Our desk-based higher education is not good for our health and our diversity

There's plenty of talk in HE of diversifying people and materials - but what about movement and space? Sunny Dhillon calls for learning to be aligned with our physical needs

Sunny Dhillon is a lecturer in Education Studies at Bishop Grosseteste University

One aspect of the attempt to widen access to higher education that seems to have resulted in little material change is that of learning spaces.

Asides from long needed adaptations to historically inaccessible buildings (in more ways than just physically) to meet access needs of disabled staff and students, the stark lack of imagination in designing learning environments is something that has struck me in need of redress for some time now.

At the University of Leeds’ Student Education Conference in 2019, Adam Finkelstein, a keynote speaker from McGill University, explored the possibilities of technology enhanced learning spaces. In an economic climate where HEIs spend more than ever before on infrastructure, student accommodation and glitzy learning spaces, the keynote was apt.

Crucially, Finkelstein simply concluded that after many projects, and large expenditure at McGill, it was found that certain key principles ought to be applied when developing a learning space – light, airflow, large white/chalk boards on walls, and easily moveable chairs and tables. Well, I never!

That keynote was before the pandemic. Since, we’ve obviously all been often confined to our homes, and displayed great ingenuity in fabricating workspaces, seemingly out of all manner of crockware and pieces of derelict furniture we had lying about.

Having returned back to campus to teach this academic year, both at Leeds, and now my current employer, Bishop Grosseteste, it’s been a relief to deliver sessions face to face, and not have to utter, nor be admonished by, that now banal “your mic’s off”. However, in contrast to the ingenuity in creating our homeworking set-ups, it’s been frustrating to experience the lack of imagination employed in our learning spaces.

Killing us, not so softly

As Vybarr Cregan-Reid put it in Primate Change: How the world we made is remaking us, our desk-based lives are no good for us. Neither are the lecture halls (University of Northampton notwithstanding), nor seating arrangements, contributing to anywhere near optimum learning spaces.

I’d like to replace that hackneyed noun in our corporatised higher education culture of “innovation” with “imagination”. The former connotes improving something in a novel way. The latter, exploring alternative possibilities. The subtle difference is, I think, key.

Returning to campus offered us an opportunity to radically reconsider our learning spaces and patterns – to take risks in the service of healthier bodies and minds. The central premise of embodied cognition convincingly argues that our mental processes are obviously affected by our environments. Thus, sitting on chairs for hours on end, in artificially lit rooms, however ergonomically designed they may be, impacts our physical, mental and emotional states.

Owing to a car crash, I suffer from chronic sciatica, meaning that sitting in a chair for long periods is excruciating. Growing up in a Punjabi Sikh household, we would often eat meals whilst sat cross-legged on the floor. The benefits of such a posture in the cultural West are starting to be taken more seriously. I’m actually sat in such a posture as I type this using a pop-up floor desk!

There is much talk of “decolonising” curricula, including reading materials etc., but how about also the learning spaces we inhabit? Overcoming my imposter syndrome and feelings of being a perennial outsider within the hallowed halls of the HE edifice, I had an early honest exchange with my new office colleague, who expressed understanding of my predicament, and their support if I’d like to work sat on the floor. That this physical need required explicit discussion insofar as it transgressed cultural norms suggests we have a way to go to experience myriad seating/standing arrangements as a given.

With over 60% of the UK population suffering back pain at some point in their lives, not to mention innumerable other easily manageable ailments we endure owing to our ill-conceived physical learning environments, alternatives are in order.

Truly great thoughts are conceived while walking

As lecturer in Education Studies, I begin sessions with new cohorts by establishing not so normal norms: students are encouraged to move, sit or stand as and when they want, to leave the room, stim, and stretch (including doing a downward dog if need be, provided no one’s view is compromised!).

Whilst to an outsider it may well look like a Monty Python “ministry of silly walks” reenactment, following the wisdom of embodied cognition, we eschew presenting a Victorian image of what studious learning ought to look like, with what works best for each person in the room.

Doing away with outdated social constructs, but neither embracing a Google gimmick culture for the sake of image branding, shifting the norms of the learning space is a way to demonstrate further, tangible, commitment to diversifying, and making more inclusive learning spaces.

I have been privy to “some ideas pitched as ‘novel’”, that are actually rather simple as per Finkelstein’s recommendations. These include walking meetings, beanbags in learning spaces and comfort breaks; all of which should strike the reader as merely par for the course.

As a community of practice, we ought, as a baseline, consider our participants’ access needs, and encourage suitable learning behaviours. All of this is remarkably simple. Banal, even. Which is why it’s all the more jarring to experience the mode of interminable meetings, sat at desks.

For example, one can’t help marvel at the tragic irony of recently participating in a 2-hour long training session, with only a cursory break after 90 minutes, about the criticality of adapting teaching spaces to meet the needs of learners and educators with Autism Spectrum Disorder!

If we are truly committed to those somewhat already hackneyed taglines of diversity, inclusion, and decolonisation, we could, at the very least, rethink what learning looks like to be aligned with our physical needs, rather than continuing to labour in Victorian manner to satisfy outdated mores.

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