Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Gender and Learning Space Design

A strange thing occurred today. Peter had shown me the spaces in the School of Engineering and whilst walking back to Ormond College for lunch it occurred to me how macho these spaces were.
I then started to consider gender in design. When I arrived back I received the following from Rosa Storelli, Principal of Methodist Ladies College Melbourne (MLC).

' As it is International Women’s Day today (Go Girls Go!!), I thought I would pose the question to frame your observations re the influence of gender on use, occupation and design of space…Doreen Massey discusses this and while I loathe stereotypes in my experience gender is very influential. – it will influence size of spaces, furnishings, design  and subsequent types of conversations which will take place. It will also influence how many bodies can comfortably occupy the different  spaces……..just a  thought  which may be worth considering as you go to your various learning environments.'

On thinking about this further I am sure that gender should be considered but I know I don't consciously do so. What about others? Is the gender of the designer a major factor here?

This led me onto ethnicity in our multi cultural societies, especially as there is a push to attract overseas students. By the way there must be a global limit in the overseas student market! Every university I have visited in the past five years has been targeting these students.
I mentioned this by reply to Rosa who informs me that:
....a few years ago we deliberately designed an Asian inspired garden for our students..both our International and Australian students…a lovely meditative space …symbolism in our choice of structures, sculptures etc  vital..ie the Eastern Precinct at the Uni!

Rosa was involved with Melbourne university until recently hence the reference to the uni.


  1. The discussion re 'gender' in the design of learning environments, and also in terms of how they are 'experienced' by occupants, is critically important - well done Nigel and Rosa for raising this concern. It raises matters such as colour, materials of functional and decorative elements, size and shape of furniture, etc. But I would also want to raise the serious matter of 'play' in the design of learning environments. Our belief that 'play' is something logically linked with children or younger people is mistaken and this link between childhood and play is a cultural and historical construction..... it is not 'natural' despite the way we have all been led to think about it. So, I often ask of proposed new learning environments: how can we make it more playful for occupants? One direct example I can give is the approach taken in collaborative classrooms in Engineering at Melbourne a few years ago. In this instance, a decision was made to use the floor as an active learning surface where students could work, learn, be active, etc. As a consequence, and despite some strong reservations by academics, the floor is the place where key elements of student learning and final assessment occur. To see the students competing with each other in small teams as they raced their programmed robots around a track marked on the floor was a real joy.

  2. It's really interesting following your journey of discovery Nigel. Reflective practice in progress indeed.
    Yes, gender, or at least (or maybe more to the point) difference, is important.
    Query readers: at the most simple and trivial level, who else is infuriated by being strangled by seatbelts in cars - mainly designed by men who are, on average, the taller gender? Grrrrrrrr!
    Yes Peter, I agree, play is crucial.
    We tend to spend enormous amounts of time at work listening and writing. We spend lots of time (in the better sort of learning sitations) talking and interacting. But when we play, we create different sets of learning links in our minds because there is space for creativity above and beyond instant response to the situation. Sorry, not well phrased, but perhaps something to provoke further discussion.

  3. Shelley, I have difficulty identifying with this taller gender thing!
    The point is that there is no 'one size fits all' your point illustrates this. If there was, space design would be easy. It is not. I will post later about a journey through the campus I made with Peter yesterday. The variations of the use of similar spaces I saw were very instructive. It is difficult to completely imagine how spaces we provide will be used so the added complexity of gender challenges us even further.
    Thanks for the comment

  4. Can I add a further issue to the discussion with Nigel and Shelley on how space is 'experienced'.... which is really the thrust of the discussion thus far. Tonight my son, who has just completed a university degree, spoke of his experience as a 'left-handed' student learning in a 'right-handed' world. Of course, we (well some) are aware of the often limited number, or complete lack, of 'left-handed' seats in lecture theatres and other campus venues. This, in itself, has a major impact. For instance, Joshua spoke of how the writing style (often convoluted, twisted) of left-handed writers is massively shaped by having to sit alongside, and share limited table space with, right-handers. But he also raised another very important point....... concerning the orientation that individuals have to a space or setting and their preference for how they position themselves in a setting, for instance, which side of their body a person prefers to have adjacent to a wall or object, and which side they prefer facing into open space. If there is substance to this issue, then it strengthens my belief that wherever possible, in classrooms and in informal learning spaces, we need to provide 'variation' in seating and working arrangements to meet individual needs and preference. So I say to one and all: "death to uniform seating and furniture" (a bit of drama never hurt anyone). Seriously, why must there be a common seating/table/bench treatment in classrooms? Who decided that this was the best way to do things for the students?

  5. Nigel,

    I am taking a travelling studio of architecture, planning, urban design, construction, and landscape architecture students to Montreal in July with my colleague, Carolyn Whitzman. Our topic is 'Gender Inclusive Cities'. I am looking forward to the range of propositions which the students will make to a area undergoing change at Pointe St Charles in Montreal. Carolyn is a planner with expertise on gender and safe cities.

  6. Clare this is sure to be an interesting visit. Since considering gender in learning space design I have been noticing other environments that do not seem to have considered gender. What I mean by that is that they are not gender neutral, perhaps this is not achievable or even desirable. What do you think?
    I would like to know what is learned from your travelling studio.


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