6.3 The spaces we teach in

Of course most of us have to teach in the only spaces available to us. However just occasionally there is the possibility of designing new spaces, or converting existing rooms. In these cases you need to consider carefully what you want.

The raked ‘lecture theatre’ is aptly named, and is a good place for theatre. If the lectures you want to showcase are that good, then use a lecture theatre. If you want your students to be active, then you (and they) will find a forward-facing, side-by-side, one-to-many environment quite unsuitable. Since ‘activity’ can take a large number of different forms, we probably need spaces which are very flexible. In designing the Active Learning Labs at Liverpool I briefed the architects with the phrases ‘nothing is to be bolted to the floor’ and ‘I cannot tell you what the space will be used for because others more imaginative than me will do different things over the probable forty year life of this building’. The architects didn’t like this brief, but that was their problem! I ended up with large open, flexible spaces. Later I learned of other approaches with similar benefits – several new teaching spaces in other institutions use internal glazing to great effect. It helps tremendously with changing the attitudes of both staff and students if they can see what is going on. Why should teaching and learning – and making and doing and communicating – not be visible?  (Although one colleague commented that he does not want visitors – particularly teachers or parents – to go away with the impression that active engineering is all about being a mechanic, just because he caught sight of a student in overalls working on a car.)

Other features that you will probably need to consider (and you will almost certainly not be able to afford enough of any of them) are:

  • Small break-out rooms, bookable by both staff and students, for team meetings, seminar practice, tutorials, presentations to sponsors etc;  And an easy-to-use booking scheme for every space;
  • Storage for work in progress, the best of last year’s constructions, tools, experimental kit not currently in use and so on;
  • Space for students to store (locked up!) their safety equipment, coats, bags, computers, lunch …

Mark Miodownik writes: I agree that this issue of learning & teaching environments is vitally important. If we agree that engineering is as much about doing/making as analysis/theory, then we need the engineering teaching spaces to reflect this. If you go to art schools (or architecture schools) they give each student a studio space to develop their ideas into prototypes, and so they can work for weeks/months on projects (with access to workshops), deepening their knowledge. Theory can be then taught with online resources and one-to-one tutorials, making formal lectures mostly redundant. These studio spaces are often open/messy and full of experiments/failed prototypes – but that is what is need to make the theory relevant. I am convinced that engineering departments need to have more of these spaces to offer students and correspondingly they need fewer lecture theatres and fewer libraries. In other words I think the design of engineering teaching environments need to change radically. I wrote this recently:


Our attempt in this direction to create a communal workshop for the students is described here:


One Response to “6.3 The spaces we teach in”

  1. Peter Goodhew

    I have learned that there are now commercial sound systems which can broadcast into localised areas within large spaces (such as teaching labs). This makes it simple to run mutliple classes simultaneously in large flexible spaces.


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