The Classroom as Dialogic Space: Questioning How Space Effects Learning

(This is an essay I wrote while in graduate school for my teacher training)

The spatial arrangement of the physical learning and teaching environment is an important part of how behavior and attitudes are negotiated between participants which are situated in it. Sandra Horne Martin (2002) observes “there is enough evidence that the physical environment can effect ‘non-achievement’ behavior and attitude of both teacher and pupils as found in research by Weinstein (1979), Garbarino (1980), Moore and Lackney (1993), Johnson (1990) and Lackney (1994)”. Outcomes from a teaching and learning session are argued here as having degrees of relation to the space the session is conducted in. Following Bakhtin (1982) it is possible to build a relationship between discourse and dialogism, whereby the centrifugal (hierarchical, ordered, centralized) and centripetal (dispersed, horizontal) forces at work in a discursive act or assemblage (i.e. a classroom) are made apparent through analysis of the exchanges which take place in such a textual environment. The ‘authoring of space’ can be a way of discussing architecture and design in relation to practice and it is upon this premise that I begin the discussion. This paper discusses a small action research based study comparing different spatial arrangements and dialogic interaction in learning and teaching environments where heightened dialogic learning is seen as the optimal state for all participants.

The dialogic classroom (Galin and Latchaw 1998) is a space where teachers and students dedicate themselves to re-seeing their situations by “disbanding their habitual orientations” and learning to “restructure and re-examine” conflicting sets of “perception and understanding”. Dialogic teaching and learning involve, in part, openness to the unknown and a rejection of stale or habitual approaches to education, especially within contexts that involve technology. (Galin and Latchaw xi) In relation to dialogic learning Koschmann (1999) describes it “as the process of multiple voices coming into contact, both within and across speaker-produced utterances”. It is reasonable to equate the classroom with the spatial arrangement implied by Koschmann in that voices are situated spatially (“coming into contact”, “within and across”) in relation to each other.

Over a time period of one week research was conducted in four learning sessions within particularly defined spaces on the campus of Umeå University. An overall assessment of each session was undertaken using criteria from Taylor et al (1997) regarding constructivist learning environments that exhibit dialogic qualities. In these environments students are able to

* Negotiate with the teacher about the nature of their learning activities
* Participate in the determination of assessment criteria and undertake self assessment and peer-assessment.
* Engage in collaborative and open-ended inquiry with fellow students.
* Participate in reconstructing the social norms of the classroom.

The criteria from Taylor et. al. in conjunction with those of the dialogic classroom listed by Galin and Latchaw ( “disbanding their habitual orientations”, “restructure and re-examine”, and “perception and understanding”), were used to evaluate the dialogic qualities of four learning spaces at Umeå University where the design of the physical space is questioned.

The Method

Each of the educators in the study knew that they were being observed during the gathering of research. Students were not aware of my role in the learning environment in the sessions observed. Two of the sessions were conducted in English and two in Swedish. I made notes and sketches of the sessions observed. I did not participate in any of the discussions arising out of the teaching and learning sessions observed. The subjects dealt with in each of the learning sessions observed were American Cultural Studies, Christian Theology, Law and Economics and Physical Computing. Apart from the variation in subjects it was the nature of the space in which each learning session was conducted that distinguished each from the others.

The spaces were a conventional classroom with 9 hexagonal tables arranged closely together and able to sit a total of 45 learners, a large lecture hall that had the capacity to sit 120 learners, a large open area divided by a transparent wall in the middle of a library featuring nine round tables and a computer lab made up of 8 circular ‘stations’ with four computers each and a capacity to sit 35 to 50 learners. In the classroom observation there were 14 learners present in the space. In the lecture hall there were 20 students present and in the library session I observed 22 learners although due to movement in the space 2 left the space and 2 entered it during the session. In the computer lab 11 learners were observed.

In the computer labs the stations were arranged in such a way that those using the computers face inwards towards the centre of the circular station. Three of the four spaces can be described as having a ‘front’, that is a point towards which the rest of the room was arranged. The exception was the library space which was a broad walk through area between two sections of the library, but which featured desks and tables as well as two computer terminals. The other three spaces had one wall where a white board was erected and the audio visual and lighting pointed towards. This can be understood to be the ‘front’ of the room and was the direction towards which the seating was arranged. The ‘front’ of the room was where the educator stood or sat in two of the four learning sessions observed. One of the other sessions (in the library) did not involve and educator in the role of teacher and the leader of the group in the fourth session (computer lab) moved about the space and only occupied the ‘front’ of the space at the start of the session to introduce the subject and the group.

During the observation of the four teaching and learning sessions I took notes and constructed a sketch diagram of how the features of the space were integrated into the session, both by learners and teacher/s. The integration of the attributes of the space into the learning session was judged according to the movement of the actors (i.e. the learners and teachers) in the space and their use of its features as well as their interactions or exchanges with each other. The learner’s ability to act in a “collaborative and open-ended inquiry with fellow students” (Taylor et. al.) and how “multiple voices coming into contact, both within and across speaker-produced utterances” (Koschmann 1999) are seen as resulting in dialogues and qualified the features of the space, particularly in relation to technology. The outcomes of qualifying dialogic space in learning and teaching environments that were of interest to this study were the indicators of the ability of learners to “restructure and re-examine” learning, and signs of the presence of “perception and understanding” in the learning session (Galin and Latchaw 1998). All participants in the study are anonymous with numbers used to indicate when a learner took action in a learning session.

The Research

Common to each of the learning and teaching environments in the study was the presence of technology in the space. All of the spaces featured computer technology, both the classroom and lecture hall had a Personal Computer (PC) with internet access installed at the desk at the ‘front’ of the room. The library space had two PCs within the area observed, although there are many more available for use in the Umeå University library. The computer lab was obviously equipped with PCs and of a total of 24 computers 4 were used in the observed session. As well the educator in the computer lab session had a laptop which was used as a dual screen with a PowerPoint slide and program window. All of the spaces observed were within the wireless internet range provided for Umeå University campus. The lecture hall, classroom and computer lab each had digital projectors connected to the PCs and screens as well as overhead projectors. In the library space mobile phones were used in learning (see below) as well as a laptop computer. Books and other paper based technologies (handouts, compendiums) were used only in the classroom space. The lecture hall session was interesting as the teacher attempted to run a PowerPoint slide presentation at the start of the session, but due to the digital projector in the room (suspended from the high ceiling) not functioning the learners were referred to “look on the website later today” to see the presentation. A white board with marker pen was used in the lecture hall session and an overhead projector with transparencies was used in the classroom session.

In the classroom session which lasted two hours only one student spoke. In the lecture hall session, this also lasted two hours, four students spoke, one of which spoke twice. The classroom session was part of a shorter course, while the lecture hall session was part of a term long program so it is likely the students were more familiar with each other. In the library session one hour observation there was five tables occupied by more than one learner and one table occupied by one. In two of the tables (four and five learners) there was considerable conversation. In a table with three learners and a table with two there was little conversation as was the case, not surprisingly, with the learner working alone. The table with four learners (Economy students) was using a laptop computer with wireless internet to access databases online and the computer was being passed around between each of the learners. One of the other tables (three learners silently studying Law) was using a mobile phone to consult with a fellow learner who was at home working on the same assignment. Interestingly the learner who operated the mobile phone moved away from the table to conduct the conversation with the distant learner, moving closer to where I was sitting and thus allowing me to overhear the conversation. The lone student at a table moved several times over to the most crowded table (varied between four and eight learners) to consult with them on the work they were doing (studying Economy). Throughout the session observed there were people walking through the learning environment and a camera crew was filming an interview with a woman in between the shelves of books on the edge of the area. Noise levels were often considerable during the session observed but no learners reacted to noise from outside their own group.

During the lecture hall and the classroom sessions the educator remained behind the lectern in the former session, and either behind, beside or sitting on the table at the ‘front’ of the space in the latter session. The range of movement by the educator in the lecture hall was only a few meters between the lectern (and microphone) and the white board. In the classroom the overhead projector was in front to the side of the desk at the front of the space so the educator inadvertently approached the learners when transparencies were changed. The educator used a wireless microphone so it was possible to move from the lectern around the learning space (and even out of the room at one stage while still talking). The lectern in the computer lab was much less a substantial physical structure than either of those found in the classroom or the lecture hall. The light weight lectern of the computer lab was movable and did not conceal the lower body of the educator as did the lecterns or desk in the classroom and the lecture hall. The observed session in the computer lab lasted three hours and began with the learners sitting in two of the three rows of chairs set out for the session. The second stage of the learning session in the computer lab had the learners move forward to two computer stations where they had access to four computers each so they shared in groups. The third stage of the session took place around a large table where materials were laid out for them to use. After some time at the work table together, all learners returned to their computers and continued to work on their group projects. During the first stage of the computer lab session the educator took up a position behind or beside a lectern and spoke to the learners sitting in the chairs set out in three uneven rows. As was the case in all the other sessions with an educator present (i.e. not the library) no learners sat in the foremost rows.


The session in the computer lab was a one-off workshop. Accordingly the above suggested logic of the classroom session having less participatory indicators from learners compared to the program of the lecture hall due to length of the course does not hold up. The computer lab session was significant for participatory indicators such as questions, consultation among learners as “collaborative and open-ended inquiry with fellow students” (Taylor), statements made to the educator and accessing websites to find information. Such participatory indicators are consistent with learners being enabled to “restructure and re-examine” learning, and as signs of the presence of “perception and understanding” in the learning session (Galin and Latchaw 1998). The session in the computer lab provides some contrast with the spatial structures experienced in the lecture hall and the classroom in terms of range of movement of the educator and the participation of the learners. In both the classroom and the lecture hall the range of movements of the educators was restricted to either directly behind the lectern or within a few meters of it. The session in the computer lab was however more centred on a single point and directed than was apparent in the library session.

The use of technology in each of the observed session was complex and could form the subject of a paper in itself. The failure of the technology in the lecture hall session, the absence of its use in the classroom, the pervasiveness of it in the library session and the central role it played in the computer lab session provides for much analytical content that can not be dealt with in this brief discussion. The ideas of intersections and integration in regards to technology and the learning and teaching environment is one way I can summarize some of the issues that seem to be raised by this study. The way technology is integrated into learning and teaching space determines much of how it is put to use. In the lecture hall the educator had to deal with technology that was either faulty or for which there was apparently no technical support. In the computer lab session there were two technicians in the room at all times and they were called on to assist several times by the educator. In the classroom session there was no use of technology that was in the classroom apart from the overhead projector. This was despite the presence of a PC with internet connection and wireless broadband access. Several times in the classroom session the educator made reference to “the website” but it was not integrated into the learning environment at anytime. There was no evidence of technical support provided for the educator in the classroom sessions. Such a situation leads to the second concept in relation to technology, that of intersections. The learning and teaching environment has long been a sealed space, where quiet and attention are demanded by the educator but can it remain so in an age of wireless internet, hand held digital devices such as mobile phones and a learner population that is extremely technically orientated. The classroom space, as was perhaps indicated by the observed session in the library, is a field that is permeated by numerous information channels and to ignore them is to make the learning irrelevant at best and negligent at worst.

The concept of appropriate space became apparent during the course of this research exercise. The use of a lecture hall that sits 120 students for a learning session that has 20 participants raised concern that the learners are drowning in the space around them. Of course, unlike the computer lab and the classroom session, all the furniture and fixtures of the lecture hall were fastened in place and could not be arranged to suit the size or needs of the group. The comparisons between the dialogic qualities of each of the learning sessions observed in this brief study are of course bounded by the nature of the subject matter for each session. How much one can compare the interactions and dialogues of learners in a language based learning session with one based on working with electronic artefacts is somewhat negotiable. However, what is to stop traditional humanities subjects from opening up classrooms in spatial terms, working with objects and making things, while at the same time developing critical thinking and remembering?

Appendix: Learning and Teaching Environments Sketches of Sessions Observed (Crosses represent learners)

Classroom Session Sketch
Library Session Sketch
Lecture Hall Session Sketch
Computer Lab Session Sketch (Arrows show movements of learners)

Works Cited

Bakhtin M.M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982

Galin, Jeffrey R., Ed. and Latchaw, Joan, Ed. The Dialogic Classroom: Teachers Integrating Computer Technology, Pedagogy, and Research. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1998. Accessed 2008–02–20

Horne Martin, Sandra. “The Classroom Environment and its Effects on the Practice of Teachers”. Journal of Environmental Psychology (2002) 22, Pp139–156 Accessed 2008–03–12

Koschmann, T. (1999) Toward a dialogic theory of learning: Bakhtin’s contribution to learning in settings of collaboration, In: Proceedings of Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL ‘99), Palo Alto, CA, Pp. 308–313. Available at: Accessed 2008–02–20

Taylor P.C., Fraser, B. & Fisher, D. (1997). Monitoring constructivist classroom learning environments. International Journal of Educational Research, 27(4), 293–302. Accessed 2008–02–20

Weinstein, Carol S. “The Physical Environment of the School: A Review of the Research” Review of Educational Research. Fall 1979 Vol 49. No 4. Pp577–610 Accessed 2008–03–12

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