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Wayfinding in Learning Spaces

Hands painted with the world map, featuring South America and Africa.

I have what is known as Developmental Topographic Disorientation (DTD), which is, basically, a more extreme case of “no sense of direction,” a condition that has also been called “dysgeographia.” I get extremely disoriented even in places I know well. I have difficulty forming what are known as “cognitive maps'' or “bird’s eye view” representations of topography. I have gotten lost two blocks from my house. Because I can’t orient my body in space very well, and “left” and “right” are often reversed in my mental mapping, following even explicit step-by-step GPS directions can be tricky.

For this reason, among others, I am fascinated by wayfinders, those people whose actual job it is to design physical spaces to lead the occupants through them to various objectives. The people who design the lines on the road are using wayfinding methods, as are the folks laying out the grocery store and the airport. The design podcast, 99% Invisible, has a wonderful episode (Walk This Way) about the ways that wayfinding is incorporated into our built environment. The patterns of tiles on the floor and the angled desks of airport terminals, for example, funnel passengers to their destinations, even more so than the explicit signage does. Tables of Contents, indexes, headers and even paragraph breaks are textual wayfinding cues.

Airport terminal featuring overhead lights that form the shapes of arrows that are reflected on the floor, directing traffic along the path through the space.

Effective wayfinding cues operate more or less subliminally to make us feel comfortable in unfamiliar environments. They influence our attitudes toward the space and even our willingness to engage with what is offered there, by spending money in the shops that line our path to our departure gate, for instance. Ay, there’s the rub. “In theory,” producer Sam Greenspan writes, “wayfinding should work whether you’re literate in it or not, but learning to see the subtle wayfinding cues in the built landscape can help you understand how you make your decisions. It can also make you question if you’re the one even making your own decisions at all.”

Thinking about my DTD anxiety, my gratitude toward wayfinder signals in the world and the role such mostly invisible signs play in my own sense of agency, I began to wonder about the ways that students interact with the university and with my own classes. What sorts of wayfinding cues do I lay down in my classroom space, in my design and in my self-presentation to students who join me in the learning space?

“Way” is a simple word for a complex crossing of being and doing, since a “way” is both a “path” that we can negotiate in space and the “method” that we use to accomplish such a negotiation. It is also “a custom or manner of behaving,” a “specific manner of life or procedure” and “the normal course of events” (“way,” Canadian Oxford Dictionary 2nd Ed.). Thinking about “wayfinding” in the classroom opens up a path to making visible the 99% invisible landscape of norms that guide us, more or less consciously, through our experience of the learning space. Making these norms visible, we can decide whether and what to change.

A view of the blackboard and podium of an empty lecture hall, from the back row of seats.

In my second year Shakespeare course, I begin a discussion of the epistemological space of the Globe Theatre (the ways that it encodes class, prioritizes or deprioritizes particular perspectives etc.) by asking the students why they all invariably choose to sit in the lecture hall seats or at the tables facing the chalkboards or the podium instead of opting to stand behind the podium or to put their chairs at the front of the room. Because the podium is for the teacher, they say. Prompted to push their observation a little harder, they notice the ways that, in a lecture hall, the lighting and the sloping ramps all visually drag our attention down to the podium and that the chairs are all facing the chalkboard. Clearly, the person in charge of the chalkboard should stand there, rather than sitting in the seats. Okay, so who gets to be in charge of the chalkboard? Where does “knowledge” come from, in this arrangement? We dissect the ways that power and assumptions about rank and authority are mapped out in myriad visible and subtle ways in the architecture of the room.

Then, we talk about how we might change that architecture of power by changing the wayfinding cues in the space. What if there were no “front” of the classroom? Where would you sit then? Where does “knowledge” come from if we’re all facing each other? In such an arrangement, what would tell them that I’m the “prof?” We talk about the uniforms we wear—my more formal clothes, for instance—how we wear our identities in our bearing when we enter a space, how authority can be indicated by who speaks first, who presumes to speak to the assembled group, who takes up the most space or divides the class time into segments and activities. We explore all the visible and invisible wayfinding cues that arrange us in the power dynamics of the space of learning.

The Globe Theatre Frons Scenae door and Lords' Room draped with curtains and coat of arms.

I’ve found this exercise to be a great way of attuning literature students to the language of space in the theatre, where similar norms and wayfinding cues direct our attention, ascribe authority and help us to map out our relationships to the characters and the ideas presented to us. Why do we sit silently in the audience when Othello murders Desdemona? Why does Richard II “come down” from “above” to sit upon the ground when he is deposed by Bolingbroke? Why do Clowns speak directly to us from the front of the stage? What does it mean when the soldiers of the Watch in Hamlet can’t see each other even though the scene on the ramparts would have been performed in the full light of day?

More generally, though, my own topographic disorientation and considerations of wayfinding have prompted my attempts to understand and to empathize with the difficulties that students have navigating the university. I’ve begun to excavate the wayfinding cues I employ: the structure and language of my syllabi, the classroom spaces I request, where I sit and how I get out of the way. As I prepare to revisit familiar courses, I ask myself how I am welcoming the students in, and how I can disrupt those architectures that disempower them as knowledge-makers. For instance, I try to get the students out of their chairs and into working groups in the first minute of their first class of the semester as a way of breaking the architecture that makes them face the podium as the sole source of knowledge. Having talked through the discomforts of the space and our disruption of the conventions encoded in it, we can then begin to design the “ways” of the course together.

Screen shot of Jesse Stommel's Twitter post featuring his commentary on his course syllabus page, "the Schedule": "I've also minimized the number of words across the site to keep us focused on the work and to avoid misunderstanding."

Jesse Stommel explains in this Twitter thread the pedagogical purpose of his minimalist syllabus and course “architecture.”

My actor-scholar-teacher friend, Alexandra Bennett, likes to point out that 70% of a play is not in the script, but in the relationships among the people, the space and the context. With this observation in mind, I ask myself how I can adapt my wayfinding cues to help reduce the anxiety and disorientation students experience the space of learning, while at the same time attuning them to that other 70%, that almost invisible wayfinding and normative language, so that they can intervene in it with a sense of their own agency and capacity for productive disruption.

Red Exit sign pointing to the right against a dark background.

~Lisa Dickson


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