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A school’s lived architecture: the politics and ethics of flexible learning spaces

Wood, Adam (2017) A school’s lived architecture: the politics and ethics of flexible learning spaces. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Abstract

This thesis draws on ethnographic research in a new secondary academy school in the north of England. Built under the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, the school and particularly its design featuring innovative, flexible learning spaces were intended to transform education. This project sought to understand broadly how definitions of innovative education were proposed architecturally and organisationally in the school and, more specifically, on what or who flexibility depended with a particular focus on teachers’ work. Drawing on realist philosophy and architectural and spatial theory to underpin the empirical work, the research took place over two years using participant observation, interviews and questionnaires to explore teachers’ perspectives towards and uses of the school’s learning spaces. These included a mix of semi-open classrooms and larger, more open, flexible learning spaces. Flexible learning spaces are often proposed as spatial designs supporting (or even leading inevitably to) 21st century education. The thesis shows how teachers’ efforts to use the spaces flexibly for teaching were made difficult by noise levels, limited time resources, highly structured team-teaching and the wider educational culture including high stakes assessment demands. Rather than notional flexibility of the spaces, what mattered for these teachers was their ability to use the spaces in ways that they wanted. The thesis argues that the flexibility of ‘flexible learning spaces’ is both a rhetorical move and an ontological claim that is untenable – an example of spatial fetishism – and as such it can have ethical and political effects. Approaching a space as inherently flexible obscures other constraints (e.g. assessment demands and time) and how the characteristics of particular users affect whether and how a space can be flexibly used. If what matters is the use of spaces in flexible ways, then that ‘use’ should be recognised as the work it is, rather than seeing flexibility as a spatial property. The thesis also relates the promotion of flexibility within the BSF programme to changing modes of educational governance and a devaluing and dispersal of educational purpose. It proposes an alternative understanding of flexibility, based on Amartya Sen’s capability approach and Herman Hertzberger’s architectural theory, that shifts attention towards enabling teachers to achieve purposes they value.

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