Learning spaces and learner autonomy
Autonomous learners and teachers have been described as active agents in their own learning and teaching, who, whilst understanding the constraints which impact on them, empower themselves by finding the “spaces for manoeuvre” (Lamb, 2000), thus avoiding resignation and disaffection. The concept of ‘space’ has thus been referred to in autonomy research in the field of language learning for many years, and indeed it was a specific type of space, namely the self-access centre, which, in the 1970s, stimulated the current interest in learner autonomy.
It is time then to explore further the meaning of space and its relationship to learner autonomy. Spaces are inhabited, experienced and used by individuals and groups, and can be defined as multidimensional (Bourdieu 1985, p. 723). For example, they can be physical spaces, such as a classroom, self-access centre or study, or indeed a public space where people meet socially. They can be virtual spaces, such as a virtual learning environment or social media. They can be personal spaces or shared spaces, spaces for reflection or spaces for communication, formal or informal spaces. Indeed in a number of disciplines such as telecommunications and cyberspace, networks have been conceptualised as spaces (rather than conduits), which suggests that, rather than being simply a means of transmitting information, they are ‘sites of communicative action structured by a range of social relations, including those embedded in the design of the setting’ (Samarajiva & Shields, 1997, p. 536).
Spaces are also dynamic and socially constructed, as they become ‘places’ through ‘placemaking’, a process in which individuals ‘change, appropriate and shape’ space (Parnell & Procter, 2011, p. 79). However, space itself has a role in shaping action. Indeed Giddens (1979) highlights the significance of space, criticising most social theory for neglecting it and seeing it merely as a backdrop to social action, rather than as a significant component of social interactions:
...a setting for interaction. A setting [which] is not just a spatial parameter, and physical environment, in which interaction occurs: it is these elements mobilised as part of the interaction. Features of the setting of interaction, including its spatial and physical aspects...are routinely drawn upon by social actors in the sustaining of communication. (pp. 206-7)
Recent work in the field of education (e.g. Leander & Sheehy, 2004) has similarly considered space as ‘a product and process of socially dynamic relations’ (Leander & Sheehy, 2004, p. 1), the so-called process of ‘socio-spatial dialectic’ (Soja, 1989, pp. 79-83), in which space is both a social product and a force which reflects back on social processes.
Theories of space can thus enable us to understand the interrelationships between learners, learning, and spaces, enabling us to explore questions such as the following:
- In which ways can different spaces be conducive to the development of learner autonomy?
- How do learners ‘change, appropriate and shape’ the spaces they inhabit in order to turn them into places for learning?
- How can the relationships between theories of space and theories of learning (such as constructivism and social constructivism) be conceptualised in order to shed light on the development of learner autonomy in physical and virtual, formal and informal, personal and shared settings?
- In which ways can an examination of the concept of space broaden our theoretical understanding of autonomy in language learning?
- How might research exploring the relationship of space and autonomy inform language policy and pedagogy?
Bourdieu, P. (1985). The social space and the genesis of groups. Theory and Society 14(6), 723-744.
Giddens, A. (1979). Central Problems in Social Theory. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Lamb, T.E. (2000). Finding a voice: learner autonomy and teacher education in an urban context. In B. Sinclair, I. McGrath & T. Lamb (Eds.), Learner autonomy, teacher autonomy: Future directions (pp. 118-127). Harlow:Addison Wesley Longman.
Leander, K. & Sheehy, M. (Eds.). (2004). Spatializing literacy research and practice. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Parnell, R. & Procter, L. (2011). Flexibility and placemaking for autonomy in learning. Educational and Child Psychology. Special Issue: Optimal environments for learning: The interface of psychology, architectural design and educational practice, 28 (1).
Samarajiva, R., and P. Shields. (1997). Telecommunication networks as social space: Implications for research and policy and an exemplar. Media, Culture and Society, 19, 535-555.
Soja, E.W. (1989). Postmodern geographies: The reassertion of space in critical social theory. London: Verso.