Designing for atmospheres of learning

By Anna Harris, Shanti Sumartojo and Sally Wyatt

On 22 October 2019, about 30 people gathered together in the FASoS attic for a sensory and design ethnography workshop in order to explore the places in which we learn and teach, and how they could be changed. Classrooms and lecture theatres are often taken-for-granted, by staff and students.

At FASoS, with its emphasis on PBL, rooms with tables and chairs for fifteen students and one tutor are the default. Sometimes there are windows, sometimes there are awkwardly placed pillars. Often the light and air are inadequate or highly changeable over a two-hour period. The facilities for group or project-based working or intensive engagement with digital technologies are not always optimal. Can we do anything about these spaces, in the short- or longer-term? Can we make them better for teaching and learning for staff and students alike? We may not be able to single-handedly create supportive learning atmospheres, but we could perhaps come up with some important elements.

The workshop brought together colleagues with different backgrounds and experiences from the University: beyond teaching staff, there were students, library staff, designers, architects and education specialists. During the morning, Shanti led a session during which participants worked together in different ways to learn about design ethnography and atmospheres. Anna subsequently discussed learning through the senses. Next, Sally set the challenge of the new BA Digital Society, introducing its interdisciplinary scope, and the opportunity it offered to rethink the learning spaces for a new student cohort.

We began by undertaking different group activities to describe our own important places of learning, and to attune ourselves to different locations in FASoS (including the Turnzaal, the attic at 80-82 Grote Gracht, and different classrooms). We also engaged in different sensory lessons (smell, texture, soundscape, colour, and movement) to develop our sensory and observational vocabularies and skills. It can be very difficult, especially for academics who are more comfortable with abstract reasoning, to find the right words to describe what we would like from a learning space. Participants experimented with different ways of trying to trace the bodily movements of people who use classrooms (teachers, cleaners, students), through drawings and words. Others tried to find the colour palettes of a room using a Pantone app on the mobile phone. One group did a “textural tour” of a classroom, documenting the different things they felt, while other groups tried to expand their vocabularies for smell and sound. Many struggled with the limited repertoires they had not only for description but also for notation.

During the afternoon, we broke into small groups, collected our bags of supplies (including play dough, Lego® people, cardboard, felt, yarn and sticky tape) and dispersed amongst the different locations with the goal of re-imagining them to create a space that would support learning. Each group interpreted the task differently, by building models; transforming the room using printed images, signs, and video screens; or rethinking the physical possibilities of the learning spaces and ways of using them. There were some incredibly creative ideas. Fanciful yet also very inspiring ideas for how to make the spaces more homely and more flexible were explored, through models of different scales.

One group was allocated a notoriously difficult room to teach in, with a large pole obscuring the view of many in it. They turned the pole into a feature, calling it the interdisciplinary discussion tree, where students would sit, facing outwards, while exploring different disciplinary points of view.

Others turned the group inwards, moving all the chairs in the Turnzaal (the large lecture hall at FASoS) to the edge and piling tables on top of each other to create a tall table in the middle, where a small group of students would engage in intense discussion, rotating during the class.

The workshop ties into a current interest at Maastricht University on learning spaces, with project teams working on this across different faculties. A recent keynote lecture at UM from Adam Finkelstein (McGill University, Montreal) showed the possibilities for reimagining spaces in universities when learning and teaching is taken as a starting point. Examples that Adam showed included creating large tables in lecture halls to promote small group discussion, and having a lot of drawing space on the edges of classrooms, such as whiteboards on all walls, to offer plenty of space for interaction and brainstorming. Simple design features that could be easily implemented, such as colour coding the floor to help students move tables in different configurations were shown. Transforming teaching spaces is now one of McGill’s five main priorities. Our workshop contributed new methodologies to the conversation, through introducing design ethnography approaches, as well as a focus on the sensory and atmospheric dimensions of space.

The aim of the workshop was not to find solutions but rather to speculate about possibilities. Participants found this approach refreshing, playful and insightful, relishing in the disruptive potentials of their projects. Many were surprised by the spatial details of teaching they had previously overlooked, enjoying the time and space to think about this issue, and to reimagine familiar spaces beyond simply rearranging furniture. Ultimately, the workshop made possible new considerations for thinking about university learning and teaching spaces, and the best way to support critical, engaging and creative atmospheres of learning into the future.

Further reading

Finkelstein, A., Ferris, J., Winer, L., & Weston, C. (2014). Principles for designing teaching and learning spaces.Montreal: Teaching and Learning Services, McGill University. Retrieved from
Ingold, T. (2017). Anthropology and/as education. London: Routledge.
Pink, S. (2015). Doing sensory ethnography (2nd ed.). London: SAGE.
Sumartojo, S., & Pink, S. (2018). Atmospheres and the experiential world: Theory and methods. London: Routledge.


We wish to thank Jacqueline Graff for her help in organizing the workshop. This event received funding from the Department of Society Studies (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences) and the European Research Council, through the Making Clinical Sense project (Grant Agreement 678390). Monash University supported Shanti Sumartojo’s participation.

About the authors

Anna Harris is Assistant Professor of the Social Study of Medicine, at FASoS. Her current collaborative research project, Making Clinical Sense, focuses on the material conditions of learning sensory skills in medicine.

Shanti Sumartojo is Associate Professor of Design Research and a member of the Emerging Technologies Research Lab at Monash University (Melbourne). She writes about atmospheres and design, and her research approach is based in ethnographic methodologies.

Sally Wyatt is Professor of Digital Cultures and Programme Director of the BA Digital Society, at FASoS. She has been thinking a lot about the physical and digital design of learning spaces as the BA has gone through the set-up phase.