How physical setting affects learning

Peter Jamieson
For Peter Jamieson, an internationally renowned researcher from the University of Melbourne, flexible education is about creating learning spaces that encourage new forms of interaction.

On April 23, Peter Jamieson of the University of Melbourne (Australia) spoke at SFU about “Pedagogy in Place.” His presentation, the first public event organized by the university’s recently launched Task Force on Flexible Education, was provocative in the best sense of the word. Jamieson’s research focuses on how physical environments affect learning. In his remarks to a diverse group of SFU faculty and staff he advocated fundamental changes to the design of learning spaces inside and outside the classroom—all with the goal of facilitating more active and effective forms of teaching and learning.

Jamieson noted that the influence of physical setting on learners and instructors has been the subject of extensive research, especially in the U.K, Sweden and Hong Kong. He offered a number of examples of how that impact can operate:

  • People communicate differently depending on whether they are standing, sitting or crouching. Providing work surfaces at different heights changes the way learners interact.
  • Natural materials such as wood contribute to a positive classroom atmosphere.
  • Creating multiple “territories” in a room by means of colour, varied floor levels, differing materials and other design elements creates perceived boundaries that encourage the formation of groups and open expression within those groups.

Jamieson’s own work has involved collaborating with architects and builders to translate the research into the physical infrastructure of the University of Melbourne. His presentation included slides of classrooms with movable dividers, “writable” walls, retractable podiums and multi-level floors.

Ultimately, Jamieson emphasized that his objective is to change the way students and instructors interact rather than simply to change the look and feel of the classroom or lecture hall. He described it as “absurd” that “we often reconfigure rooms and then the people stay put in exactly the same place.”

Within the context of SFU’s initiative to develop more flexible education options, Jamieson’s ideas contributed to a broader understanding of flexible education in which, as he said, “space is possibility.”