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Space, a SENSE.STEAM pillar


STEAM spaces are not cooking recipes.

“The classroom is the third teacher” – This is one of the famous – and often repeated – lines attributed to Loris Malaguzzi, promoting the Reggio Emilia approach. On the surface, this is a convincing statement. It rightly points out that teaching and learning always happen “somewhere,” and this “somewhere” matters.

So far, so good. We would agree with this. There is no neutral space on this planet, and schools are no exception.

However, the idea of the environment “as a teacher” also conjures a –top-down? – notion that an environment that is arranged in a particular fashion improves education through its specific physicality, like a behaviourist experiment: Space A will cause outcome B.

And we do not agree with this, not in an educational context.

I deeply value the Reggio Emilio approach, and the reader is kindly asked to forgive me for the out-of-context use of Malaguzzi’s quote. However, some (and the emphasis is on “some” and not “all”) of the RE classroom configurations come across as overdetermined: There is a defined corner for painting, one for materials, and one for exploring the alphabet. Yes, child-led, but don’t do the wrong thing in the wrong place! 

Underlying is a common understanding of spatial design as producing a kind of behaviourist blueprint with predictable outcomes, like a cake recipe; we don’t know the taste exactly, but we are sure it will be sweet. School education loves predictability.

However, at STEAM.SENSE, we think the physical environment is neither an active teacher nor an experimental configuration to channel predictable outcomes. The environment gives us interactive options and NOT firm directions. Or, if you like another metaphor: space is a dialogue between human beings and physical reality where neither side uses the imperative.

Understanding complexity

When JJ Gibson developed his theory of environmental psychology in the 1960s, he encountered a world where behaviourism and cognitivism were locked in antagonist positions. One side said that actions are determined through environmental stimuli, and the other side located human agency solely within the human brain.

Gibson’s approach occupied the middle ground between the two, between human choice and physical conditioning. In his famous theory of “affordances,” he described how beings perceive the world as a place that offers a range of finite action possibilities. How and if these possibilities are taken up depends on many factors, such as the shape of the physical reality and the individual’s physical disposition. A stair, for example, invites – depending on the actor’s size and intention – to be used to climb, but also as a place to sit, if needed and size permits. It surely is less suitable for sleeping unless the actor is very small – for example, a baby – or, indeed, very intoxicated. Or take chairs: Most people will sit on them; some will use them to replace light bulbs, and a child might transform them into a toy. 

For Gibson, perception is an active and dynamic sensual process. Engaging with the physical world alters the environment and vice versa. His concept elegantly combines objective conditions and subjective choice without pre-determining the outcome.

Dissecting complexity

Gibson’s concept of human perception, where free will and physical reality entertain each other in an intense tango, is a convincing way to describe the world’s complexity.

However, does it help us in real life? 

Yes, it does, but it provides us more with a philosophical base than an instruction manual. It helps us to understand the physical environment as a dynamic system between human perception and physical reality.

Using the concept as a practical guide for design, however, causes more headaches. As design practitioners, we need a method that reduces complexity into manageable chunks to understand how certain aspects of the environment afford which opportunities. 

With this in mind, we conceptualised four categories – you might want to call them affordance dimensions to describe the physical environment:

Function – Does the space provide the essential functionality? What things need to be in place to support what I want to do? This can be as simple – and essential – as the right storage.

Appearance – What is the look and feel?​ There is, for example, an understanding that STEAM workshops always have a very functional, humble appeal. What if you painted all the workbenches gold? Because this IS a special place.

Environmental – What are the light conditions? How does the place smell? Acoustics? Some neurodiverse participants need an environment with low visual stress levels. Being able to darken the room opens many opportunities to explore light but also taste in unexpected ways. 

Space – This category is often overlooked. However, spatial configurations can play a huge role. A tall space lets us think differently than a space with low ceilings. Is the space large and allows a maximum of visual control? Will it give us a lot of niches where participants with lower confidence levels find a visually sheltered environment to feel less observed? 

These categories are NOT a checklist, and – of course! – not a cooking recipe. It is a loose guide to trigger reflection, discussion, and experimentation. Engaging with those aspects offers a way to look at the same problem through different lenses, finding sometimes unexpected perspectives and things you might have never thought of. The aim is to identify and rank the most relevant Interventions for a STEAM space, allowing for integration of the specific context. And it is also important to discuss these considerations with the participants before and after the experience, so everyone becomes part of the creation process.

There is no magic formula for STEAM space; however, there are magic conversations.

Reintroducing complexity

An approach to the physical environment that tries to be uber-analytical will quickly identify the many overlaps and ambiguities between the selected categories. Dissecting feels naturally unnatural. This is when we need to step back and bring complexity back.

Look at the space you are in: How does it feel, and how do we relate to it?

This holistic reassessment can take many avenues. For our research, we were interested in whether we created more passive or active spaces. Or, in other words, does it support our undertaking well, giving us exactly the right range of affordances and freedom? Or is it an environment that becomes an active part of our explorations?

Claude Parent, the eccentric French architect, was famous for his exclusive use of oblique planes to help humans sense the world’s ambiguity. A steep ramp, with students feeling and exploring the forces of nature, might well be the place to understand the concept of gravity differently. 

Spaces can be, of course, both supportive and explorative, passive, and active, with defined and less-defined affordances. It is important to understand the spectrum and use it. A passive space can easily be turned into an active tool.

Hacking complexity

With reflection and analysis comes enlightenment and knowledge. Affordances are not almighty forces and mechanisms because we humans are an active part of them. We can -deliberately and with subversive joy – work with them and transform the space into something completely different. This is when we take the driving seat and actively use the environment. It will be an enlightening and immersive experience that will teach how to live creatively with the complexity and ambiguity our environment naturally embodies – and this is at the heart of SENSE.STEAM. 

There might be no cooking recipe, but we still can be good cooks.

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An article by Michael Riebel, Senior researcher @ Hawkins\Brown