Space for Learning

Children working standing up at tables in the Clore Learning Studio at the Leach Pottery, St Ives, Cornwall. Photo Matthew Tyas

Tools for understanding embodied learning

Communities of practice

The communities of practice (COP) model is being used in schools, further education and business as a way of understanding learning and knowing. Etienne Wenger, who developed the concept with Lave in his 1991 book Situated Learning, defines a COP as: ‘groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly’.

Communities of practice have:

  • Domain – what the practice is about, eg learning about conflict
  • Community – who is part of the community? For example those involved in delivering the learning
  • Practice – how is this shared? What does a museum educator or historian do?

Communities of practice are self-governing and have clear boundaries that differentiate their domain, community and practice from other areas. Each COP designs how they will learn together and develops an ecology of interactions, eg workshops, object handling and exhibition visits.

Concept thresholds

Educationalists Meyer and Land1 have seen concepts that are central to understanding a subject as ‘thresholds’ that need to be passed through. They understand learning as negotiating a series of these concept thresholds to assimilate knowledge and become expert. Understanding a threshold concept requires a shift in thinking and is transformative.

…a threshold concept is likely to involve forms of ‘troublesome knowledge’; David Perkins defines this as ‘that which appears counter-intuitive, alien (emanating from another culture or discourse), or seemingly incoherent
Boys 2011, 41

Communities of practice (COP) have thresholds that learners must negotiate. Physically entering a new learning space can be seen as crossing a threshold and moving in to a place where students are ready to learn. There is also a range of barriers that students can experience to entering the physical learning space – emotional and intellectual as well as physical. These barriers are mirrored in crossing the threshold into a COP which requires understanding of concepts, some of which might be difficult to accept into students’ existing framework of knowledge.

Members can also change their location in a COP. Members join a COP, and as they learn more about the subject and about the role of the expert within the subject (eg being a historian as well as knowing about history); they travel more towards the centre of the community. This could be mirrored in a learning space where students, as they develop their understanding, become more involved in activities and conversations rather than standing at the edges.


Educationalists are also interested in how learning requires people to cross boundaries to enter a COP. Jos Boys describes it:

Particular social and spatial practices – the rule and conventions of everyday life – become embedded, congealed and ‘reified’ in our ‘normal’ actions. To become full members, new entrances have to undertake boundary crossing(s) – that is, they must both be allowed in and choose to positively engage with the community being entered.
Jos Boys, Towards Creative Learning Spaces, Abingdon, Routledge, 2001. Page 45

Inevitably, boundaries do not need to correlate with physical spaces, but they can. The act of joining a group that is engaged with learning about a specific subject can include moving into space physically occupied by the group and learning how to ‘act’ within it.

Understanding how learners become part of a COP, and how individuals negotiate concept thresholds and boundaries, becomes of interest when constructing a pedagogy of how learners understand and use learning spaces within Imperial War Museums.

Attributes for Knowledge Environments

Another useful tool when considering the types of spaces to provide has been created by Lennie Scott-Webber. In her 2004 book In Sync: Environmental Behavior Research and the Design of Learning Spaces she identified five different types of learning environments and codified the different processes and activities that took place within them.

The following table is from ‘Archetypal Attributes for Knowledge Environments’ in Scott-Webber, 2004, p44.

Learning environmentProcess stepsProtocol attributes
Environments for Delivering Knowledge Information is imparted via a formal method so that others may learnPrepare and generate presentation Deliver to an audience presentation Assess understandingA formal presentation Instructor controls presentation Focus is on presentation Passive learning
Environments for Applying Knowledge Places where an organisation puts knowledge into practiceKnowledge transferred via demonstration Practice by recipient Understanding achievedControlled observation One-to-one Master and apprentice alternate control Informal Active learning
Environments for Creating Knowledge Where organisations create, innovate, and implement new ideasResearch Recognise need Divergent thinking Incubate Interpret into product or innovationMultiple disciplines Leaderless Egalitarian Distributed attention Privacy Casual Active learning
Environments for Communicating Knowledge Where people exchange information, formally and informally, verbally and non verballyOrganise information Deliver Receive and interpret ConfirmKnowledge is dispersed Impromptu delivery Casual Active learning
Environments where knowledge is used for Decision-making The place where information is distilled and judgements are made and acted uponReview data Generate strategy Plan Implement one course of actionKnowledge is dispersed Information is shared Leader sets final direction Situation is protected Semi-formal to formal Passive/active learning


  1. Meyer Jan and Ray Land. Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines, Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh, 2003