Where We Learn Shapes Our Learning

(Richard S. Vosko)

Chapter Three in

Creating Environments for Effective Adult Learning

Roger Hiemstra (Editor)

New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education

Number 50, Summer 1991

Ralph B. Brockett, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Alan B. Knox, University of Wisconsin, Madison, CONSULTING EDITOR


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Spaces for adult learning experiences are shaped by administrators, teachers, maintenance personnel, and even learners. The way these physical environments are arranged and manipulated can affect learning experiences.

Where We Learn Shapes Our Learning

Richard S. Vosko

I sometimes wonder if I should have signed up for this. What a day this has been. I overslept and forgot to make the kids' lunches. I got to work ten minutes late. There never seems to be enough time to talk with my children. Tonight the baby sitter was late and now I'll be late. Where is that building anyway? Gee, it's so dark along these walkways. "Excuse me, how can I get to the lecture hall?" Ah, there it is. No signs anywhere. Let's see, I want Room 4088. Darn, wouldn't you know it, the room is on the top floor and there's no elevator. Gosh, I can't seem to find a bathroom here. Finally, there's the classroom. Wow, what a big class and only that empty seat in the middle of the last row left. "Excuse me, please!" My, what a small chair. I'll just put my coat here on the floor. Oops, it's too dirty so I'll just put it over my shoulder. Seems a little chilly in here anyway. What's that on the board and where are my glasses?

The vignette above reads like a worst-case scenario. But so many adults who return to the classroom do not lead well-ordered and neatly arranged lives, Mahoney (this volume) describes many pieces of personal, emotional, psychological, and external baggage that learners can be carrying around. The person in my story, a male, is a single parent who is trying to keep a job, raise a family, and earn a degree all at the same time. He is ready to learn and has an urgent need to earn a degree. But, his responsibilities are very demanding and create all sorts of pressures for him. I remember when I returned to the classroom while continuing my self-employed job as a consultant. There were so many times when I just could not keep my mind on a course's subject matter. Frequently, even the act of going to school was

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a burden to me. In my vignette, the man had a pressure-filled day and arrived at the class in a state of disarray. What he did not need at that time were more hassles, but he encountered many space-related inconveniences: poor lighting, lack of signage, no security, difficult access, remote toilets, small classroom, small seats, crowding, poor sightlines, cool temperature, and little work space.

In this chapter I describe, first, what I do as a space specialist. Second, I make some general observations about what I have learned from my work. Third, I address four factors that can affect adult learning situations. Finally, I offer some conclusions and suggestions for creating or manipulating physical settings to achieve environments conducive to learning.

My Work as a Space Specialist

As a designer and consultant in the building and renovating of places of worship, I am an agent of change who makes connections between ever-developing religious traditions and practices and their effects on the places where people worship. My initial training for this profession was largely in the fields of theology, art, and architecture. After many years of working with adults, I realized that I needed to know more about the way in which adults learn, so I secured additional training in adult education. After all, I was trying to help people create new physical settings to accommodate new worship practices. There have been similar shifts in the creation of physical settings for adult learning programs (Hiemstra, 1976; Vosko, 1984) in efforts to facilitate the learning experience (Hiemstra and Sisco, 1990; Knowles, 1980). Throughout this chapter I compare the creation of effective worship spaces for religious groups with the creation of effective learning spaces for adults.

While learning about adult education techniques and methods, I established a process based on adult education models to assist people in learning more about space issues and how to articulate their specific space needs and expectations. I begin by helping the people develop a plan that is very similar to a learning contract. Our goal together is to create the best possible place for particular worship activities, social affairs, and educational programs.

One of the most successful components of this process is similar to the "instructional audit" described by Hiemstra and Sisco (1990, p. 56). I take the planners of religious spaces on tours of the architectural spaces in which learning and worship activities occur so that we can "audit" or examine various environmental factors. I ask the people to examine the space that we are touring and to note how they feel about colors, decorative materials, lighting, and temperature and whether or not the place makes them feel welcome.

Such tours inevitably reveal how much we adults do not pay attention

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to the physical spaces in which we live and work. This is true for many reasons. Some people are not problem solvers; they are simply unaware of their feelings or blind to the impact of their surroundings. Other people may lack knowledge about their environments and, therefore, are unable to express their feelings. For some adults, physical space issues may be a marginal concern. For others, the space is fine just the way it is. Still others might say, "Gosh, I never noticed that before." My point is that the built environment affects our behavior whether we notice it or not. Research on office environments and building designs has focused on this question of how worker productivity can be affected by the work environment (Becker, 1982; Pappas, 1990; Steele and Jenks, 1977).

In my work I have learned that the worship space, usually shaped by only a few people (clergy and architects), affects worship practices of the entire congregation. If the way in which a house of worship or office building is designed affects the patterns of adult behavior, it is reasonable to posit that a direct relationship between variables of physical space and behavior exists as well in places where adults gather to learn.

Observations from My Work

Across hundreds of diverse settings I have observed that there are kindred relationships between people and places that sometimes defy explanation. At least three categories for such relationships are evident.

People Are More Important Than Buildings. An early Christian writer named John of Chrysostom said that it is not the building that makes the people holy; rather, it is the people who come into the building who make the church holy. In other words, it is the people who give meaning to their buildings. I can recall standing in a Russian Orthodox church in Paris on Good Friday several years ago, watching the people embrace each other and shake hands even while the worship service was being conducted. It was as if the human connection was more important than the divine. For these people, the presence of friends was a very important part of the worship experience. These recollections have helped me work with my clients in developing hospitable gathering areas in their buildings where they can meet and greet each other before, during, and after their worship services.

My own experience as an adult learner showed me the value of such camaraderie. Often, the tension of going to school and working at the same time was bearable only because of friendships I established with teachers and other learners. Even though gathering places and lounges were not always conveniently located where we went to school, we somehow managed to mingle and engage in conversation. It made my learning experience more humane. In fact, the act of going to school with other adults was just as important as what I learned. What could have enhanced this experience was a building that respected us foremost as human beings.

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Hospitality: An Essential Building Material. Although humans can adapt and survive in the most austere conditions, the physical environment should foster friendliness. I have observed that places of worship that appear inhospitable are often used by people who do not seem to care, about each other.

For example, I have noticed that barrier-free accessibility for physically challenged persons is not always conveniently available, especially inside religious buildings. Once a person gets into the space, it is frequently difficult for that individual to be mobile throughout the interior. Handrails, textured directions embedded in the floors, and braille markings on the walls aid the visually impaired person. When I asked about the lack of such amenities in one congregation, I was told, "We don't have any of those handicapped people here!" Buildings that are user-friendly are places that reflect people who are hospitable. They make sure that the environment is pleasing and welcoming.

There is a corollary point here from my observations. A building cannot be any more hospitable than the people who use it. No matter how well equipped or designed a facility may be, there really is no substitute for friendliness and hospitality among users of the facility. In religious buildings, hospitality is a word that turns value systems into actions. In reality, hospitality should be a watchword in all adult learning settings.

Teachers and Learners Working Together. In a previous age, religious rituals were the sole responsibility of the clergy. And in the classroom the lesson plan was the domain of the teacher only. Today, clergy are not so much dispensers of spiritual goods as they are enablers. Their job is to involve people in affairs of the congregation. The clergy have thus had to learn new leadership methods. One of their tasks now is to take advantage of the life experiences of congregational members. Clergy are expected to foster environments of mutuality and collaboration among members. The worship space should reflect this change in function.

So, too, the adult teacher is more than a dispenser of knowledge, and in learning situations he or she should try to create an ambiance that encourages hospitality and inclusivity. The two tasks of taking care of the learning environment and looking after each other's welfare are related. For example, if I respect someone as a human being, I will do my part in making that person comfortable when near me. I believe that places of worship and learning have this mutual courtesy in common. Both spaces are more hospitable when we are more thoughtful in dealing with each other.

Factors Affecting Adult Learning Situations

An administrator from a congregation on the West Coast recently told me that once the offices in their church were renovated and redecorated, it seemed that the congregation became more active; the place was busier.

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Similarly, I believe a teaching environment that is well tended breeds more active participation in the learning experience. There are many factors in the built environment that can affect adult behavior (Burgess, 1981; Huchingson, 1981; Paradise and Cooney, 1980), four of which I consider here.

Territoriality. I have learned from talking with worshipers that many like to sit on the outside perimeter of a congregational space. They do so for different reasons. Some adults do not want to get too close to clergy who represent authority and divinity. Other adults suffer from claustrophobia and need to sit near exits and away from crowds.

Human creatures, like other creatures, tend to establish territories. Adjustment of things in our personal spaces is another of our interesting habits. We do this to give meaning to our space and to create a sense of comfort or familiarity (Ashcraft, 1976; Insel and Lindgren, 1978). When someone encroaches on our space we tend to become defensive and protective. To use a chicken-and-barnyard metaphor, there is a pecking order in human society. It is described in terms of rich and poor, educated and uneducated, powerful and weak, and so on.

For example, traditionally in religious settings nonordained persons (members of the congregation) do not walk or sit with ordained persons (the clergy). Some people enjoy this distinction or privilege, while others despise it. It creates psychological and social walls that are reflected in physical barriers such as rails, chancels, and sanctuaries in churches. As another example, barriers are used in courts of law to create a hierarchy of persons (the judge, the judged, the jury, the guards, and the spectators). Whether it is the amount of land on which we live or the space that is designated ours in the church or classroom, territoriality is a physical factor that can alter behavior (Sommer, 1969, 1974).

Personal space needs and territoriality in instructional settings can be dealt with by making sure that the spaces are not overcrowded and that each adult has adequate space for working and for storing personal items. Further, any barriers that are physical should be dismantled if the teacher wants to convey an atmosphere of collaboration in the learning experience. For example, sitting behind a large desk on a platform, a teacher could be perceived as the fount of all knowledge, inaccessible and even indifferent to students' experiences. Care also must be taken to honor the territoriality needs of adults. One adult learner told me that he sits in the row farthest away from the teacher so that he will not be called on. Another learner once spoke of an uneasiness when the teacher paced the floor nearby that student's seat.

Seating Arrangements. Traditionally, religious buildings are thought of as long, narrow edifices that have unmovable, straight rows of seats grouped together so that congregations face the platform where clergy conduct the worship service. Newer places of worship have discovered a different spatial attitude that is more inviting, one that encourages active

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participation in the ritual activity and discourages the social stratification mentioned above.

"Sociofugal" (Hall, 1974; Osmond, 1959) seating arrangements are those that focus on a single person, object, or action. This arrangement expects no interaction among those seated together. It discourages involvement in the action witnessed. Cinemas and older, larger lecture halls are usually arranged in this fashion. All of the attention is on either the screen or the teacher. There are times when such undivided attention on an image is required, and the best seating arrangement for viewing the image is linear rows. But adult learning experiences depend on more than just presentations by teachers or projections of images on a screen. At the heart of many classrooms is the interaction that takes place among learners or among the teacher and learners. In this case, "sociopetal" or semicircular (Hall, 1974; Osmond, 1959) seating arrangements are more appropriate. This pattern not only allows for participation in the learning activity but also encourages interaction among learners.

Depending on enrollment, the best situation is to provide a room that has flexible furnishings. This flexibility enable users to rearrange the space to accommodate a variety of learning activities. There are times when one seating pattern is more useful than another.

Sightlines. There is another good reason for a semicircular seating arrangement, especially for large groups: sightlines. A semicircular pattern brings more people closer to the heart of the teaching action (Hall, 1959, 1966). For example, I have observed that in a church that seats one thousand people in long straight rows, the last row can be as much as 120 feet away from the front, depending on the building width. However, in a semicircular arrangement of one thousand seats, no one ever is more than 60 feet away from the front. The latter arrangement creates much better sightlines, not only in churches but also in classrooms.

Based on my experience, in order to provide good sightlines in large instructional settings, the teacher should be elevated six to seven inches for every fifteen feet of distance away from a learner. When the slope of the floor is one foot of rise for every twelve feet of length, the platform's elevation need not be proportionately high. Although physical elevation of the teacher can create better sightlines for learners, an elevated platform can suggest a hierarchy in the learning place, one in which the teacher is presented as the only source of knowledge in the room. Further, instructional settings with sloped floors should be barrier-free, allowing physically challenged persons to sit where they wish. While sloped floors are more friendly than flat surfaces, movable seats cannot be used on them. So even though stepped classrooms are designed to provide good sightlines for large groups, the seats cannot be rearranged.

Visual field is an important ingredient in the sightline issue. When a learner is seated, the teacher or focal point should fall within a visual field

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that is thirty degrees off the center axis. That is, as I look straight forward I should not have to twist my body and head or move my eyes to the left or right beyond thirty degrees, otherwise anthropometric discomfort is created (Vosko, 1984 ). For this reason swivel seats are useful in large instructional halls. The best solution, however, is to encourage smaller learning groups where learners can gather in more informal settings that still provide essential furnishings and materials for the learning activity.

Equipment. We live in a time that is being shaped dramatically by the ubiquitous presence of electronic media and computers in our work and domestic environments (see DeJoy, this volume). I wonder if, in this age, there can be an effective adult learning environment without this orientation toward electronic media and computers.

I recently attended a two-day workshop on new software programs for my computer system. In each class the lecturer presented the information using a keypad and a mouse. The colorful images were projected onto a very large, easy-to-read screen. Although we were seated in straight rows facing the screen, a sociofugal arrangement, there was still an interactive feeling in the group. I wondered if I was being drawn into a new kind of learning experience or, because I am a product of the television generation, was I comfortable because I was looking at information flowing across a television-like screen. I learned a lot in that class in a very short period of time because of how the presenter manipulated and presented information using the computer. Further, because the information was presented so concisely and orderly, there was ample time in the program for interaction with the teacher and other learners. I am not yet sure what the related implications are for adult instructional settings, or even for places of worship. However, we should probably pay attention to what many change agents have known for a long time: Adult teachers must never stop being adult learners.

Newer and refurbished instructional settings are often equipped with built-in provisions for projected media. Many places of learning even have staffs or teacher aides who set up and operate the equipment. All that remains for the teacher is to design courses that take advantage of such technology.


I have learned from many religious leaders, and from my own observations in the field, that members of congregations do not always arrive for worship on time. Further, when they do arrive, they expect the place to look good and the minister and choir to be prepared to present a meaningful program. The man in my opening vignette rushes to class after a harrowing day because he needs to get a degree in order to survive. This may not be the case for other adult learners who return to school with a more leisurely agenda. Every learner is different. However, in most adult education pro-

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grams, learners expect that someone will be ready to facilitate something worthwhile in a place of learning that will be pleasant. It is still the adult facilitator or teacher who makes the class a good or bad experience.

I suggest that there are several things adult teachers can do to prepare an adequate space for the learning experience. Although Hiemstra and Sisco (1990, p. 85) provide a checklist "for analyzing the appropriateness of a learning setting for adult learners," I have a somewhat different set of items, as follows. Moreover, in Exhibit 1 I provide a checklist that the teacher can use to carry out a space audit.

Exhibit 1. Analysis of Space Attributes

Outside the Classroom

_____  1. Clear signage showing identification and direction.

_____  2. Barrier-free access along walkways and in the building.

_____  3. Adequate lighting for safety and security.

_____  4. Availability of coatrooms, restrooms, student lounges, and vending machines.

_____  5. Location of emergency exits and clear directions to them.

Inside the Classroom

_____  6. Adequate lighting for evening classes.

_____  7. Availability of emergency lights.

_____  8. Cleanliness of classroom.

_____  9. Barrier-free accessibility to and in the classroom.

_____10. Classroom painted with cheerful colors.

_____11. Windows and blinds or shades that are operable.

_____12. Adequate control over ventilation, heating, and cooling.

_____13. Flexible furnishings.

_____14. Available media equipment.

_____15. Adequate sightlines for everyone in the classroom.

Rearrangement of the Classroom

_____16. Familiarize yourself with the space. Walk all around the room. Notice how it feels in different locations.

_____17. Set up the room to suit your needs as a teacher.

_____18. Explore the options to suit class members' needs.

_____19. Try to imagine which arrangement will work best for which learning activity.

_____20. Check for sightlines, glare, lighting, crowding, access, and work space convenience in each arrangement.


_____21. Search for another classroom if yours is not right.

_____22. Conduct a space needs assessment with the learners.

_____23. Invite the learners to help rearrange the space.

_____24. Encourage comfort and friendliness.

_____25. Do a formative evaluation of the space performance.

_____26. Do a summative evaluation for the administration.

_____27. Thank the learners for helping create the instructional environment.

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Do a Space Needs Assessment. We all have opinions about space. Not all of us can articulate them clearly, but we do have them. A good time to find out about spatial preferences is during the needs assessment component of any course. During this time the teacher could ask about temperature (Do some like it hot? Do some like it cold?), crowding (Is this room too small or large?), seat comfort and work space (How many have taught in places where the seats were designed for younger bodies?), sightlines (Can everyone see?), and, in larger rooms, acoustics (Can everyone hear?). The learners could also add a listing of their own space-related needs.

Extend an Invitation to Get Comfortable. This may sound a little too risky to some teachers. Nevertheless, it is really a way of saying, "I am glad you are here; we are all adults with valuable experiences to share; no one of us knows more than all of us; I am here to enable you to learn more about this topic, so let's get comfortable and go to work." Most adults will like this approach, although a few may feel that the instructor should just teach and not worry about comfort.

Be Sensitive to Quiet Learners. Some adults never let the teacher know anything more about them than that they have signed up for the course. Yet, they have space needs as well as learning needs. Once the teacher recognizes such a person, a more personal approach concerning the instructional setting might be helpful. The teacher may have to identify the "quiet learners" and wait for an appropriate time to approach them. An alternative method is to prepare a written form so that learners can indicate their respective space needs.

Regularly Check for Space-Related Problems. Periodically during the course pause to discuss the instructional setting and determine if space-related needs are being met and how further improvements can be made. This kind of formative evaluation is helpful in sustaining a friendly space.

I have learned that the perfect place for worship has not yet been built, probably because the worshiping community is not yet perfect. Nevertheless, work directed toward the creation of appropriate religious buildings is ever-developing. The same thought applies to adult learning settings. Many of us experience places of learning that are far from perfect. As the practice of adult education continues to develop, many teachers are becoming more proficient. New research in the field of adult education continues to inform and challenge us. Increased attention to the physical environment for learning can help us appreciate that where we learn shapes our learning.


Ashcraft, N. People Space: The Making and Breaking of Human Boundaries. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1976.

Becker, F. D. The Successful Office: How to Create a Workspace That's Right for You. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1982.

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Burgess, J. H. Human Factors in Built Environments. Newtonville, Mass.: Environmental Design and Research Center, 1981.

Hall, E. T. The Silent Language. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959.

Hall, E. T. The Hidden Dimension. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966.

Hall, E. T. Handbook for Proxemic Research. Washington, D.C.: Society for the Anthropology of Visual Communications, 1974.

Hiemstra, R. "Creating a Climate for Adult Learners." Unpublished recommendations to the Management Training and Education Program, Lincoln General Hospital, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1976.

Hiemstra, R., and Sisco, B. Individualizing Instruction: Making Learning Personal, Empowering, and Successful. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

Huchingson, R. D. New Horizons for Human Factors in Design. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

Insel, P. M., and Lindgren, H. C. Too Close for Comfort: The Psychology of Crowding. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1978.

Knowles, M. S. The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. (Rev. ed.) New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Osmond, H. "The Relationship Between Architect and Psychiatrist." In C. Goshen (ed.), Psychiatric Architecture. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1959.

Pappas, J. P. "Environmental Psychology of the Learning Sanctuary." In E. G. Simpson, Jr., and C. E. Kasworm (eds.), Revitalizing the Residential Conference Center Environment. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no.46. San Francisco: Jossey- Bass, 1990.

Paradise, R. C., and Cooney, N. L. "Methods for Assessments of Environments." In L. Krasner (ed.), Environmental Design and Human Behavior. Elrosford, N.Y.: Pergammon Press, 1980.

Soromer, R. Personal Space. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Soromer, R. Tight Spaces: Hard Architecture and How to Humanize It. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

Steele, F., and Jenks, S. The Feel of the Work Place. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1977.

Vosko, R. S. "The Reactions of Adult Learners to Selected Instructional Environments." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Syracuse University, 1984.


Richard S. Vosko is an independent designer and consultant for worship environments, serving communities throughout North America. He works out of his studio in Clifton Park, New York.

July, 2001

-- Return to Roger Hiemstra's opening page

-- Return to the Creating Environments for Effective Adult Learning Contents page

-- Go to Editor's Notes, Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Four, Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine, Chapter Ten, or The Index.