Learning zones and placemaking

This briefing introduces ideas about learning zones and placemaking and why they are important for establishing learning communities.

What are learning zones?

Learning zones is a useful concept for academics to explore because the ideas can help a team to develop a rich picture of what learning means and how this is different to teaching. It is also useful for thinking about timetabling and session planning.

The concept of a learning zone is simply about having a place that students and staff on a course think of as belonging to them. Sometimes it can be a building, or part of it, where all teaching is scheduled. Not many of our courses and programmes, or even our Departments, can pinpoint such spaces so easily, however. This idea of space reflects a space that is conceived by an architect or a facilities manager for a purpose. Usually, we can’t do much about such designs or plans after they are in place. There are two other ways of thinking about it (Lefebvre, 1974/1991): space as it is perceived and space as it is ‘lived’ or experienced. Both of these meanings are more useful to academics and students because they acknowledge that we have agency over the spaces we use and we can make something of them as the ideas below suggest.

What is placemaking?

Placemaking is community participation for a particular purpose… It is about creating inclusive, community driven design in the built environment to create places of meaning, and neutral areas for people to meet, socialise and observe (Brunnberg and Frigo 2012). – O’Rourke & Baldwin (2016)

Placemaking describes the agency of the users over a space as they make it their own. Having a sense of agency can lead to individuals and groups deciding to perceive and use a space differently. This may involve you or others working on your behalf changing spaces or they way they are used formally, but especially informally.

Why are learning zones useful for me to think about?

Zoning and placemaking are important in higher education because they can positively impact on student retention and success. People are more likely to feel satisfied with their surroundings and what they do when they identify as a spatial community (Mannarini et al., 2012).

What can I do?

  • Discuss with your students or subject group what a ‘learning hub’ might mean to you and why this could be important;
  • Explore how you and your students can ‘take over’ a space for an event, e.g. a performance, learning activity, a ‘soap box’ meeting, peer support group, exhibition of work, etc.;
  • Use a classroom for outside of scheduled teaching as ‘home base’. Consider how you can make it your own by putting up notices, examples of work, social invitations, using it for making non-academic work. Consider what memories you can make there!
  • Encourage students to book classrooms for independent or group study or peer mentoring activities (Timetabling is developing this facility for 2017-18);
  • Agree with students and staff where a good meeting place is to improve the chance of people bumping into each other and to give commuting students a place to go between scheduled teaching;
  • Create maps that include staff office spaces, meeting points, and other significant places and facilities. You could do this as a staff-student activity.
  • Use learning walks as a good approach to active learning.

 

Further information

The Learning Engagement toolkit has information on learning walks and ‘twalks’ – learning walks incorporating tweetchats.

References

Lefebvre, H. (1974/1991). The production of space. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Mannarini, T., Rochira, A. & Talò, C. (2012). Identification processes and inter-community relationships affect sense of ccommunity. Journal of Community Psychology, 40, 951–967.

O’Rourke, V., & Baldwin, C. (2016). Student engagement in placemaking at an Australian university campus. Australian Planner, 1-14.