The Meaning of ‘Flow’ in Education

Anyone who follows this blog will know that I am interested in the work of Iain McGilchrist and what we can learn from his book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Currently I am thinking about what implications some of the central themes of this book might have for education. The theme I have been exploring is ‘flow’.

When educators talk about ‘flow’ in education, they are more likely to be thinking of the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ‘me-high-cheek-sent-me-high’) rather than Iain McGilchrist. Csikszentmihalyi’s work has been influential in encouraging teachers to consider questions of motivation and how to fully engage their students in learning. His theory of flow, ‘the holistic sensation that people have when they act with total involvement’ (Beard, 2014) or ‘being in the zone’, dates back to 1975, when he noticed that artists could be completely immersed in their work for hours and hours, losing sense of time passing, and completely focussing on process rather than outcome. They ‘go with the flow’. He wondered why then did schools treat children as if they were rats in a maze, ignoring the importance of process and focussing instead on outcome and reward.

Csikszentmihalyi has described eight characteristics of flow:

  1. Complete concentration on the task
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down of time)
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding
  5. Effortlessness and ease
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task

These characteristics describe the process needed to experience ‘flow’ in Csikszentmihali’s terms. Being in a state of ‘flow’ is thought to deepen learning or at the very least make learning more enjoyable.

Csikszentmihalyi is known to have related his work to education, whereas McGilchrist relates his work more broadly to living in and attending to the world, which, although not specific to education, certainly has implications for education. In his book The Master and his Emissary, McGilchrist provides substantial evidence for two ways of attending to the world;  the way of the left hemisphere of the brain and the way of the right hemisphere. I have written a number of posts about this in the past and am not going to repeat it here. A good introduction to those new to McGilchrist’s work is this video  and this short book, which summarises his key ideas – Ways of Attending: How our Divided Brain Constructs the World.

For Iain McGilchrist, ‘flow’ isn’t something experienced only when certain conditions are met. Rather he considers that all things are in flow all the time, including ourselves. He often uses the mountain behind his house to illustrate this, saying that if we could slow things down sufficiently we would be able to see the mountain flowing.

Source of image: http://player.lush.com/tv/matter-relative-matter-iain-mcgilchrist

We are always growing and are therefore always in a state of change and self-repair, and always in a state of flow. We are never the same from one moment to the next, neither is anything else. As Heraclitus is purported to have said, we can never step into the same river twice.

McGilchrist suggests that seeing the world as in a state of flow, is to understand it as ‘live, complex, embodied’, a ‘world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected’ (p.30). This perspective avoids fragmentation of knowledge, something that Csikszentmihalyi also believes is necessary to experience flow. But if everything is always in flow and always changing, how can anything ever be known?

The answer, according to McGilchrist, is that ‘We have to find a way of fixing [experience] as it flies, stepping back from the immediacy of experience, stepping outside the flow’ (p.30).  The evidence that we do this in education is all around us. However, there is a danger in doing this if it results in an obsession with ‘fixing’ such that our experience is fragmented, and knowledge is always broken down into measurable ‘bits’ which can be tested, the assumption being that we can then tick that ‘bit’ off as known. Stepping ‘outside the flow of experience’ gives us a view of the world that is ‘explicit, abstracted, compartmentalised, fragmented [and] static (though its ‘bits’ can be re-set in motion, like a machine)…’ (p.93). Such a world is easier to manipulate and control, and makes us feel more powerful.

According to McGilchrist, the problem is that, whilst we need to ‘step back from the immediacy of experience’ to know anything, we tend to get ‘stuck’ in this view of the world which prioritises ‘clarity; detached, narrowly focussed attention; the knowledge of things as built up from the parts; sequential analytic logic as the path to knowledge; and […] detail over the bigger picture’ (p.177). As such we lose sight of the whole.

For McGilchrist experiencing ‘flow’ means experiencing the whole and understanding:

  • Empathy and intersubjectivity as the ground of consciousness
  • The importance of an open, patient attention to the world, as opposed to a wilful, grasping attention
  • The implicit or hidden nature of truth
  • The emphasis on process rather than stasis,
  • The journey being more important that the arrival
  • The primacy of perception
  • The importance of the body in constituting reality
  • And emphasis on uniqueness
  • The objectifying nature of vision
  • The irreducibility of all value to utility
  • Creativity as an unveiling (no-saying) process rather than a wilfully constructive process.
  • The challenge for educators is how to reconcile the need to fix and test within a flow mindset.

McGilchrist has always stressed the importance of ‘both/and’ thinking, as opposed to the ‘either/or’ thinking, which seems to dominate much of our work in education. He tells us that for strength and stability, and to avoid fragmentation and disintegration, we need to be able to hold opposing ideas in dynamic equilibrium, an idea that seems particularly relevant to current times. He illustrates what he means by this with an image of the taut string of a bow or lyre (p. 270):

The taut string, its two ends pulling apart under opposing forces, that for bow or lyre is what gives its vital strength or virtue, is the perfect expression of a dynamic, rather than static, equilibrium. This holding of movement within stasis, of opposites in reconciliation, is also imaged in Heraclitus’ most famous saying, that ‘all things flow’. Stability in the experiential world is always stability provided by a form through which things continue to flow’.  

An education system which focused more on ‘both/and’ thinking and seeing the world as being in continuous ‘flow’, would need what McGilchrist has called ‘a change of heart’. Amongst other considerations, there would need to be less fragmentation and measurement, a greater focus on process, connection and context, an appreciation of depth, a tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty and a view of the world as embodied rather than conceptual. From this perspective knowing would be seen as an emergent process, rather than fixed. Is such a paradigm shift achievable, or have we already stepped so far out of the flow of experience that we have lost sight of the importance of also viewing the world from a perspective of ‘flow’?

References

Beard, K.S. (2014). Theoretically Speaking: An Interview with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Flow Theory Development and Its Usefulness in Addressing Contemporary Challenges in Education. Educ Psychol Rev. 27, 353-364

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Drawing to think

I will start by saying that I do not draw to think, even though I do occasionally draw. I write to think, which is why I am writing this post. Let me explain.

Next week I will attend a one day symposium at Lancaster University on ‘The Materiality of Nothing’

The purpose of the symposium is ‘to extend conversations initiated by the AHRC funded ‘Dark Matters’ project which considered the provocations around Thresholds of Imperceptibility’ I attended the Dark Matters workshop at the end of last year and wrote a couple of posts about it.

For the symposium next week, the invitation from Sarah Casey included the following text:

The Materiality of Nothing is a one day symposium at Lancaster University bringing together practice and perspectives on negotiating the absent, unseen and unknown across art, science and social science. Across the arts and sciences that we call ‘zero’, ‘absence’ or ‘nothing’ remains a potent and powerful entity shaping the way we make sense of the world. It is staggering to reflect that 95% of our universe is invisible to human sensing; the provocation of the unknown and unseen is arguably at the core of creative thinking in the arts and sciences.

This event brings together a range perspectives on materialising the absent, unseen and unknown to reflect on the following questions:

  • How can ‘nothing’ be embodied?
  • How does it feel to encounter the immaterial and how might we negotiate it?
  • How might mathematics – as a speculative ‘messenger’ to and from the unsensed – be understood as a medium for generating touch and relationship (or not)?
  • How might absence, uncertainty be used as provocations and tool for creative thinking?
  • What can this offer in terms of understanding relationship and non-relationship, affect and non affect?

For me this resonates with my interest in Absent Presence and also in what Peter Shukie has called the ‘voice of the voiceless’. In other words, how can we give voice to the voiceless and how we can become more aware of the influences of what is not in plain sight?

A final paragraph in Sarah’s invitation asks us to ….

…. bring along a drawing , notebook or object that could be described as something you think with. The principal editor of Drawing Research Theory Practice Journal  published by Intellect has been in touch and is keen to link up this aspect of the symposium with the journal.

Hence the title of this post.

This invitation has highlighted for me that I do not draw to think, although I am interested enough in drawing to know that many people use drawing to think. Here are a few people that come to mind.

Marc Chagall’s sketchbook

Marc ChagallSource of image

Peter Checkland’s soft systems methodology rich pictures

soft-systems-methodology-for-solving-wicked-problems-5-638Source of image

Nick Sousanis – sketching entropy

Sousanis-Entropy-sketches-49

Source of image

From the Research Theory Practice Journal website it is clear that the journal is interested in physical drawing as opposed to electronic drawing.

This journal seeks to reestablish the materiality of drawing as a medium at a time when virtual, on-line, and electronic media dominates visuality and communication.

This is interesting when artists such as David Hockney are using iPads for drawing. Hockney is on my mind at the moment as I will be going to see his portraits exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in September.

So knowing that I write to think, rather than draw to think, and knowing that the activity for the symposium next week really wants physical drawings rather than ’electronic’ drawings, I am a bit stumped. But I can only do what I can do, so I am taking along the following two examples of drawing/mapping that I do electronically.

ModPo footprints for paper 041013

This example above is how I think about and reflect on any given learning experience. I use the Footprints of Emergence framework which Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau and I developed for trying to understand learning in open learning environments. This has been published as a research paper.  The ‘footprints’ above reflect my experience in the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC and were included in a book chapter that we published in 2015.

Williams, R., Mackness, J., & Pauschenwein, J. (2015). Using Visualization to Understand Transformations in Learning and Design in MOOCs. In A. Mesquita & P. Peres (Eds.), Furthering Higher Education Possibilities through Massive Open Online Courses (pp. 193 – 209). IGI Global book series Advances in Higher Education and Professional Development. doi:10.4018/978-1-4666-8279-5

The second example is a mapping exercise

enhanced Keywords screenshot 090716 for Lancaster course

For this I used a mapping tool developed by Matthias Melcher to trace the development of my thinking through my research papers. I blogged about it at the time.

I suspect that neither of these is considered examples of drawing to think, but they’re as close as I can get.

I am very much looking forward to the symposium next Thursday.

New metaphors for learning

Once you start thinking in terms of metaphors for learning, you find them everywhere.

At the beginning of this year Mariana Funes, Frances Bell and I had a paper published about the use of the rhizome as a metaphor for learning. Our research findings were that this can be a problematic metaphor for learning, depending on how it is understood and interpreted.

Mackness, J., Bell, F. & Funes, M. (2016). The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC. 32(1), p.78-91 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

Then at the Networked Learning Conference in Lancaster last month, Caroline Haythornthwaite suggested that we need new metaphors for networked learning. She went through the many metaphors that are already used. I blogged about this at the time, but here is her presentation again from which these two images/slides below are taken.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 17.47.57

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 17.49.19

This week, or maybe it was last week, I noted on Twitter that Thomas Ryberg, one of the organisers of the Networked Learning Conference, used patchworking as a metaphor for learning in his PhD dissertation and Frances Bell has often written of knitting as a metaphor for learning and tweeted a link to her blog post. Donna Lanclos added to this discussion by tweeting a link to an article by Katie Collins who writes about needlecraft metaphors for academic writing. The Materiality of Research: Woven into the Fabric of the Text: Subversive material metaphors in academic writing.

Also at the Networked Learning Conference, Sian Bayne asked us to think about learning in terms of space. Although she didn’t use the word metaphor, there were plenty of them in her keynote, smooth and striated space, fluid and fire space, code/space. I blogged about this at the time too. 

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 20.27.23

I have recognised space as a metaphor for learning before, when I visited the Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2014. At the time I felt we could learn a lot from how architects think about space.

This week Stephen Downes has used the metaphors of time and space to talk about how we might perceive changes in learning brought about by the internet, digital and connected learning.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 19.45.16

http://www.downes.ca/presentation/384 

This was an interesting talk. Stephen pointed out that our education system is geared to linear, time-oriented, objectives and outcomes driven ways of thinking and learning. He suggested that space metaphors might be more appropriate for learning in a digital age, referring us to Carrie Paechter’s metaphors of space in educational theory and practice.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 18.01.05

The space metaphor aligns well with my own interest in emergent learning and viewing learning environments as being on a spectrum between prescribed and emergent learning.

I can also see connections to Nick Sousanis’ and Ian McGilchrist’s work.

In his book Unflattening Nick Sousanis warns against becoming stuck in the ‘flatlands’ and not being able to see the whole picture. In a recent post about this book I wrote:

The book is about the narrowness and flatness of our vision and thereby of our understanding of the world around us. It is a plea for seeing beyond the boundaries of our current frames of reference, beyond the limitations of text, beyond the borders of the ‘flatlands’. It is a plea to imagine otherwise, to find different perspectives and new ways of seeing.

Ironically this week Nick Sousanis reported that a library in France couldn’t categorise his book.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 18.12.51

This is another example of the dominance of linear thinking which want to fix ideas into ordered categories. Matthias Melcher has developed a think tool for overcoming this categorisation problem where an idea/object must be allocated to just one category. In his tool it is possible to assign an idea to multiple categories. He explains how it works in this video and I have described how I have used it in another blog post.

Ian McGilchrist is also concerned with the narrowness or in Sousanis’ terms ‘flatness’ of our thinking. He puts this down to attentional asymmetry of the hemispheres of the brain and the dominance of the left hemisphere, which focuses attention, unlike the right hemisphere which sees the whole picture.

McGilchrist has also highlighted the importance of metaphor. In this article he is reported as arguing that

“…. metaphor is a primal facet of human thought, that it “is the only way of understanding anything.”

In August I will be attending a 4-day course  in which I am hoping to learn more about Ian McGilchrist’s views about the relationship between these different ways of thinking and the future of education. I know his next book will be about education and will have the Title – The Porcupine is a Monkey.  Like Stephen Downes, Caroline Haythornthwaite, Sian Bayne and Nick Sousanis, Ian McGilchrist writes about the need for new ways of thinking.

“My suggestion is that we need a whole new way of thinking about the nature of reality, one that understanding the way our brain works can help us achieve.” (McGilchrist, 2014, The Porcupine is a Monkey)

Thinking in terms of metaphors seems an interesting way forward.

Summer Schools, GIFs and Life Drawing

I have been enjoying Pat Thomson’s daily blog posts about her 5 day course on the Tate Summer School.

I was particularly interested in the making of animated GIFs that they did on the last day, using this software. I have never made a GIF myself, although I have seen a lot, particularly in the outputs from ds106 – an open online course about Digital Storytelling. Pat has posted a link to a Tumblr site where all the GIFs made on her course have been archived. I have to say that I am not a fan of GIFs. When they pop up on a site, I usually wish there was a button that I could push to stop them, so that I could read the rest of the post without distraction. I find the constant quick flicking of images irritating. I think my problem is that I haven’t been able to determine the point of a lot of GIFs that I have seen, other than that they might be seen as a fun addition to a post. But Pat’s post made me do a search for what are considered to be ‘good’ GIFs. I have found quite a few sites where they seem to make more sense, e.g. their use to explain Newton’s cradle  or for advertising as in this Animated Bunny GIF .

Newtons_cradle_animation_book_2 Source of Gif

And I was very grateful to Matthias Melcher when he created a GIF to depict a 3D image of our Footprints of Emergence landscape  (This won’t make sense without reference to the associated research. See Publications and this presentation for research references).

output_CFbB5v

So thanks to Pat for sharing her experience at the Tate Summer School, which sounds a treat, although personally I think I like the sound of a week long life drawing class in London, that a friend has signed up for, better. Evidently according to a recent BBC News article,  life drawing can stave off memory loss, so it would serve a double function 🙂

Update 28-07-15

Here is a link to the storify that Nancy refers to in the comments below – https://storify.com/NancyWhite/the-value-of-memes-in-engaged-mobile-learing-with-

Beyond Institutions – Personal Learning in a Networked World

This was Stephen Downes’ second talk in a series of 3, which he is giving in London this week. This is how he introduced it on his blog Stephen’s Web 

In this presentation I look at the needs and demands of people seeking learning with the models and designs offered by traditional institutions, and in the spirit of reclaiming learning describe a new network-based system of education with the learner managing his or her education.

Although I have only listened to the recording of this talk, I found it more interesting than the first talk, which I listened to live, having been a delegate at the conference, although there was plenty of interest in that one too. What I like about Stephen’s talks is that he doesn’t pull any punches. He always challenges my thinking.

The thrust of this talk, from my perception, is, as the title suggests, that learning is no longer in the control of institutions, but increasingly personal and in the control of learners as they occupy a networked world. There is a distinction between personal learning and personalized learning. Institutions don’t understand personal learning because personal learning has to be in the control of the learner. It is made to order. Learning is built not from a kit but from scratch. Institutions think they are catering for personal learning, but in fact are offering personalized learning – which is ‘off the shelf’ learning; one package with a bunch of options.

There is evidence that today’s students are demanding change and want more control. Learning is no longer about remembering. The content, nature and means of learning are changing on a daily basis. Learning today is more about play and socializing. Lecturing is also changing. Lecturing today is not so much about content as creating the potential for dialogue.

A particularly challenging point that Stephen made was ‘Do away with models’ – learning models and design models.  The right model is no model. New versions of old models don’t produce results. It is obvious that people learn differently, have different objectives, priorities, goals and times when they want to learn, but if you use a learning model you are attempting to predefine the outcome, whereas learning should be about discovery and exploration. I would also say from the work I have done with Roy Williams, that we need to recognize that  learning will often be unpredictable and emergent. (See Emergent learning and learning ecologies in Web 2.0)

Autonomy rather than control is the essential in education. Autonomy does not mean no structure, it means choice of structure. Personal learning is based on self-organization and self-organizing networks. Learners need to reclaim management and organization of learning. The way forward will be for students/learners to have their own personal web server and run their own web services from their own home networks.  The University will be a box in your living room. Learning should be cooperative and networked. It is not content that is important, but the making of connections. Learners need networking skills.

What do we need from institutions?

We do not need

  • more models, more designs
  • more learning theories
  • more standards, measurement and centralization
  • more control
  • more of making the same mistakes

We do need mechanisms to support people in learning and bettering their lives. Institutions need to think in terms of serving many different people in many different ways and supporting personal learning, rather than attempting to control and personalize learning.

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And here is an interesting blog post about this talk by Sonja Grussendorf – Beyond institutions: Stephen Downes at NetworkEDGE

See also Arun Karnad’s post:

Problems with MOOC research

Like Frances Bell and Roy Williams, I too have listened to Stephen Downes’ recent presentation to a German audience in Tubingen, Germany. Thanks to Matthias Melcher for sharing the link.

Digital Research Methodologies Redux 

May 26, 2014: Keynote presentation delivered to E-Teaching.org, Tübingen, Germany

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 15.02.37

The image above is a screenshot. You can access the presentation on OLDaily  – or at e-teaching.org 

Also like Frances and Roy, I found the presentation very thought-provoking and relevant to the research I am doing with Frances and Mariana Funes on rhizomatic learning – and the research I am doing with Roy on emergent learning. Both these areas of research are trying to discover more about how people learn in open learning environments, such as MOOCs.

But Stephen is skeptical about the possibility of doing any worthwhile research into MOOCs if we continue to take a traditional approach to research, which he describes in this slide:

Screen Shot 2014-05-24 at 11.01.22

(This is a screenshot – not a video!)

I would expect most people who work in education to recognize this model (the hypothetico-deductive model), particularly those with a science background and those who read research papers, many of which follow this model.

Stephen’s argument is that much of the research that has been done into MOOCs or is being done into MOOCs, using this model, presupposes its own conclusions, i.e. you find what you are looking for because that is what you expect to see. In addition there can be, in this type of research, the implication or assumption that it is possible to find some sort of ‘truth’ or a ‘universal theory’, but Stephen believes that observation and experience are the foundation of knowledge and that there is no truth that can be known before experience just by thinking about it; we can also question whether there is any ‘truth’.

So a key question for this presentation was ‘Which methods and theoretical conceptions are appropriate for MOOC research?’

The suggestion was that traditional approaches to research do not account for the horribly messy, complex, always changing world in which we are now living and conducting research. There are no universal theories. Whilst we may walk daily on the earth assuming and believing that the ground will not open up and swallow us, this can in fact happen (see YouTube videos on ‘sink holes’). Our generalizations about the world come about as a result of our experience of the world and are not based on any underlying principle.

Whilst I come from a science background and have published research which would be recognized as using the traditional approach Stephen describes, what he says resonates with me, in particular the discussion about research being like learning a language.

Having just spent three days speaking only Portuguese with some Brazilian friends, and having lived in Brazil in the past, I know from experience that learning a language requires immersion – that this is extremely messy, that at the start we only understand a fraction of what is being said, that there are all sorts of cultural nuances that take years to assimilate, that there are words and even ways of thinking that simply do not translate, that understandings are context-dependent and often out of our control, and that communication can be an illusion. It is only through continuous and/or continual long-term immersion that recognizable patterns of understanding eventually emerge.

Research conducted from this perspective, i.e. a perspective of immersion, communication and collaboration is a process of exploration and discovery. It does not set out to ‘prove’ anything or necessarily to draw conclusions and reify knowledge. It recognizes that there is no one right way of describing the world. If there is a theory, it will emerge from the totality of the work. Developments around MOOCs have happened serendipitously through design-led research, rather than through research-led design. (See Liz Sander’s paper – An evolving map of design practice and design research).

All this makes sense to me, but that doesn’t mean to say that I have done or do research like this. Nor does it mean to say that I can easily put these ideas into practice. It is difficult not to presuppose some conclusions, particularly if I have been involved in the context which I am researching. It is difficult to remain objective if I am fully immersed in the context I am researching. It is difficult to prevent bias and subjectivity creeping in. And it is difficult to be credible if I appear to be ‘tinkering to see what happens?’

But I do agree that MOOC-related research necessitates the description of emergent phenomena rather than the identification of something that is true, and hence my interest in emergent and rhizomatic learning and in how Stephen’s ideas and presentation can inform this.

Sensitive Learning Spaces: what architects can teach us

On Tuesday of this week (April 2nd) I went to see the Sensing Spaces Exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.

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On the next day (April 3rd 2014) I attended a one-day conference at UCL in London and ran a workshop with my colleague, Elpida Makriyannis, in the space that you can see in this photo below.

UCL  space for learning

The two spaces could not have been more different. In his introductory talk to the UCL audience, the Provost recognized that space is a problem at UCL. There is not enough and much of what there is needs refurbishment. If UCL has the necessary finances, what a wonderful opportunity to think about the influence of space on learning. As one of the Grafton Architects said on a video on the Sensing Spaces website:

If you put students into a certain kind of space they will expect to be fed. If you put them in another kind of space they will expect to be challenged. Space prepares you to receive or to respond.

The aim of the Royal Academy Sensing Space exhibition was that it would ‘radically transform the apparently dominant character of the classically planned and detailed interiors; transformation that will simultaneously amplify and diminish, mask and frame, illuminate and shade, and reinforce and unbalance the familiar gallery experience.’  The exhibition wanted to help visitors re-imagine architecture – just as when we design learning spaces we hope that they will encourage learners to re-imagine learning.

Bruno Zevi suggested in 1948 that we are ‘illiterate in our understanding of space’. (Zevi, B. 1948. Architecture as Space, Horizon Press). Is this still the case? It certainly isn’t the case in relation to the architects exhibiting in this exhibition. These architects could teach us a lot about how to design spaces for learning. That was not their explicit intention for the exhibition, but that is what I came away with. Through their installations it became clear that a carefully designed learning space will give the learner ‘a sense of being able to claim the territory.’

The exhibiting architects understand that the experience of space is a holistic and relational one. Light, temperature, smell, colour and texture all play their part. Learning should be a sensual and embodied experience. As learners we should be in control of our learning paths, following routes of personal and individual interest, moving from lows to highs, from vertical to horizontal, from light to dark, from quiet contemplative spaces to engaged interactive community spaces, through doorways that allow us to make connections between our past and present, between outside and inside and take us consciously or unconsciously over learning thresholds. The learning space should be adaptive and allow us glimpses of as yet unreached vistas that fire our imaginations. It should be experienced from within, not externally imposed.

In his keynote presentation to the UCL conference, Etienne Wenger said that learners in the 21st century need to be able to work in a landscape of practices, with engagement, alignment and imagination. The Sensing Spaces exhibition was for me an experience of a landscape of different spaces, where I could envisage different practices emerging through engagement, alignment and imagination.

The Royal Academy published a very helpful education guide for the exhibition (Sensing Spaces education guide). I have quoted liberally from this in what follows, to show how each of the architects ‘spoke’ to me, not only about space and architecture, but also about the kinds of learning spaces I would like for my own learning.

Álvaro Siza (Portugal)

Siza’s installation is the first you see when arriving at the Royal Academy. The installation is of three columns located outside the Gallery, which connect the outside with the inside. They reflect his interest in continuity, both the theoretical continuity of architectural history and the physical continuity of place. His work is based on a deep emotional response to the site.

Alvaro Siza

Alvaro Siza 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘…… we are always building in relation to something else. What we create is not an isolated object but transforms and is transformed by what exists’.

Entering the Exhibition

There is no set route for viewing the installations. You enter an octagonal room, which is a central pivotal space to which you can return as you create your own pathway through the galleries.

On the wall of the octagonal space is written: ‘Experiencing architecture involves moving within and around it, absorbing its qualities through our bodies and senses. We react consciously or not, to the characteristics of different materials, vistas, volumes, sounds, spatial relationships and proportions. As well as engaging physically with space, our experience of it is also informed by our memories and habits.’

The exhibition sets out to awaken and recalibrate our sensibilities to the spaces that surround us. As such, it is part demonstration and part experiment, which in the spirit of enquiry requires interaction and participation from its audience. Visitors are invited to observe, move through and around, touch, adapt and occupy a series of specially commissioned architectural installations. (Sensing Spaces education guide)

From the octagonal space the route I chose was to first go through Eduardo Souto de Moura’s door. De Moura created two replica door cases – precise facsimiles of those in the Royal Academy and placed the copies at 45-degree angles to the originals.

Eduardo Souto de Moura (Portugal)

De Moura’s installations make passing through an aperture a more present experience – an experience of movement and transition.

Eduardo Souto de Moura

Of his work he says:

‘Space for an architect does not exist, so we design the limits that give the impression of space.’

‘For me architecture requires continuity. We have to continue what others have done before us, but using different materials and methods of construction.’

‘It is not possible for an architect to design a space – such a concept does not exist. Instead, we design the thresholds and the limits: the walls, doors, and so on. I’m interested in designing the elements that give the impression of space’.

This aligns with Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s comment:

‘Good architecture is often invisible, but it allows whatever is happening in that space to be the best experience possible’.

I don’t only interpret this in terms of physical space, e.g. the rooms/spaces that UCL or any learning designer might design, but also the opportunities for ‘internal’ spaces that are personal and individual to each student.

Moving through de Moura’s doorway I came to an interactive community space.

Diébédo Francis Kéré (Africa)

This was a room within a room, made of honeycomb plastic panels, and designed as an interactive and adaptive space, which relied on the engagement and contribution of the gallery visitor.  Visitors were offered brightly coloured plastic straws to thread through the holes in the honeycomb structure.

Diebedo Francis Kere3

Kéré states that his main aim is ‘ to create comfortable spaces for informal gatherings, and to help communities build their own inspiration’.

‘I believe that it is important to engage people in the process of building so they have an investment in what is developed. Through thinking and working together the built object becomes part of a bonding process.’

‘For me, architecture is primarily about people, about asking questions such as: who is the user? What is going to happen here? How can I respond to the user’s needs?’

For Kéré space, and learning in that space, is social and collaborative.

In the next space the architects took us to places and spaces that we would not normally be able to visit or reach. They took us into the roof space of the immensely lofty rooms of the Royal Academy.

Pezo von Ellrichshausen (Chile)

Pezo von Ellrichshausen

Pezo von Ellrichshausen 6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘We are not trying to express the structural properties of our buildings. The emphasis instead is on the proportions of the rooms, their sequence, the way they open – simple things, but which taken together suggest something more complex.’

Eduardo Souto de Moura3

 

Then across another threshold, through another of de Moura’s doors ……

 

 

 

 

 

…. I entered a contemplative space. Here the influence of space on the visitor/learner was so apparent. You could have heard a pin drop. If anyone talked at all, it was in whispers and hushed tones.

Kengo Kuma (Japan)

Kuma created two delicate installations made of lengths of bamboo whittled to a diameter of 4 mm, bound together to form a fragile structure, impregnated with liquid scent of Japanese Cyprus or Tatami and lit by LED light fittings in the floor.

Kengo Kuma 3

Kuma’s aim is to ‘achieve the maximum effect with the minimum use of resources’.

‘The more the volume of the material is reduced, the more the human body becomes sensitive and tries to concentrate on the limited, thin, small and slight material in order to smell out or catch ‘something’ from it.’

‘I always start with something small – breaking down materials into particles or fragments that can then be recombined into units of the right scale to provide comfort and intimacy.’

What I took away from Kengo Kuma is that ‘less is more’, which immediately I related to less curriculum could be more learning, less resources could be more inquiry, less teaching could be more discovery and so on.

Grafton Architects (Ireland)

The Grafton Architects also created a quiet space in their dark space. People also whispered in this space.

Grafton Architects

They made two dramatically different installations, both suspended from the roof lights. ‘Choosing only to work with the roof lights, both installations feature a series of suspended surfaces and forms that manipulate the light and reshape the space in two entirely different ways; one as an exploration of lightness, with what is referred to as a waterfall of light, and the other being the exact opposite, exploring weight, containment and the formation of carved-out space.’ (Sensing Spaces education guide)

Grafton Architects 3

The Grafton Architects seek to ‘make as much nothing as possible’, and to structure space through the careful orchestration of the passage of light and movement through the void’. They have said:

‘There is a sense of pleasure in moving from darkness to light or vice versa because as human beings we are cyclical. How light reflects and how light is contained is the stuff of architecture.’

‘Here we are describing spatial experience using not words but light.’

I can certainly recognize learning in terms of dark and light.

Finally I moved into Li Xiaodong’s maze, where I could create my own journey to the Zen Garden.

Li Xiaodong (China)

According to the ancient Chinese Philosopher Lao Zi, what is important is what is contained, not the container.

Li Xiaodong5Chinese architecture develops from the idea that the building is something to be experienced from within. Li Xiaodong’s installation ‘ adds a new maze of spaces to an otherwise familiar route’. The timber frame is infilled with small sections of coppiced timber and placed on an acrylic floor lit by LEDs. The route through the maze culminates in a Zen Garden.

 

Li Xiaodong states that there is a ‘fundamental difference between “being present” in a space, where you are absorbed within it, and looking at images of a space, where the mind is detached’. Li Xiaodong6

Xiaodong’s work seems to me to be all about identity, which comes full circle to Etienne Wenger’s keynote for the UCL conference in which he said that ‘The 21st century will be the century of identity’. It is interesting to think about the implications of the design of learning spaces for this.

For more photos of the exhibition see https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennymackness/sets/72157643464527454/show/