Conversational Learning Spaces for #activelearning

Diagram showing the characteristics of conversational learning space

Valuable features of conversational learning encounters

In an earlier post I referred to Learning Walks as conversational learning spaces. As such, they exemplify active learning spaces. The focus on conversation as a dimension of active learning is at the heart of the rationale for advocacy for an ethos of co-operation in the active learning environment, whether that environment is more or less formal in nature. If we are talking about interaction, challenge and integrated feedback we are talking about conversation, albeit to different degrees of formality and involving participants in a range of roles.

In this post I draw upon Haigh (2005) who considered the role and characteristics of conversation in the context of professional development. Here, I take his ideas, and those of others who informed his work, and begin to explore them in the context of active learning.

Features of conversation in a co-operative learning environment


Conversation values context. Context is the unwritten, assumed, commonality shared by participants in a conversation. It does not presume likemindedness. Indeed dissonance and its moderation is, arguably, a feature of conversation too. Without a sense of share context or situation, participants have little reason to begin exploring their interests. Contextuality is a key principle in authentic learning (Reeves et al., 2002) and, simply, may be thought of as the basis for exchange. It therefore provides a starting point, but it is likely to establish the intention and goal of the exchange.


Openness reflects the need of the learner to construct or make sense of novel ideas which are likely to be complex at first and which require each participant to navigate, negotiate and find some purchase. The act of making sense may involve mapping thinking to previous experiences and models that can be made real and tested through conversation.


Trust is a necessary prerequisite for participants in active learning where new and unfamiliar knowledge, skills and attitudes can be used for the first time. Simulation, role play, analysing problems, for example, require the readiness of each learner to take personal risks. Developing trust through conversation is a life skill and one that characterises team-working and negotiation in professional contexts.


Serendipity is an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident. Because conversation involves turn-taking amongst two or more people, a conversation is not linear. While participants may have a shared goal, the acts of questioning, explaining, exemplifying and checking ensures that deviation, rather than linearity, characterises conversational exchanges. In the process, we ‘spark off each other’. Conversation as an act of learning, therefore, is an act of inspiring each other by seeking connections for mutual benefit. This is how we make desirable personal and social discoveries. It also highlights why allowing plenty of time for conversations is important – as academics, we must value deviation as an act of learning.


Much has been written about narratives and storytelling in relation to teaching and learning. It exists on many levels of formality from research cases studies, to anecdotes to add to colour to lectures, to reflective writing, etc. As a dimension of conversational learning, storytelling features in many forms of exchange including recounting, explaining, reporting, team building, identity building and friendship forming exchanges.


Improvisation describes the act, or art, of positing, proposition-making, composing or performing: ways of extemporising knowledge with little or no previous preparation. It describes an act of creative fluency commonly referred to as the ability to think on your feet. It suggests, therefore, a rapid way to representing knowledge which, through conversation, can be moderated and validated.


Parity demonstrates how conversation can ensure inclusivity and diversity. However, it also alerts us to the need to develop conversational skills so that loud and biased voices are not allowed to undermine learning, wittingly or not.

Parity also reminds us that we come to learning familiar, to some degree, with the conventions of conversation – it is a tool we already know how to use to some extent and in most cases. This gives any of us a way in to learning ensuring that active learning environments are learner-centred.

Parity also highlights how academics using conversational strategies in active learning must pay particular attention to the readiness of all students to participate. While there is a lot to this, it is key to understand differences in physical and mental ability and cultural predispositions.


Thinking of conversation as a tool clarifies how a conversational learning environment can optimise timely engagement with learning and how non-formal exchange (that which isn’t prescribed by another person) can promote learner agency, self-regulation, and co-operation as a basis for just-in-time learning. This is a key principle in an empathetic learning space such as a studio in which peer learning is often tacit.

In conclusion

Ironically, we don’t talk much about conversation in education. If anything it is seen as an annoyance leading to unruly and unstructured classrooms in which deviants deviate. While the teacher’s role is to orchestrate conversation in the classroom so that it has purpose and time is spent on task, time spent deviating and negotiating the learning context is a highly desirable characteristic of active learning.


Haigh, N. (2005). Everyday conversation as a context for professional learning and development. International Journal for Academic Development, 10(1), 3–16.

Reeves, T. C., Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (2002). Authentic activity as a model for web-based learning. 2002 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA, USA. Online at:

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
This entry was posted in Academic Innovation, Academic Innovation and Possibilities, Active Learning, Applied Learning, Assessment & Feedback, Belonging, Co-operative pedagogy, Creativity, Digital Placemaking, Employability, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Literacies and Intelligence, PhD, Social Media for Learning, Studio and Studio-based Learning, Walking and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s