were about the University of Lethbridge’s LEE (Learning Environment Evaluation) project and Queen’s three specially designed active learning classrooms up and running in Ellis Hall. The 4-minute video on Ellis Hall is well-worth the time to get a quick overview.

To think about: How you interact with the spaces you inhabit? Does it shape your behavior or do you make it work for you?

We would love to know how you have taken command of the space you teach in to use strategies you know are most effective rather than letting the space dictate how you teach.

The picture of the city gates is courtesy of Smudge 9000, while the one of the narrow streets of Quebec City is courtesy of GK tramrunner229. Both pictures carry Creative Commons licenses. Details are available by clicking on the pictures.

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