This study is an ethnographic study, which is an approach increasingly being used within learning space research when looking at the physical space and its social actors (Blackmore, Bateman, Cloonan, et al., 2011; Campbell et al., 2013; King, 2016; Palludan, 2005; Saltmarsh, Chapman, Campbell, & Drew, 2015; Yeoman, 2015). Ethnographic studies are an asset to educational research, because as a researcher you have an opportunity to immerse yourself into this rather complex field and present an aspect of it. I am exploring this field with an understanding that this research does not stand alone but is part of a developing ‘body of work’ within learning space research that aims to provide nuanced perspectives on complex learning environments. While much of the literature on learning spaces focus on the quality of conditions or users’ perceptions, I focus on the educational practices and how the space is used and to what effect (Blackmore, Bateman, Loughlin, et al., 2011).
My inquiry is inspired by social science research on cultural spatiality and texts, which try to understand how people interact with their environment, and see space as both a medium and a product of social practice (Augé, 1995; Berger & Luckmann, 1991; Foucault, 1975). I focus on the social practices of the teachers and on understanding how the space is produced and reproduced by their agency. For the purpose of this study, I understand everything as socially situated and my perspective is that knowledge and development occurs in the interaction between people and objects.
To have a broad perspective and keep an open mind to new ideas and impressions, I used a range of methods in my fieldwork that helped me expose various themes in the field. Drawing furnished floor plans and registering users’ movements turned out to be one of the most valuable methods even though I had little previous experience drawing floor plans and it was very time consuming. By measuring the space and registering all the furniture for the floor plan, I got to know the place intimately and I became aware of all the furniture and spaces that were never used. Had I solely been focused on observing the users and following them, I would not have paid attention to what they did not use, which provided an insight into how the teachers interacted with the space in general.
I examined my data using thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006; McCarter & Woolner, 2011; Thomas & Harden, 2007), a research tool used to identify, analyse and report themes or patterns within data. Themes and patterns are found through phases of coding, where important instances in the data first are identified and then developed. Initially I coded all my field notes based on themes I had found in my drawings. Then I re-interrogated the data and found recurring words based on physical places and finally I went over the data using the themes that I had established from the patterns developed through my two initial codings. I would, for instance, cluster activities together that would take place in various spaces, thereby noticing that I could interpret the activities to represent two particular and very different types of behaviour, passive and active. I then chose to use these two categories to re-examine the data with a comparative analysis of the teachers’ and students’ behaviour to find out if different combinations of active and passive behaviour among the teachers would limit or enforce certain behaviour amongst the students in any way. The power relation between the social actors, especially the teacher’s power over the students, might be less obvious in a flexible and/or open learning space than in a classroom setting. Thus it is important to find a tool that can help analyse how the power relations are in this social setting, both between the users and their surroundings.