The 'practice of place': teaching and learning in non-traditional educational environments

Year: 2012

Author: Saltmarsh, Sue

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Questions of space, place and education have become the focus in a growing body of educational research concerned primarily with policy contexts and socioeconomic conditions, with considerable emphasis in the literature on: education policy and the allocation and governance of educational resources; the relationships between local, regional and national populations, educational choice and student outcomes; and the ways that situated social disadvantage, cultural background and familial belongings impact on educational access, engagement and outcomes. More recently there has been an increased interest in space as an educational question that pivots around a number of practice-based issues – for example, how can learning and teaching spaces be designed and used in ways that harness the opportunities afforded by new technologies? What kinds of educational spaces are needed in order to be responsive to the rapidly evolving learning behaviours of today's children and young people? What are the most effective ways of making use of limited resources to create dynamic and innovative spaces that learners will want to use? Such questions point to an interest in the intersections of how learning occurs and where learning occurs, and tend to be underpinned by assumptions that space shapes the practices that take place within it. In this paper, I suggest an alternative position, drawing on Michel de Certeau's conception of space as a 'practiced place' to consider how the practices of those who inhabit space might be implicated in its production. Taking examples from a collaborative ethnographic study in three primary schools in Sydney, Australia as a starting point, I explore why it is that new kinds of educational spaces do not necessarily result in the new kinds of practices they are envisaged as creating. As students' and teachers' accounts of transitioning to and working within non-traditional learning spaces demonstrate, while space may imply or facilitate particular types of activity, neither 'geometric' nor 'anthropological' space (Certeau, 1984) appears to be sufficient to account for the practices that take place within it. I argue, following Certeau, that the spatial order of schools precedes and exceeds built environments, and that rather than shaping practice, it is actualized by the appropriation of, the spatial action within and the relational positions produced by the everyday practices of teachers and students. Implications for schooling and policy decision-making are discussed, emphasizing the importance of understanding place-based practice histories, and supporting innovation in practice in advance of spatial policy implementation.