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Round Teaching: How Shapes Shape Learning

This past year at Coast Mountain College, faculty have undertaken action research in collaboration with the Centre of Learning Transformation. The research revolved around instructing in the college’s yurt Teaching Lab and exploring how built pedagogy influences teaching and learning. Three themes emerged regarding the student learning experience: equality, accountability and permeability.

Post by Carrie Nolan, Dean, Strategic Initiatives, Coast Mountain College

Equality

Students found that the round shape of the learning environment had positive effects in disrupting the typical hierarchy that exists in a classroom. In any classroom, there is an inherent positionality structure that places people in different spots with power implications. In any learning space you enter, ask yourself where the power resides. In a typical classroom set-up, power exists at the front of the classroom, which is often where the instructor is located. In contrast, the front of class does not exist in a round teaching space. The power, it would seem, is either centrally located or peripherally located, which changes the dynamic and makes the student experience more inclusive and democratic. Students noticed how their instructors felt like one of the group and were more like facilitators than usual in this environment and felt like a part of their learning.

Accountability

Related to the shift in location of power, we found that round teaching inherently increases student accountability. Students noticed that there was “no corner to hide in” and “no back of the class to loaf in.” Even arriving late felt worse to students, as there was no way to do so discreetly. Additionally, being checked out of the learning is more difficult in a round learning space because every single learner is front and centre. This is a strength and a challenge for both learners and instructor. It did invite students to step out of their comfort zones, voice their opinions, and get to know one another. However, adapting to being consistently present to the learning is demanding of students. As well, for more introverted students or reluctant learners, there is no place to find relief. One student noted that the more intimate setting was exciting and intimidating. Instructors needed to keep these strengths and challenges in mind and provide opportunity for relief from the “exposure.” They achieved this through movement, smaller group work, and breaking up sustained circle engagement, while also catering to students who thrive in a more intense learning environment.

Permeability

The yurt is a tent with walls made of vinyl fabric. Sound permeates the learning space. Birds calling or rain on the roof were amplified in this learning environment, as were the sounds of snow removal and traffic. Some students mentioned finding this distracting, but many noted that the permeability contributed to a “peaceful and energetic” learning environment with some of the sounds being “relaxing and soothing.” Additionally, between the skylight, windows, and fabric, natural light is typically sufficient and adds to the ambience, as opposed to the typical glare of fluorescents. A student mentioned that the yurt was calming and that both their mood and marks improved, while another called it a healing environment. Another student said, “I enjoyed the yurt learning environment because it was a more vivid experience and very interactive. Most classes indoors are boring and tend to provoke sleepiness, while the yurt keeps me awake. It is not necessarily the teaching style present that I enjoy but the environment in which it takes place.” Interesting to note that it was the yurt that was identified as keeping the student awake.

Round shaped classroom space inside of yurt

Conclusions

The idea behind this action research project has been to explore built pedagogy—how shapes shape learning. The round shape of the yurt facilitated a more democratized learning environment where students found themselves a greater part of the learning and saw their instructors positioned, literally, as facilitators of learning rather than keepers of the knowledge, where student accountability was inherent and a sensory connection to the world beyond the classroom created “aliveness” in learning. Given the generally positive feedback about learning in a round space and that not all our classrooms are yurts, we must consider how our learning environments are shaped and design them to consider equality, accountability, and permeability.

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