Learning spaces and our well being

By Haboun Bair, Learning and Instructional Design Specialist at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning

Think about a time in your life when someone was a pillar of strength for you

On January 31, 2018, the Taylor Family Digital Library hosted some great events for Bell Let’s Talk Day, an initiative of the University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy. As I walked around the building, I was fascinated by the transformation — muted, grey towers of hard concrete that now stood as literal pillars of strength, saying things that softened my heart. These messages mirrored the strength, stability and power of the structure itself, inspiring me to think more deeply about how learning spaces across campus communicate with us.

Learning spaces across our campus are changing, continuing to grow and innovate to maximize the potential for teaching and learning. But we still have learning spaces across campus that reflect a different time. In my current role as a Learning and Instructional Designer, the question I’m curious about is:

Like the pillar, how can we use ordinary learning spaces across campus with the intention of creating the conditions that support student well-being?

In the article “Understanding Students’ Experiences of Well-Being in Learning Environments,” Stanton, Zandvliet, Dhaliwal, and Black (2016) explore personal narratives from students who share perceptions of well-being in relation to learning environments in a postsecondary setting. This was one of a few rare studies that helped Simon Fraser University’s Teaching and Learning Center and Simon Fraser Health Promotion identify ten conditions for instructors to promote student well-being within learning environments. The ten conditions are:

  1. Personal Development
  2. Flexibility
  3. Social Connection
  4. Optimal Challenge
  5. Positive Classroom Culture
  6. Civic Engagement
  7. Instructor Support
  8. Services and Supports
  9. Real Life Learning
  10. Inclusivity

Sometimes learning spaces can present challenges to meeting the above conditions for well-being. Below are a few helpful tips to confront those challenges in creative ways.

Conditions for Well Being (Simon Fraser University, 2017) Challenge   How to use the learning space to promote student well being
Positive Classroom Culture A classroom with no windows Our perceptions of the learning space are only limited by our beliefs about the learner and our teaching and learning practices (Boys, 2011). While your students work individually or in groups, consider pausing your presentation slides and use your projection screen as a makeshift window to project a gif or live web cam of a calming and scenic environment. Explain why you care about student wellness and get students involved by creating a discussion topic in D2L where they can embed “windows of the day,” which you can then download for class use.
Inclusivity The set-up of the classroom furniture is in rows and the furniture does not have wheels.                         Explain to students why you care about the arrangement of the furniture in the classroom in relation to their learning and how “many hands make light work.” Talk about inclusivity from an Indigenous worldview: while seated in a traditional talking circle, consider the significance of circles as spaces of interconnectedness, equality and continuity, both with each other and with the space.
Instructor Support/Personal Development Sharing a learning space with other instructors                 Patt Tarr (2004) asks us to “consider how walls can be used effectively as part of an educational environment” (p.89). Consider the benefits of a digital wall and try using an online bulletin board tool called Padlet. This tool allows the instructor and students to share resources with each other to extend learning happening in class and in life. This tool can also help bring awareness to events or occurrences happening on campus. Embed Padlet into your D2L course!  
Social Connection/Flexibility A large, lecture-style classroom with fixed furniture.   Jos Boys (2011) states that “[m]eaning-making occurs through the activation of space by our bodies.” (p. 6). If the space itself has a “fixed-mindset,” ask your students to find a place in the room where they can gather. Dr. Glenn Dolphin tried this in his Geology class and it completely shifted the room’s power dynamics, allowing for the possibility of smaller group discussion and collaboration.
Real Life Learning A classroom that does not have a wall that lifts and merges more than one learning environment and experience. Jos Boys believes that learning spaces can be a “means of thinking about the world and of embodying thought into action” (Boys, 2011, p. 06). Using examples of issues that arise — not only on campus, but also nationally and even globally –can help students apply their knowledge and practice the skills they are developing to actively contribute in solving complex problems. “The Rocks” on campus are examples of living spaces of learning that reflect a freedom of expression, a concept that can be used in multiple ways in the classroom. Image Credit: Justin Quaintance, The Gauntlet

To me, learning spaces are places that provoke ideas about who we are and how we learn and teach. I once taught kindergarten, and would often be in awe of how children’s play could transform the space; like when a child started using yarn to connect the dots on our polka-dotted story-time rug, and it became a larger than life connect-the-dots provocation to explore regular and irregular shapes. It led me to think about Ripley and Brill, who state that “[w]ho you are is, in part, defined as where you are” (p. 196). I struggled with this statement for a while, until I realized that who you are and where you are are both synonymous with change, and can shift at any point depending on the meaning you create from your experiences, the environment, and the people around you.


Padlet https://padlet.com/

Rock On. (2018). YouTube. Retrieved 12 April 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkmV1KfK1qQ&feature=youtu.be

Talking Circles Overview from the First Nations Pedagogy Online Project https://firstnationspedagogy.ca/circletalks.html

Well Being in Learning Environments: Creating conditions for well-being in learning environments, Simon Fraser University http://www.sfu.ca/content/dam/sfu/healthycampuscommunity/WLE-Tools/WLE-Printouts_v5.pdf


Boys, J. (2011). Towards creative learning spaces. London: Routledge.

Gandini, L. (2009). Insights and Inspirations from Reggio Emilia. Sterling Pub Co Inc.

Stanton, A., Zandvliet, D., Dhaliwal, R., & Black, T. (2016). Understanding Students’ Experiences of Well-Being in Learning Environments. Higher Education Studies, 6(3), 90. http://dx.doi.org/10.5539/hes.v6n3p90

Tarr, P. (2004). Consider the Walls. ProQuest Education Journals. 59(3), p. 88-92

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