#SEC2019: Learning Spaces: A review of the 2019 Annual Student Education Conference at The University of Leeds

Written by Jody Bradford

The annual Student Education Conference in Leeds took place on 10th and 11th January. This presented a real opportunity to engage with some current thinking regarding pedagogy and, as the title of the conference suggests, learning spaces. Although a university-wide conference, this theme can appeal to language teachers at the University of Leeds for a number of reasons. There appears to be an issue of a lack of, or a perceived lack of teaching space appropriate to language teachers in particular. Due to the more interactive way in which we often conduct our lessons in languages, seminar and flat floor rooms are much more feasible for delivering effective classes: this can differ from discipline teaching, which (depending on the discipline) may be more lecture theatre or laboratory based.  The conference did broach relevant current thinking and proposed solutions to this challenge, in order to move forward with our future generations of learners, whilst also providing perspectives and scholarly approaches concerning teaching and pedagogy, with some emphasis on research therein.

Although there were many themes and paradigms approached at the conference of possible interest to language teachers, this review will attempt to address the readers of the Language Scholar with only the most pertinent and accessible information which may be applied or pursued in the space we have at Leeds and elsewhere. It aims to be reflective, yet concise and practical in nature with an eye to being useful and insightful while considering some possible future implications of learning spaces and pedagogy in language teaching. If you would like any more information or academic contacts relating to the concepts and applications from the conference, please see the address for correspondence at the end of the review.

The key themes of the conference appeared to address several progressive areas. Could the application of learner analytics, the emergence of immersive technology and the more readily available facility of multi-modal learning resources and environments convince students and teachers of an authentic and accessible approach? By authentic, this means an approach which allows students to explore, discuss and form relationships in a classroom which is contextually relevant to their world. This question should be unpacked and applied to our professional situations and areas of concern at the university. Is it possible to find a solution to both a real and perceived lack of space and favourable work environment, particularly during the summer at the Language Centre, for example?

The opening keynote speech by Adam Finkelstein of McGill University in Montreal explored ideas, concepts and also physical design ideas of learning spaces in action. Even changing the classroom in small and meaningful ways, such as moving furniture and adding extra whiteboards can make a great impact on both student and teacher engagement and well-being. Most of us, as language teachers, are used to applying these changes in the classroom and seeing them work to great effect. We should not forget the power that these kinds of classroom adjustments can have, even amongst perceived backdrops of formality in higher education. Current discussions around mental health also, rightly, point out that both student and teacher well-being are paramount to effective teaching and learning in the classroom, and to contribute (hopefully) to a sense of fulfilment for both parties. By using and manipulating what is available and in front of us in the classroom can help to contribute to this, by helping us, as teachers, to feel in control of our own environment: this confidence in our own learning environment can then help to reassure students and lower anxiety levels in the classroom. Adam also explored the ‘marrying up’ of the ideal with the practical and achievable. Despite other fascinating talks that followed during the conference on innovative learning spaces across the world by architects and project leaders, Adam stayed on the teacher’s level: in that he accepted, due to budget allocation and HE allowances and funding, sometimes there were big frustrations regarding the ‘rolling out’ and installation of such comfortable and standardised learning spaces. This, however, is not an excuse for us not to employ our own expert take on learning spaces conducive to our own pedagogical style and wellbeing in the classroom, using and adapting the tools that are available to us, while also employing an openness to new ideas, techniques and institutional change. For example, Adam referred to James Lang’s (2016) article ‘Small changes in teaching: The first 5 minutes of class’, which refers to the relationships we build with our students in those precious couple of minutes before formal class time starts – these couple of minutes of interaction can go much further in building relationships than arriving exactly on time, or shuffling papers at the desk. Adam also outlined the importance of seemingly small logistical set-ups: how the furniture is positioned and how the lighting is configured can have both a subtle and significant impact on our behaviour as teachers, which of course can hugely influence our students and their perspectives on learning in our spaces.

During the second day of the conference, there was a panel discussion led by a range of speakers, including a student, architect and the two keynote speakers. Key aspects of this Q&A session relevant to Language Teachers included themes we are used to addressing, as actors in the classroom. These include the consideration of the use of informal, as well as formal, spaces. As many of us did and continue to do as students and learners and have been used to doing as language teachers in various environments, we should expand (again!) our thinking to using spaces beyond the classroom. These could include informal spaces, such as meeting rooms, cafes and library shared spaces. We can and should view campus as a ‘living laboratory’: as teachers or researchers or both, we should be able to use physical spaces, whether formal or informal, as spaces in which we can teach, collaborate, access and duly filter appropriate information and observations. This equally extends to our virtual learning and teaching spaces, where the use of learner analytics can help us to provide quality input and motivate our students to ‘study smart’ and can also help us to manage our work load more effectively. Questions of ethics related to learner analytics are incredibly important and clear guidelines need to be established and reflected on. All this being said, it became apparent through this conference that, if used properly and sensitively, learner analytics could open several doors in education when considering student learning methods and approaches, teacher workload and innovative curriculum design.

The question of how we can achieve a fully integrated learning experience was also posed. Bearing in mind the generation that we now teach and future generations of students to come, we must accept that we are dealing with learners who do not necessarily remark upon the difference between virtual and physical space. That is not to say that students do not value teachers and physical spaces; it is to say that students are beginning to accept the blended learning style approach as a norm rather than as an exception and using this to their advantage. As teachers, we can harness this digital fluidity and adaptability that students undoubtedly now possess to our advantage. Students who have grown up with smart technology are seemingly more able to process and filter the masses of information easily available to them by using tools and learning experiences that did not exist in the past. As teachers, we should recognise this potential of moving seamlessly between virtual and real spaces, and harness it; knowing that this could help to address, in part, the issues we may have with physical space on campus.

Looking forward, we can and should take some of these progressive ideas from the conference into account, whilst also maintaining our expertise as practitioners, educators and researchers in pedagogy in the classroom to encourage ourselves and our peers to make the small and meaningful changes that are within our control and which can have a great impact on people.

Address for correspondence: j.bradford@leeds.ac.uk

REFERENCES

Lang, J.M., 2016. Small changes in teaching: The first 5 minutes of class. The Chronicle of Higher Education. [Online]. [Accessed 29 March 2019]. Available from: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Small-Changes-in-Teaching-The/234869?cid=trend_right_a