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Space is vital for meaningful learning

Skrevet af Anne Jensen - Foto: Shutterstock.  - 30. marts 2017 - 11:530 kommentarer
A lack of space is a problem for learning because space inserts a distance between the learner and the content which the student is exposed to, says Associate Professor Maribel Blasco.

Are we producing a generation of future managers indoctrinated to think that busyness is the only morally defensible approach to work? Associate Professor Maribel Blasco has examined students and the importance of space in curricula.

If we systematically expose students to rash and cramped curricula, we are teaching them that learning is about being stressed – if you are not feeling stressed, you are not learning anything. This is why Associate Professor Maribel Blasco expresses concerns when she hears her students worry about, for instance, spending too much time on reading instead of working on their projects. Maribel Blasco argues that it is not their fault but a systemic problem, which they merely respond to and try living up to.

Maribel Blasco from the Department of Management, Society and Communication at CBS has written an article which argues that productive learning spaces must be purposefully built into management curricula. She wrote it after interviews with approximately 30 undergraduate business students from Denmark and France. For her contribution to the field, she has received a prize for Best Paper 2016 awarded by the journal Management Learning.

Why did you choose to study this specific subject?

An ex-student told me: “My bachelor was like a whirlwind, totally overwhelming, there was no space to think at all’. I was quite shocked to hear this since, as a teacher, you rarely get any insight into students’ all-round learning experience. You only get to hear about your own course if you are lucky. Around the same time, I attended an event guested by entrepreneurs, who all insisted that you need to give your mind a break, lie flat on your back and do nothing to establish creative and innovate thinking. I was intrigued by the contrast between the student’s rushed learning experience and the entrepreneurs’ purposeful habit of clearing space to do absolutely nothing. I had read about Japanese aesthetics, notably about the concept of “ma” – empty, negative or ‘white’ space. The idea is that structures – e.g. notes in the case of a musical composition – both depend on and create space, thereby, also aesthetic effect. In music, the spaces between the notes enable melody, pace and rhythm. Likewise in teaching, space is necessary for movement and progress. But in contemporary Western capitalist societies, silence and emptiness are often seen as a void or waste. All these ideas came together, and I began to think about curricula as three-dimensional artefacts composed of structures, content and spaces.

These ideas materialised in 2012, and it took me three years to complete the paper. The paper itself is, therefore, an example of “ma” – I did not think about publication outlets or statistics when I was writing it. The only sure thing was that I did not want to rush it which, interestingly enough, is the research process I have enjoyed most.

What can you conclude?

So far, my pilot interviews with students confirm the deficit of space: they lack space to think, space to catch up, space for autonomy and space for reflection that is not harnessed to the obligation to complete a task. This latter kind of space used to be abundant in Danish higher education but is now increasingly being eroded as a result of political interventions to speed up the completion time of study programmes; and because of the pressure to measure learning in quantifiable ways such as exams.

Why is space vital for meaningful learning?

A lack of space is a problem for learning because space inserts a distance between the learner and the content which the student is exposed to. This distance is essential for critical thinking and learner autonomy – for students to step back, contemplate and appraise the materials presented to them in a learning situation in order to form their own opinion about it.

Can too much space also be a problem?

If students experience that they are left to drift and there are too few expectations, they get frustrated and experience their learning process as meaningless. A part of the project is to study how appropriate spaces in curricula can be designed. This is challenging because experiences of space are very subjective – what feels like a spacious curriculum for one student may feel cramped to another.

How is space defined?

Through the research until now, I have learned that curricular space is shaped by a number of factors that produce a combined effect including the perceived complexity of the subject matter, the number of subjects students must attend simultaneously (degree of multi-tasking) and the density of the learning experience (e.g. how many assignments and how much reading students are expected to do within a given time slot). Governance structures also play a key role: The study progress reform is an obvious example of this.

What are the prospects of having space in the curricula?

The topic of space is seldom explicitly on the radar of higher education and addressed systematically in programme planning or at political level. When it is, it is usually discussed in terms of physical things – e.g. how to create amenable learning environments (classrooms).

First we need to raise awareness about the importance of curricular space. Then we need curricular interventions that address both the ‘vertical stacking’ of tasks (assignments, lectures, exams, readings, parallel courses) and students’ horizontal experience of the curriculum as they move from one curricular event to the next. For instance, a particularly work-heavy or complex course or an imminent exam can overshadow everything else at a given time, causing students to down-priorities other aspects of their curriculum in order to get through it. Moreover, we need feed-back mechanisms that enable a comprehensive picture of students’ spatial experiences of the curriculum.

Please contact Maribel Blasco with your questions.