Learning space: Beyond the physical dimension

Learning space: Beyond the physical dimension


Mason, Deanna M.




August 2011


The Notebook, 14(1) [Electronic publication]


Reinert Center for Teaching Excellence, Saint Louis University: St. Louis, MO.


Deanna Marie Mason, Ph.D. (Nursing, Madrid campus)

A learning space can support or impede education and is usually conceptualized as classroom organization or location. However, a more elusive definition of space exists involving the distance from others needed to feel comfortable. In teaching, this space influences each individual’s ability to feel free to speak, to be heard, and to listen to others.

Educator Parker Palmer identified the need to create learning spaces with three essential dimensions: openness, boundaries, and hospitality (1993, p. 71-74). Openness removes barriers impeding learning, such as fear of showing ignorance. Boundaries focus learning by defining specific limits to retain clarity and prevent straying into distraction. Finally, hospitality permits everyone to feel welcome and safe, rather than threatened or judged, which opens them to test hypotheses, challenge ideas, and engage in critique.

Building a learning space that includes openness, boundaries, and hospitality is a process. Most students are hesitant to enter this space in the beginning, but are drawn in when the behaviors are modeled and reinforced. Acknowledging that no one knows all of the answers and that learning is a shared activity permits students to see how openness can help them improve by clearly evaluating their personal knowledge gaps rather than hiding them.

Subjects and topics define classes, but boundaries can be clarified by showing how information is related to other subjects. Maintaining content within the boundaries of the course is necessary to make sure learning outcomes are met. However, engaging students up to those boundaries can ground the course more solidly, while also acknowledging student ideas outside course boundaries.

Allowing everyone to offer and hear short personal histories or calling everyone by name can increase a sense of hospitality. Knowing a bit more about each person cultivates a shared humanity, thus making it easier to consider the motivations and needs of the person speaking or listening. Respect usually increases when this happens and allows students to critically engage with each other.

A challenge for this academic year may include a focus on the abstract components of space by incorporating openness, boundaries, and hospitality to increase student commitment and learning outcomes.

Palmer, P. (1993). To know as we are known: Education as a spiritual journey. Harper: San Francisco.


23 January 2015



Contact Information

Dr. Deanna Marie Mason

Calle Téllez, 26, 28007 Madrid
T. +34 912 192 862

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