Ritual in the learning environment

Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash

In this post I explore what is meant by ritual in relation to the teaching and learning experience and, as we reset our post-pandemic classrooms, why we should care.

Given that there is little obligation to care, beyond a notion of professional value and common decency to others, Chy Sprauve reminds us (‘How ritual can inspire connection in the classroom’, Visible Pedagogy blog, 12 November 2020) that an effective classroom is one in which students feel secure. She suggests academics build a ‘ritual toolkit’. I propose understanding affinity spaces may help us do that.

Does rituality help educators to address the problem of alienation?

I am struck by the eagerness of students to return to campus and salvage something of the experience they had known or expected. I can’t tell whether this desire reflects their interests in or out of the classroom. In many ways it does not matter. We can say that a campus-based education is about experiencing the world together at a highly formative point in our lives.

If we were concerned about our students being isolated and alienated during lockdown, as I was, this was because that safe space of being amongst peers had been disrupted. For myself and my colleagues, our question was how can we now foster belonging and create a sense of safe interdependence amongst students and staff while making opportunities for friendship amongst peers. In other words, we gave serious thought to developing a surrogate online connected experience. To help us we referred to the hard-to-define affordances of affinity spaces (Gee, 2005).

As we return to campus it is time to do that same thinking exercise to remind ourselves of the value of being and learning together.

Affinity spaces

Affinity spaces accommodate social affiliation by being places where learning can happen and where acts of learning are acts of being productive together. Being productive together can be called collaboration, but the features of affinity spaces emphasise the value of the ‘being’. They can be categorised using the following features which allow the academic to check their learning environment design:

  1. Common endeavour – students connect through common interests, endeavours, goals or practices
  2. Common space – that does not discriminate on experience or reputation with each finding different value in the space according to their their own choices, purposes and identitiese
  3. Strongs portals – learning activities allow students to engage so that they can make a useful contribution to the space
  4. Dynamic and variable environment (Gee calls this ‘Internal grammar [practices]’ -) – the core focus, purpose, or activity is transformed by the actions and interactions of participants
  5. Encourages intensive and extensive knowledge – participants gain and disseminate knowledge and are able to develop indepth specialised knowledge
  6. Encourages individual and distributed knowledge – encourages and enables people to gain both individual knowledge and to learn to use and contribute to distributed knowledge (knowledge that exists in other people, material, places, or mediating devices)
  7. Encourages dispersed knowledge – the use and application of knowledge that is associated with other domains has value
  8. Uses and honors tacit knowledge – knowledge built up from experience but which may be difficult to explicate fully in words
  9. Many different forms and routes to participation – there is not a set way of participating
  10. Lots of different routes to status – people demonstrate and are known for their different strengths
  11. Leadership is porous and leaders are resources – leadership takes many forms according to the different demands and opportunities afforded by the space

Ritualising learning

Ritual is usually described in formal ways of being, rites, and ceremonies. It often has religious connotations. It describes a sense of acquiescence or willingness to silently consent to a system or to show respect for the procedures that define us. I note Wikipedia’s definition, which I find more useful in thinking about constructing our own ritual toolkit:

A ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, actions, or objects, performed according to a set sequence. Rituals may be prescribed by the traditions of a community, including a religious community

Wikipedia: Ritual

Its interest for educators, I think, is in knowing the value of acquiescence and agency as being complementary and without contradiction. You could say that acquiescence and agency are co-dependent features of an effective space; a space that frames expectations and provides a common sense of certainty.

Ritual may be a powerful thing, not only in uncertain times, but more generally in what is essentially an uncertain and formative phase in our lives. Committing to being a student is about making a commitment to an unknown culture and an immersion in an inherently alien, liminal and dynamic experience. For some of us our parents made this commitment before us, or our siblings, or others we know well. We may have learnt from them about the value of acquiring a tradition, becoming an ‘insider’ with ‘emic and being able to assume the identity and status that comes with that.

For many students these days, making this commitment is less well founded. Many students enter education on trust and with their own expectations which may be ill-conceived, for example being based on what they may have experienced in education previously. I try to keep this in mind as an educator. Making values, traditions, and ways of being explicit is the beginning of creating a ritual toolkit. Doing so can be an act of co-creation. Working together on creating a set of ground rules, for example, is something I advocate. Talking about learning in a constructive way clarifies expectations and debunks unhelpful myths.

Discussing rituals, habits, practices can help us to create a safe space without unduly constraining and determining a student’s experience. Talking about tools, folklore, respect, and so forth, is a healthy way to immerse our students in our practices and scholarship and developing a strong sense of our ways of doing, seeing, being, and feeling.

Being part of the tribe

Studios can be defined by their customs – rules that have to be learnt but are full of mystery and tradition; rules which may even be unspoken; rules that are learnt in the doing. This can sound elitist, cliquey, and alienating, but being an insider ‘in the know’ or an “emic” performer to an onlooker can also create a communal sense of pride in ‘being one of us’.

Calling yourself an artist, an engineer, or a scientist is arguably the first step to acquiring identity and expertise. Sennet (2009), reflecting on military and religious uses of ritual, discusses it in terms of ‘codes of honour’. As such it provides a society or tribe with a way of evaluating itself – what ‘good’ looks and feels like – and this can help us as educators to find alternative ways of assessing good learning. Dannels (2005) considers academic ritual in the studio in terms of ‘tribes’; a term also used by Becher and Trowler (2001) to help differentiate disciplinary cultures, norms and territories. Knowing who you are, why you are, what you do, how you do it, who you do it with, and how you are different to others, are all part of ‘being’ and knowing.

“In such [affinity] spaces, people who may share little, and even differ dramatically on other issues, affiliate around their common cause and the practices associated with espousing it via affinity spaces that have most or all of the previously described eleven features.”

Gee, 2005, p. 229


“Ritual-work is an intentional practice of something one builds into their routine to bring them feelings of joy, safety or calm. We probably all have rituals we practice as instructors and students, and in the space of the classroom I invite us all to bring those things more to the surface… [It] can help us to feel grounded in a very groundless time.”

Chy Sprauve

Indeed Sprauve suggests that we reconceptualise the classroom as a workshop. In effect, she says elicit the value of ritual by adopting an active learning strategy in which the ‘complex web of meanings’ (Dannels, 2005) can take shape as we observe knowledge flow and habit, identity, culture emerge.


The features of an affinity space provide a way-in for any academic designer beginning to think about enculturation in the classroom.

Equally, rituality and custom can provide a lens for interrogating what is already done, what mustn’t be lost, or what could be introduced from professional practice. Ironically, they can be invisible and hard-to-spot for the initiated who ‘have always done it this way’ but clear as day to the uninitiated – those from other tribes.

This suggests that making a list of ‘10 things that define us’ and comparing this with lists made by people from other academic tribes could be an interesting and useful exercise in recognising the value of difference.

Sprauve develops the idea of toolkits and provides some examples of how they can be developed with students.


Becher, T. & Trowler, P. (2001). Academic tribes and territories: Intellectual enquiry and the culture of disciplines, 2nd edition. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Dannels, D. P. (2005). Performing tribal rituals: a genre analysis of “crits” in design studios, Communication Education, 54:2, 136-160, DOI: 10.1080/03634520500213165

Gee, J. P. (2005). ‘Semiotic social spaces and affinity spaces’. In: David Barton & Karin Tusting, eds, “Beyond Communities of Practice: Language Power and Social Context”. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sennett, R. (2009). The craftsman. Yale University Press.

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 Active Learning, Belonging, Co-operative pedagogy, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Studio and Studio-based Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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