I’ve been interested in how we can utilize space in different ways to enhance engagement and learning for a long time. Some of these interests have come from trying to find tactical responses to the conditions of specific classrooms: computers or no computers, natural light or windowless, tables or chairs, crammed or open. I hope that horror stories with room conditions aren’t frequent for instructors, but everyone seems to have at least one. (One of mine: Years ago I taught a freshman seminar class of twenty-two students in a room that could barely fit all of us with clear windows separating the rooms next to it where, if you used the blinds to create the common boundary between classes, the windows became reflective surfaces. I imagine this room was meant to serve some observational purpose for education students, though I can’t help but still think of it as some interrogation room for Vic Mackey to use after police shakedowns). Other interests stem from my commitment to making learning enjoyable and entertaining: a desire to make it both as performative and as comfortable as possible for everyone.
The challenge of optimizing learning in any space goes beyond stifling physical conditions to include pretty much everything else involved in a class: the core requirements of the course, the expectations of the instructor, the expectations of students, the nature of the content, the structure of class time/lessons/activities/assignments/etc etc etc. These conditions are also unique in every class. No learning habitat is the same, because they can’t be. Of course, different sections of the same class may share common practices, assignments, and other things in between; however, even these things can’t remain static if they don’t work within the particular classroom dynamics. In this sense, establishing a learning environment is always a rhetorical act: a negotiation between students and instructor given every salient condition for learning. When thinking of my ideal learning environment, it’s not in a classroom with my peers. It’s not in my office around my colleagues, or in a workshop group, or a coffee shop around people. It’s probably by myself with all of the relevant tools around me (my books, my laptop, my coffee) listening to something like this in a room with no overhead lighting and my dog asleep next to me. This doesn’t mean that I don’t value class time or collaboration–I love working with others and sharing ideas, and think I make this very apparent. It also doesn’t mean that I’m always sacrificing something when trying to learn in other environments. “Optimizing learning” as I think of it excludes calcified practices and static settings because truly optimizing anything requires an attempt to understand something holistically. Because of this, we should think of learning spaces as things we construct in real time with everyone involved: what we can create together given everything present in the situation at hand. And this will never come in one conceived “ideal” learning habitat.