Learning walks exemplify conversational learning spaces. In this post I reflect on how I designed the learning walk I conducted today for the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Social Sciences Learning Spaces Group which I am mentoring as they plan for the construction of a new building.
Learning Walks and Twalk can be used as a space for teaching any subjects. I always stress that point as I am often involved in using them to study the subject of learning space, but I believe they are versatile and conducive to establishing effective co-operative groups, and in this post I want to focus on this.
Our topic today was interdisciplinary learning and how space can be designed to promote it. As with other walks and learning designs it is useful to set some goals and create some structure. We had 1.5 hours for the walk. This followed about 40 minutes in which I introduced some pertinent conceptual frameworks. Outcomes from the walk would be discussed in relation to these conceptual ideas in a 40 minute plenary. You could organise this approach differently. For example, the walk could be informed by a lecture, a flipped activity or pre-reading. The post-walk discussion could be replaced by a writing or making task for example.
I was visiting the University and I asked my colleague in Sheffield simply to find 5 places for us to visit – for various reasons I couldn’t be any more specific than that. It meant I needed to think about walking and location differently to other walks I have organised where I have more closely related the walk and its ‘landmark pause points’ to the topic in hand. So for this walk I decided to focus on establishing the creative mind of the group because the group needs to get a sense of their collective potential to inform the design of their new build.
I divided the participants into four groups of approximately four people each. I assigned each person a number, 1-5. The number 1s also had responsibility for the 5. Each number represented one of the five stages on the walk and the respective participants were charged with leading their group activity as we progressed through their stage. It’s not enough to say, “When you get here have a chat about this” – people don’t. The facilitator has to be clear and directive, and during the walk your job is still to check each group is on task!
So, as the slide above illustrates, our walk had 5 places and 5 conversations, although I decided just four groups would be best on this occasion. The rest was simple. We walked together in our groups. At the first landmark pause point group leader 1 focused their group on Memories. Using the form I produced, the group needed to complete the sentence, “This reminds me of when I was a student…” as facilitator I checked each leader was managing and occasionally I added an idea or a question, but mostly groups managed without me. Leaders wrote a collective response of three or four lines into the form for each discussion.
The second topic was “Stories – This place has a sense of history. I can imagine the following encounter”. I wanted people to really tell a story. Get carried away. I want them to dig deep and get into feelings. I wanted to hear about anxiety, happiness, and energy. In this way we can learn much more about what ideas mean. I modelled it. When a couple of groups began to just make notes I said, “No. go on. Put the inverted commas in! Let’s hear your voice – how did you feel?!” With just 10 minutes or so I was surprised how well we did, and more importantly, the quality of the learning points that came out the stories later that would not have come out of lists or descriptions.
The third task was “Ideas – This place is full of learning possibility. If we look around we can see learning happening in several ways and at several levels…” I asked them to list their observations and to be competitive. They weren’t to worry about accuracy because we would explore the ideas later in the discussion.
Fourth, “Barriers and enablers – analyse the environment. What is helping and what is hindering learning?” Fifth, “Reimagine the space – list 5 ways you could enhance this space.” Finally, the form included a space for other thoughts.
I was delighted by the way the walk worked. It was sunny, which helped, though I have done wet walks too! There was a good feeling and people worked together creatively. The forms were full of notes and we could have spent hours exploring the lists and the stories. I felt people inspired each other and I expect their subsequent sessions will pick up on many of the ideas the participants produced.
I normally design walks lasting just one hour for pragmatic reasons, but this can be rushed. The extra half hour made all the difference. Having a mixture of list making, observational notes and story writing worked. I think the variety kept the face-to-face discussions flowing.
In my next post I will explore conversational learning space, exemplified by learning walks, but evident in other formal and informal active learning situations.