Anyone for online hopscotch? Why school space (still) matters in the digital age.

This is a guest post by Dr Pamela Woolner, Senior Lecturer in Education at Newcastle University. Pam has been researching and commentating on the design and use of school spaces since the early 2000s.  She seeks to understand educational change in connection to the physical environment and material resources. Her current European project, CoReD, funded through Erasmus+ , brings together academics and schools from across Europe to develop collaborative approaches to the redesign of school premises.

In a recent A&E special post, Historian of Education, Catherine Burke wrote thought-provokingly about schooling through and beyond the Covid-19 crisis of spring and summer 2020. Emma Dyer has since added her own 10 mythologies about education that she would like us to leave behind. I’m intending this writing as a companion piece to both of these, taking stock of what we have learnt and how we might apply that in the future, particularly in relation to the school building.

As access to school premises have been severely restricted and school communities grapple with how to manage their space under new criteria of safety*, we have surely learnt about the centrality to education of the physical environment and material resources. If premises look like a liability just now, through the focus on marker tape, sterlising and restriction, we need to remember that the last few months have repeatedly demonstrated that digital technology can’t replace the school as a physical and social centre.

We should already know this – researchers who followed the earlier development of our current wireless, networked world have continued to point out the limitations of technology, as well as the possibilities. In her 2011 book, Learning Futures, Keri Facer thoroughly demolished the notion of schools made redundant by IT, imagining instead, “schools … as resources for their
communities to imagine and build the futures they want”. Drawing on a similarly long career in
researching EdTech, Neil Selwyn recently sounded a cautionary note about the push to extend online solutions to the Covid-19 situation into the post-Covid world. Along with arguing for the blatantself-interest of lots of the enthusiasts for online learning, he, like Facer, casts doubt on the capacity of digital technology to fulfil important educational and democratic needs

More prosaically perhaps, in considering the continued need for physical space for teaching and learning, I’ve been thinking about the practical aspects of many subjects and disciplines. There are important parts of science, art, music, PE and engineering (I could go on) that do not transfer entirely to the home-school’s lab, studio or sports hall facilities (at least not in most people’s homes).

Also relevant here is Gert Biesta’s insistence that education must be more than just learning. Perhaps the suggestion that schooling can be separated from the shared experience of being and doing is yet another aspect of Biesta’s ‘learnification’ of education, the denying of valuesand intentions? And, it seems to me that, it is this richer understanding of education, involving a community of relationships, values and shared culture, that is bound up with the occupation of a shared space. We could ask if that space needs to be physical, rather than virtual, but we are back to the gaps left by the virtual. For instance, the chance meetings that Doreen Massey emphasised in For Space as a benefit to existing in actual, physical space, and which we struggle to recreate in our social media of bubbles, are a key part of the full experience of school.

So, if some technocrats of the modern, high-stakes school world would like to minimise the complexities and uncertainties inherent in gathering together, let’s not follow them where the Covid crisis first led. Instead, in September, let’s hope for a return to schools, colleges and universities in ways that enable us to enjoy the power of the built environment to support and develop the human relationships and cultural values that make education what it should be.

Photograph by Dr Pam Woolner of a school playground with hopscotch, taken for the Open Futures project: 

*New criteria for safety in schools for England, Scotland and Wales summer 2020:



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