Rediscovering the Ultimate Learning Space

Mr James Seaha, Director of Post-Secondary Planning

Where is the ultimate learning space?  Is it the classrooms and laboratories of our schools and universities?  Perhaps it is the libraries, museums and galleries of the world.   If not, then it would certainly be the virtual space accessible in the comfort of our homes, local cafés or in our pockets.  Perhaps it is, in fact, not a space at all and the best learning comes to us from life’s experiences.  The answer to this apparently simple question could be as varied and complex as the learners themselves, or as simple as the concept of an ultimate learning space.

On a recent visit to a French museum, I was reacquainted with the ideas of 18th century educator and philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose thinking and writing in the fields of arts, education, politics and music helped to usher in French Romanticism and the French Revolution.  I remembered studying his ideas in my undergraduate degree. On education he wrote:

Firstly, know well that it is rarely up to you to suggest to [her] what [she] should learn; it is for [her] to desire, to seek, to find; for you to put it within [her]reach, to skilfully allow this desire to be born and provide [her]with the means to satisfy it.  (This quotation was taken from the museum display, at Chateau de Chenonceau, 16 June, 2012.)

In his longitudinal study of an imaginary child, Emile or On Education, Rousseau (1762) championed the education of the whole person for citizenship.  Two hundred years before twentieth century educationalists and psychologists began studying and documenting human learning and development, this collection of his “scattered thoughts and observations” became the inspiration for a whole new system of education in France.  Another fifty years after that, and half a world away saw these same “scattered thoughts” reflected in the aspiration and intent ensconced on the wall of Brisbane Girls Grammar School.

Another museum in Arromanche, France provides an audio recording of the ideas of Winston Churchill.  In planning and preparation meetings for the D Day landings and, after repeated failure to take control of a continental harbour, Sir Winston Churchill said:  “If we can’t take a harbour, then we’ll have to build one.”  It was a complex and untested feat of engineering and logistics to build an artificial harbour in England, sink it in the Thames River to avoid it being seen by Nazi spy planes; re-float and transport it across the English Channel to the waters off Omaha Beach and re-sink it to form the breakwater upon which a floating road was built.  It was an idea born of one man and achieved at the hands and minds of many.  Together, their attempt at challenging the expected changed the course of human history.

As part of an annual summer school programme at Oxford University attended by many of our students, I met Dr Chris Sanguin, who lectures and researches in applied mathematics at the University of Birmingham.  Among other writings, he co-authored How Round Is Your Circle? Where Engineering and Mathematics Meet (2008).  His book, as well as his presentation of the same name, is the product of his research.  Sanguin challenged the accepted concept of roundness by thinking beyond conventional methods, asking if everything that was round had to be a circle.  The result of his experiments is the creation of a new (still to be named) shape.  Remarkably, Sanguin’s recent discovery has influenced a change of the international standard of the assessment of departure from roundness.

Given these recent occurrences as examples, can an ultimate learning space be identified?  Was it an unexpected encounter in a French chateau which sparked a learning experience that spanned the decades of my career?   Did the interactive experience in the D Day Beaches Museum throw just the right light on my dim knowledge of the D Day landings?  Was it the hallowed learning halls of Oxford University that helped me to understand Sanguin’s concept of roundness?  Could it have been the subsequent internet research or the process of writing this article that facilitated my learning?  Perhaps it was the layering of all of these coupled with previous experience.

One certainty emerges from these recent encounters.  While enlightening and motivational, each of the spaces described is external to the learner.   On their own, they provide a rich experience, but they are secondary to the ultimate learning space – the one between our ears.  In this space lies the internal challenge of a lifetime for the learner to nurture an attitude of curiosity and a willingness to engage with the new.  Without it, the other spaces are only places.


J Seaha

Director of Post Secondary Planning


Bryant, J. & Sanguin, C. (2008). How Round Is Your Circle? Where Engineering and Mathematics Meet. Princeton, New Jersey, USAPrinceton University Press.
Rousseau, J. J. (1762) & Foxley, B. (Trans.). (1921). Emile, or education. New York: J. M. Dent


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