Patrik Svensson, “From Lab to Lounge: Liminal Spaces for Learning”. Commentary by ARC Student Fellow Hamadi Henderson

Access to information has changed drastically in the information age. Originally, knowledge and access to higher learning was limited to a select few; confined to ornate halls and ivory towers. However, it is now freely available to the public. Where, in the past money and prestige were the only keys that granted access, today all that is needed is a low-end tablet and a Wi-Fi connection. The change in the accessibility of knowledge does not only impact who has access but also where there is access. In formal learning environments, learning is typically viewed as occurring in designated spaces with formal structures and floor plans. However, this ignores the learning that occurs in between these formal spaces. For example, in grade schools it is typical for teachers to display student work on boards outside of the classroom. While students may not actually read the displayed student work, the intent behind the display highlights the concept of learning in liminal spaces. Students in transition from one formal learning environment to another have the opportunity to learn. But is this more effective? What does it mean for the learner to learn in between these formal environments?

One of the key aspects of liminal spaces is the diminished formality. The relationship between the student and teacher in the classroom is very clear. The teacher is placed in a position of power either standing tall among seated students or seated among the students in an authoritative position. However, this dynamic changes in liminal spaces like the halls between classes, in study lounges, or even teacher offices. The question arises: what is the pedagogical value of this diminished formality? To answer this question we must first address what primarily drives learning in formal learning environments? Is it the instruction of the teacher or the motivation of the student? If the latter, liminal spaces offer students the opportunity to learn in accordance to their motivations. This would mean that liminal spaces are learner-focused, driven primarily by the learner’s educational needs. But if this conjecture is accepted as truth, the subsequent question that arises is can this effect be replicated in a non-liminal space? In academic setting there is a tendency to create a physical space with a fixed purpose. There is a computer lab and a biology lab. There is a classroom, a study room, and a thesis room. Would it work to create a “liminal room” where one does all the things one does in a liminal space? To dissect this question we have to think about what are the physical elements of a liminal space. This is a difficult concept to discuss simply because the very existence of liminal spaces is predicated on the existence of formal learning environments. But this is an issue addressed, to some degree, by the configuration of the space. If there is a desired set of behaviors for a space, the configuration of the space can elicit the desired behaviors without overtly specifying them. Additionally, it can simply be a matter of allowing formal spaces the flexibility to be used outside of their designated purpose.

In conclusion, the physical layout of a learning environment can greatly impact the how learners engage with the space and learn within it. The questions that remain are what are the elements of the space that are most conducive to learning and how do we promote their existence in to current learning environments? I find this to be a very interesting and important direction for educational research. Answering these questions can have great implications for the use of technology and the increase in equity of education.