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Exploring new learning and teaching spaces

Catherine Lambert, Department of Sociology, University of Warwick


Although the physical context’s influence will vary from teacher to teacher, the physical environment is bound to play a significant role in how teachers approach their learning or how they view what is possible within a particular place.
(Jamieson et al., 2001: 222)
What creative people need is open space - a space where everything is possible and endlessly possible, the space for error and experiment. For a writer, teaching and learning in The Reinvention Centre is like working on an open page. It holds potential as a creative open space, and offers room for error, experiment and astonishing achievement.
(Member of academic staff, University of Warwick, 2006) 

Despite growing critical awareness around issues of teaching and learning in higher education in recent years (Clegg, 2003; Canning, 2007) the relationship between physical place and pedagogy has remained somewhat neglected (see Jamieson et al, 2000: 225). This situation is changing: there is evidence of increased attention being paid to the ways in which space – both physical and virtual – shapes the learning and teaching experience. This evidence takes the form of a burgeoning scholarly literature (Temple, 2007; Williamson and Nodder, 2002) and dedicated conferences1, as well as a growth in interest in the re/design and re/building of learning and teaching spaces (see AMA, 2006; JISC, 2006). Further, issues concerning ‘pedagogic space’ are becoming embedded into the discourse and delivery of university strategies. In part, this can be attributed to the fact that universities recognise the importance of providing smart and exciting environments in order to attract and retain students. This is combined with a growing awareness of the educational value of providing spaces which enhance students’ learning – in terms of both experience and outcomes.

These debates have made (and continue to make) a significant impact at the University of Warwick. In September 2007, the University published a strategy document setting out core principles and goals for the forthcoming years. One of the stated goals is “To produce a high-quality Warwick student experience of distinction”, and one of the means identified for achieving this is to, “Consider different uses of spaces to enhance the teaching and learning process” (The University of Warwick, 2007). Warwick has attracted attention and acclaim for the development of intelligent learning spaces on its campus (for example Hodges, 2007a, 2007b), most notably the award-winning Learning Grid in University House. The Learning Grid provides, “an exciting, innovative, integrated, flexible space that supports students by facilitating independent learning in new and changing ways” ( In October 2006, The Reinvention Centre at Westwood was opened by the Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research, offering a teaching room which would complement the Learning Grid and BioMed Grid ( the Capital Centre’s rehearsal and performance rooms ( and the new Teaching Grid planned for the main library, as well as traditional lecture theatres, laboratories and seminar rooms across campus.

This article provides an introduction to the Reinvention Centre at Westwood and briefly assesses the contribution this facility makes to teaching, learning and research at Warwick, as well as to wider intellectual debates around pedagogy and space. The practical facets of the room are considered in relation to the pedagogic principles informing its design, and some consideration is given to the ways in which the room is experienced in terms of ‘dis/comfort’. I suggest that the critique generated by physical environments which foreground spatial concerns makes an important and timely contribution to the development of pedagogical theory and practice. I begin by introducing the Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research.

The Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research

The Reinvention Centre is a collaborative Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL)2 based between the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick and the School for the Built Environment at Oxford Brookes University. In 2005 the Reinvention Centre was awarded recurrent financial support over five years and capital funding. The recurrent budget covers staff and running costs, including lectureships, funded fellowships (students and lecturers) and administrative posts3. Capital expenditure has covered the design and development of new social learning and teaching spaces at both the University of Warwick and Oxford Brookes University4.

The main aim of the Reinvention Centre is to embed research-based learning into the undergraduate curriculum. Research-based learning takes diverse forms across different disciplines but involves the active involvement of students in research activity (see Brew, 2006; Boyer Commission, 2001; Chang, 2005; Hunter et al., 2006; Jenkins and Healey, 2007; for specific examples related to the Reinvention Centre, see Lambert, Parker and Neary, 2007; The Reinvention Centre, 2007). At the heart of the Reinvention Centre’s commitment to research-based learning is a critical pedagogy which challenges the idea of students as passive consumers of education and emphasises the importance of students being active producers of real knowledge and an integral part of the research culture of their departments and universities (Freire, 1970; Rancière, 1991). On this model, hierarchical academic/student relationships change to produce more fluid and elaborate collaborations between producers of scholarly work. Addressing these theoretical issues in practical ways calls for a critical rethinking and reinvention of the spaces in which students learn, and the teaching space at Westwood has been designed in order to offer a creative response to these demands.

The Reinvention Centre at Westwood: A Creative Open Space?

This teaching room has been designed and refurbished by Reinvention Centre staff working together with architects and in consultation with relevant parties across the campus. It occupies 120 square metres on the site of the (disused) Westwood bar, and was opened for teaching in October 2006. Unlike social learning spaces such as the Learning Grid, where the focus in on the student learner, the practice of teaching is the main focus of the Reinvention Centre at Westwood. However, in line with the broader pedagogic concerns of the Reinvention Centre, the activity of teaching is seen as a joint process between teacher-student in which knowledge is not transmitted from teachers and ‘banked’ in students’ heads (Freire, 1970), but instead both teacher and student are engaged in an active and collaborative process of knowledge construction, production and dissemination. These ideas have influenced the design of the physical features of the room.

One of the key features of the Reinvention Centre at Westwood is that it provides an open space with minimal fittings in order to encourage and enable the free and flexible movement of people and ideas. On entering the room, there is no pre-determined place for teacher or student. The room does not offer a privileged space from which teachers can claim authority, such as the ‘top-desk’ or a position in front of a fixed screen or board. The furniture and technologies are portable5, and the substitution of tables and chairs with movable benches, seating cubes and bean-chairs, requires that both students and teacher(s) make active decisions regarding the layout of the room and their locations within it. In this way the room can be adapted to a range of pedagogic situations, not only from one class to the next but within a single teaching session.

The furniture is iconoclastic, adding geometry, colour and contouring. Central to the design of the room is a high-quality rubber floor, with under-floor heating. The floor is not simply to walk and stand on, but can also be used as a surface on which to work. Teachers from the History and History of Art Departments have made use of the walls and floor for enabling students to work with large-scale maps and pictures. Together with excellent acoustics and high-specification lighting, including the maximum use of natural light, a wide range of different teaching and learning activities are enabled, including diverse activities simultaneously taking place in different parts of the room.

Fig1 Fig2
Fig1 and Fig2. Students working in the Reinvention Centre at Westwood

An ‘un/comfortable’ space?

Evaluations with teachers and students who use the room point to the positive impact of the facility in relation to the development of teaching and learning (see The Reinvention Centre, 2007: 28-30). One reoccurring theme has been the level of dis/comfort involved when teaching in the room. Whilst students and staff have welcomed the flexibility of the furniture, some find the seating cubes are not well suited for long periods of sitting still. In response to this, bean-chairs have been introduced alongside the cubes. The design of the furniture and the ways in which it can be easily re/configured facilitate participatory activities such as talking and physical movement. The lack of hard surfaces means that writing for a length of time can be awkward. The room is therefore less suited to passive and sedentary teaching and learning methods such as lectures, but has proved to be a positive resource for small group work and interactive discussions, presentations and role-play activities (for illustration see Johnson, 2007).


Fig4 Fig5

Fig3, 4 & 5. Students and staff engaged in group work and presentations in the Reinvention Centre at Westwood

'Comfort’ is, of course, subjective and the diverse reactions from users to date reflect the different embodied and aesthetic needs, tastes and experiences of individuals. The issue of dis/comfort also encompasses possible feelings of risk and disorientation which may be generated by the conditions of the space and by moving ‘out of the comfort zone’ of traditional classrooms and teaching approaches (see Arnot, 2007). There is interesting debate to be had (though beyond the scope of this article) about the extent to which some level of risk, discomfort and disorientation can be valuable in the performance and development of teaching and learning. Ongoing evaluations and discussions amongst users of the Reinvention Centre at Westwood draw attention to the complex relationship between the physical space, including furniture and technology, and the embodied and affective experiences of students and teachers working with/in them. In this way, issues of embodiment, generally neglected as a subject of concern for pedagogical theory or practice (Beard et al., 2007; McWilliam, 1996 ;Shapiro, 1999), are brought to the fore as the features of the teaching room demand a re/orientation from the internalised ‘norms’ of pedagogic practice (Ahmed, 2006). These concerns are rarely, if ever, posed of traditional teaching spaces, despite the fact that these are often cramped and inflexible, too hot or too cold, or not conducive to the specific activities taking place within them.


This article has introduced the Reinvention Centre at Westwood, briefly describing the pedagogic rationale for developing the room, its key features and the teaching and learning activities it facilitates. Some of the questions generated by the development and usage of the room have been considered. There is a paucity of scholarly debate around university pedagogies, despite the strategic and intellectual importance of such issues. By generating critical discussion, creative teaching and learning spaces are not only valuable to the relatively small numbers of people who use them. They have scope for much wider impact informing the planning and development of university strategy6and contributing to scholarship and policy-making, at a time when pedagogy and space play an increasingly central role in understanding the complex (and contested) relationships between teaching, learning and research in higher education.


The Reinvention Centre at Westwood is available for booking directly through the Reinvention Centre. Further information on the teaching room and the Reinvention Centre can be found at


Thanks to the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.


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Arnot, C. (2007) Out of the Comfort Zone, Guardian Education, Tuesday October 16, 2007.,,2191536,00.html. Accessed 24-10-07.

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Johnson, R. (2007) From Scenario-Based Learning to Production of Knowledge, paper presented at Student as Producer: Reinventing the Undergraduate Curriculum conference, 20-21 September, University of Warwick. Accessed 24-11-07.

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1. One such example in the UK is the third Social Learning Space Symposium (2008) Redesigning Universities. See

2. CETLs are funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for Enland (HEFCE). Funding 74 Centres to the amount of £315 million from 2005 to 2010, the CETL initiative represents HEFCE's largest single funding initiative in teaching and learning. The purpose of CETLs is to promote excellence across all subjects and aspects of teaching and learning in higher education. See

3. Further information on the Reinvention Centre is available at The Reinvention Centre encompasses a range of progressive educational approaches. This article represents the views of the named author.

4. In November 2007 The Reinvention Centre at Oxford Brookes University opened a social learning facility in the School of the Built Environment, modelled on Warwick’s Learning Grid. See

5. Responding to user feedback, a fixed ceiling projector was installed for use from September 2007 in addition to the mobile projector.

6. A forum for those interested in developing their teaching in relation to issues of space and performance has been jointly established by the Reinvention Centre and the Centre for Creativity and Performance in Teaching and Learning (CAPITAL) Centre at Warwick University. Contact either Centre for further information.


Citation for this Article
Lambert, C. (2007) Exploring new learning and teaching spaces Warwick Interactions Journal 30 (2). Available online at: