Dr Jennifer Clement
Canterbury Christ Church University
This PhD research took place in a reception classroom within the Foundation Phase, the curriculum for all children aged 3 to 7 years in Wales, over the period of one year. It’s intention was to support children’s participation in the design and co-creation of their classroom space. Using Froebel's (1899) approach to communal garden design as the pedagogical blueprint, and reflecting it through recent sociomaterial (Fenwick, 2011) and democratic (Moss, 2014) understandings of learning and space, it created 'Spatially Democratic Pedagogy' - a seven stage design process.
The Foundation Phase curriculum framework was introduced by the Welsh Government in 2010 (and revised in 2015). It includes a number of additional pedagogies and rights based approaches which support more participatory understandings of learning and the child (WG, 2015). However, these additional pedagogies are expected to be played out within existing constructions of space. Dominated by continuous provision, spaces are to include sand, water, writing, construction and role-play. Recently rebranded as "Learning Zones" (Taylor et al, 2015), these spaces are becoming increasingly structured around a centralised concept of space, activity and outcome, creating a paradox by framing both space and pedagogy as prescribed and not participatory.
The research question and methodological frame
Driven by the research question 'what happens when children design and co-create their classroom space?', the research used a Design Based Research frame (Reimann, 2011) to, “solve real-world problems through the design, enactment and analysis of an intervention” (DBR Collective, 2003). This aimed to provide empirical evidence that considered how the non-human elements of space and learning can be constructed differently within classroom space and how they shape the pedagogical dynamics in the context of the classroom.
Current constructions of classroom space
Current constructions of classroom space within the Foundation Phase were found to be complicit in restricting children and teachers’ ability to participate. Within these spaces, both the teacher and the children were responding to and becoming dependent on the existing spaces. The teachers role was technical, administering and managing the spaces according to the external expectations placed on the activities the spaces were to include. The spaces themselves were not considered, only activity within space. Children’s participation within these spaces was seen to be limited and controlled by the spaces themselves. Data indicate a general neutralisation of space and little room for autonomous practice.
Roles and Relationships within empty space
Creating an empty space within the classroom modified the structures of participation and the roles and relationships between the children, the teacher and the space. During the intervention the children took on the role of architects, teachers, co-constructors, developing and creating their design ideas for the empty space. The teacher’s role was also modified and, on reflection, the children noted she had been the ‘helper’ and had helped to realise their design ideas within the space. Within this construction the teacher becomes the attendant, attending to the children’s ideas and supporting their designs. Subsequently, relationships between the teacher and the children appear to support democratic and participatory roles and relationships with participation and power becoming more shared and dispersed.
The importance of the construction of space
Findings across the intervention appear to suggest it is the communal construction of space that acted as the driver for children’s ability to participate. This indicates that the construction of classroom space is important, that it supports the roles and relationships that form within it and modifies pedagogical practices. Analysis of the intervention suggests there were notable differences in the relationships and roles that formed between the children, the teacher and the space when the children’s designs were used to support their participation within the classroom. Within this framing of space, it is the process of design and co-creation that becomes the mediator for change. Consequently, it is the process and the opportunity to collaboratively design classroom space that is seen to support children’s learning. In this way, the space is seen to “mirror the learning [it is] to support” (Jilk, 2005, p.43).
Towards the end of the PhD the Welsh Government brought together their developing ideas for education in Wales (WG, 2017). Aspects of the new curriculum purposes and the new professional standards for teachers align with both the findings of the research and the Froebelian principles and practices that underpinned it. Research considering these initial findings against the new curriculum and professional standards could further illuminate the participatory opportunities offered when children design and co-create classroom space.