HOW TO Reclaim Space? The Forgotten Dimension of RME

Maribel Blasco (Copenhagen Business School)

Abstract: Space is vital for meaningful learning, yet today’s management education (HE) curricula are characterized by curricular congestion and rush. Students report frenetic learning experiences characterized by overwhelming amounts of content, surface learning, thoughtless sequencing, excessive multitasking and very little autonomy. So far, very little attention has been paid to this problem in responsible management education scholarship. So far, we know little about how to build productive learning spaces into curricula. Inspired by the Japanese concept of ma, meaning ‘inbetweenness’, ‘interval’, ‘negative’ or ‘empty space’ between temporal and spatial things or events, I propose that we rethink curricula as three-dimensional artefacts comprising structures, content and space. Together, these three dimensions produce aesthetic experiences in students that impact learning. The article outlines several strategies for reinstating space of different kinds in management curricula.

Context: Space, the forgotten dimension in responsible management education

”Last semester I had two courses requiring 640 student work hours stuffed into a 6-week period – and two other courses besides but I couldn’t focus on those at all. When was I supposed to think? Whenever I tried to read something I was just worrying about the next thing I had to get done. It was pure bulimia learning” (interview with undergraduate student, May 2016)

Space is vital for learning. By space I mean not only the physical spaces or setting  in which learning occurs, but also space to think, reflect, and take responsibility for one’s own learning. Lack of such spaces produces a frenetic learning experience – a rush rather than a quest, a struggle for survival rather than a moment of enlightenment. This is clear from the above quote, which is taken research I am carrying out with undergraduate business students about how the curriculum feels to them. Students consistently reported study experiences characterised by claustrophobia, rush and stress, overwhelming amounts of content and ‘noise in their heads’, a sense of meaninglessness and lack of autonomy, and surface modes of learning that resulted in little retention or reflection. They longed for ‘space in their heads to go new places’ but instead found themselves intellectually shrink-wrapped. They spoke of lacking space to ask questions; physical and temporal spaces enabling access to teachers so they could clear up doubts about difficult subject matter; space to catch up; space in their heads to think and reflect, epistemological space understood as ‘academic openness’, as one student put it; and space in the sense of flexible structures that enhanced study autonomy and choice.

We know that congested curricula can lead to mental overburdening, or cognitive overload, resulting in difficulties grasping and retaining content, weaker self-direction; anxiety and stress, prioritization of tasks, and superficial rather than deep learning (De Jong, 2010; Van Merrienboer & Sweller, 2005). Cramped curricula may also ultimately train students to associate learning itself with a chaotic, rushed aesthetic that impedes meaningful learning, following Dewey (Kosnoski, 2005; Beardsley, 1973). Meaningful learning and key goals in management education and 21st century higher education more broadly, notably critical thinking, self-regulated learning, deep learning, and learning transfer (Pellegrino & Hilton 2012) depend on space to absorb knowledge, reflect on it and take a critical stance towards it (Kolb & Kolb 2005).

So as management educators striving to make our teaching practice more responsible we should be deeply concerned that space is rapidly being depleted in today’s management curricula, which are becoming content-congested and compressed, with students hustled through their studies at an ever-faster pace (Top Universities, 2012; Sursock et al., 2010). Are our cramped curricula training students to associate the very act of learning itself with stress and rush? Are we unwittingly drilling them to feel guilty if they read for the sake of curiosity and pleasure or dwell on something they find interesting? Are we producing a generation of future managers indoctrinated to think that busyness is the only morally defensible approach to work?

We urgently need to find ways to reinstate space in management curricula. Yet curricula are, by and large, studied as two-dimensional artefacts consisting of structures and content and defined by the learning activities and functions that these enable. Indeed, the very notion of curricular space seems incongruous in an era of educational ‘busyness’ where more fill – content, contact hours and activities – is generally hailed as desirable and efficient by politicians, students and the general public (Dall et al., 2013; Harmon, 2010). How, then, can we rethink space into our curricula? I propose that the Japanese concept of ma is a good place to start.

Concept: Rethinking curricula as three-dimensional artifacts using the Japanese concept of ma

In the Western world, space is often regarded as a mere backdrop or recipient for activity and content; or even as waste (Morton, 2007). The Japanese, however, regard space as a crucial element in creating meaning, notably in art and design where it is often used to draw attention to the main subject. The Japanese concept of ma, depicted by the character間 which is composed of two characters: a ‘gate’ with two posts門and between the gateposts the sun日which indicates a gap or space (Van Lysebeth, 2008) captures this idea. It has no exact English equivalent but is often translated as ‘inbetweenness’, ‘interval’, ‘negative’ or ‘empty space’ between temporal and spatial things or events. From a ma perspective, space gives meaning and function to the structures around it, rather than the other way around. Ma pertains to the relationship between structure, fill and space, where all elements are considered crucial to form and hence to the overall aesthetic experience of, and response to, an artefact (e.g. the curriculum) (Eisner, 2004; Sibley, 1965). Thus, for instance, the value of a water pitcher is seen as lying in the emptiness within the form and not only in the pitcher’s material structure. In the words of designer and architect Masayuki Kurokawa, ‘the space is first and then the object, without space there is no object’ (cited in Van Lysebeth, 2008: 4). Music, where the spaces between notes enable melody, tempo and rhythm, is another example of this.

The idea of ma is helpful in rethinking space as a key curricular element in producing meaningful learning.  A ma-inspired approach to curricula would recognize space as an equally important component as content and structure, since it is space that separates and connects the different curricular elements and shapes the overall contour and tempo of the study experience, for example, periods of fast tempo and intense density and complexity contra slower, less packed and intellectually challenging periods. Figure 1 shows an example of how this might play out in practice.

Figure 2: Example of how vertical stacking and horizontal sequencing of single curricular elements shape experiences of spaciousness or crampedness

picture1

Ma can also serve to remind faculty to be alert to pressures to frogmarch students through the system, eroding their thinking space, as well as their space for autonomy and free reflection (see Blasco 2016 for further elaboration on these different types of space). Such pressures manifest as course compression, cuts in the time allocated to complete theses, the addition of extracurricular elements or the incursion of courses or other activities into periods previously reserved for single tasks such as project writing, extra tuition designed to ensure that students pass within the allotted time, etc. Such measures may seem trivial in isolation but their cumulative effect most certainly is not, as the quote below from a 6th semester undergraduate business student shows:

The massive course in managerial economics overshadowed everything that semester. I really studied hard for it, and prioritised it over everything else and I thought I really knew the stuff when it came to the exam. And I got a good grade. But one month after when I tried to help my friend who was retaking the exam, I couldn’t remember one single thing.

Application: Reclaiming space for more responsible management curricula

Responsible management education is not only about changing students. It is also about ensuring that the framework for learning at our business schools is humane and effective, and conducive to deep, critical, autonomous learning as opposed to just ‘going through the motions’. This is not only important in terms of the actual substantive and functional knowledge the students take away with them from our business schools, but also because students look to the business school environment and curriculum as a template for how ‘real-world’ management should be carried out, according to research I am currently conducting. Reinstating space into curricula should be a major priority in this regard. To achieve this, faculty in charge of curriculum planning might start by taking account of i) the vertical stacking of curricular activities, i.e. how many different courses, exams and other activities students have to multitask at any one time and the degree of content density/complexity that must be managed simultaneously (interdisciplinary courses, which involve grappling with very different types of subject matter simultaneously, are particularly at risk here); and the horizontal sequencing of these aspects (see Figure 1 for an example);  ii) the extent to which students can engage in free reflection or study for its own sake rather than being tied to predefined outputs or performances, e.g. assignments and exams; iii) the spaces that the curriculum enables (or not) for students to question things, clear up doubts and catch up as they go along: these include physical and temporal access to teachers to ask questions (large class sizes inhibit this), as well as teacher academic openness to questions and alternative perspectives; and iv) the degree to which students can engage in self-directed activities as opposed to teacher-steered ones. In my experience, these aspects are seldom addressed in any detailed, systematic, coordinated way that is informed by research or student consultation.

More…

* Please consult the following website for a beautiful introduction to the concept of ma: Van Lysebeth L (2008) Japanese boundaries: A different way of perceiving space. Interior Design blog. Available at: http://www.id-sphere.com/2008/08/japanese-boundaries-a-different-way-of-perceivingspace/

* For further reading on space in education, please consult the following article: Blasco, M. (2016) Conceptualising Curricular Space in Busyness Education: An Aesthetic Approximation. Management Learning, Vol. 47, No. 2, p. 117-136

References

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Blasco, M. (2016) Conceptualising Curricular Space in Busyness Education: An Aesthetic Approximation. Management Learning, Vol. 47, No. 2, p. 117-136

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