It’s just a chair…. Learning environments and how they matter…


Teaching is an art form, according to educational studies scholar Diane Laurillard; it is entertainment and also – in order to be “teaching” it needs to be more than just entertainment. It is based on a “formally defined goal” (Laurillard 2013:1) with the aim to create a space of reflection, to create learning and knowledge, and in a feminist sense, to create alternate knowledge that undermines and subverts hegemonic knowledge.

In which way does the online and offline learning environment contribute to education and knowledge production? Teaching both in online and offline spaces, I witness often a lack of interest in creating a specific environment that fosters values that are important in a a feminist classroom, e.g. collaboration and interaction.

In response to bell hooks’ idea of transgressive pedagogy, teaching and learning become acts of interdependence, reflexivity, and vulnerability (hooks 1996, 2003). By leaning on Elena Pulcini’s idea of applying philosopher Judith Butler’s idea of vulnerability (2005) to the classroom, I think of it as a space for interdependence, openness, and relationality (Pulcini 2009).

In order for the classroom to be mobilised as such a space it requests attention to the learning environment – the position of the teacher in the room, the places for the participants/students, the table set-up, the light, temperature, acustics, or the form and kind of furniture, the accessibility of toilets near by and for all genders, the accessbility of the room itself, etc. All these elements contribute to the learning environment and have significant impact on the pedagogical impact of a course. To further underline this, educational studies and design studies scholar Marie Leijon argues that the pedagogical space needs to be understood as a conceptual design “for learning” as well as a design “in learning” (2016: 94). She stresses here the importance of considering the classroom and design of the learning environment for the meaning-making process within the space.

Her arguments can be applied easily to thinking the classroom through the lens of feminist pedgagogy – and consider the classroom “in relation to negotiation and transformation” (Lejon 2016: 94). Keeping this in mind, does it matter if the classroom has a nice few of forests and lakes all the way to the horizone? Or if it’s a crammed basement room with bad airconditioning? Does it matter if the tables can be flexibly rearranged? Ultimately, a chair, a window view and quiet space matter and have deep impact on the learning capacities and motivation of the course participants as much as the teacher (Lejon 2016: 94). Then, a chair isn’t just a random item anymore but needs to be seen as a place where a person’s brain and back can work well for sometimes 60 – 90 min at a time.

I wrote this small post in order to reflect a bit more on the importance of the design and the aesthetics of the learning environment. It is motivated by the problem that I often encounter teaching rooms that don’t look inviting to the students nor to me as the teacher. I try to create the room according to my understanding of a good classroom, clean, good light, nice view, accessibility as well as comfortable tables and chairs. Its not always possible to accommodate this depending on room availability. I prefer teaching in the rooms that don’t face an opposite wall with a construction site going on below. There are a few classrooms in which I sometimes teach, face-to-face, where the group can look over the forest’s tree tops all the way to the horizone. A luxury the empty and vast nothern Swedish landscape offers in this university.

A completely different question is, how to create a similarly inviting space when teaching ONLINE, e.g. in a 5 – 10 weeks courses we offer on the advanced level in different areas in Gender Studies. What are the important elements to work with when I cannot rearrange the chairs or book a room with a better view and nice wooden floor panelling? I will investigate this in an upcoming post….

Bates, Anthony William. 2015. “Appendix 1: Building an effective learning environment.” Teaching in a Digital Age.
Butler, Judith. 2005. Giving an account of oneself. New York: Fordham UP.
hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to transgress. Education as the practice of freedom. London: Routledge.
hooks, bell. 2003. Teaching community. A üedagogy of hope. New York: Routledge.
Laurillard, Diana. 2012. Teaching as a design science. Building pedagogical patterns for learning and technology. New York: Routledge.
Leijon, Marie. 2016. “Space as designs for and in learning: investigating the interplay between space, interaction and learning sequences in higher education.” Visual Communication 15 (1): 93-124.
Pulcini, Elena. 2009. “Contamination and vulnerability: The self in the global age.” In: Teaching Subjectivity. Travelling Selves for Feminist Pedagogy, Silvia Caporale Bizzini and Melita Richter Malabott (eds.). Athena 3 Advances Thematic Network in Women’s Studies in Europe, pp. 15-29.