What do we mean by “Third Space”?

It is important that blog posts are written by “third space” thinkers who acknowledge education is not just about mastering arithmetic and literacy, but improving community mindedness, moral reasoning, forgiveness, and empathy so that learning is a transformative process improving society as a whole by advancing each individual spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. For the AEMS program, placing the human being and his or her social and emotional well-being at the center (individually and collectively) of social and educational processes is critical.

Dr. Ilham Nasser, The director of the study and Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, one of the advisors on the “Mapping the Terrain study” in 2018-2019, discuss the definitions of “third space” and how it fits in with UNESCO’s concept of “learning to be” in the first two episodes of the Third Space Thoughts to Policy podcast. Below are excerpts of the discussions:

Dr. Ilham Nasser


Mapping the Terrain Research,


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“We have identified the empirical research of AEMS, which is an important part of Advancing Education in Muslim Societies, [and have] framed it in the third space. And what the third space means is that we are putting emphasis on the socio-emotional learning aspects of students whether they are in k-12 or in higher education. So in order for us to really come up with a research agenda in the third space it requires from us to start somewhere, and Mapping the Terrain is where we start because we are trying to build the foundation for our research as well as identify where the gaps are, identify the strengths, identify promising practices, but most importantly also, identify what people think, students, parents, teachers, think about these topics that we are calling socio-emotional learning and we are framing them in the third space.

When we started looking at the third space and tried to translate it into empirical research you cannot just go with such a broad term. You have to translate it in a way that you can build constructs and measure them…These constructs should be measurable in order for you to survey people and to have a quantitative study going on, which means that you are surveying as many people as possible to have some kind of common grounds for the mapping exercise.

To do that, we went into the UNESCO concept of “learning to be”. And learning to be is all about taking into consideration the holistic approach to learning, so it’s not just the academics and the education for employment, the first space, and it’s not only education for civic education and democracy, but it’s also for this whole person. That becomes critical because you know there is lots of support for socio-emotional learning and its impact on academics. So, in the research we know that this works well, and that this shows evidence and promise in some international settings. I don’t see why not in Muslim majority societies as well.”

Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss

“Mapping the Terrain study” 2018-2019 advisor

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“I’ve been working in Global Educational issues for a couple of decades now and one of the things that’s clear is that the vast majority of research and interventions that happen globally are in what we call the first and the second spaces where the first space is education reform aimed at creating better economic development in a given country and better economic outcomes for young people (basically education to get a better job, to improve your financial stability over time). Then there’s a second set of reforms that are oriented at using education to develop better democratic practices in society, better citizenship practices…education for better citizenship reform and citizenship engagement. That’s what we call the second space.

World Bank initiatives that are oriented towards improving GDP, Gross Domestic Product for a country, or foundation-led initiatives or other initiatives to improve civic engagement, those would be the first and the second spaces. Those are of course critical and important and we’re not suggesting that we ignore the fact that we need to get jobs and we need to be informed citizens, those are really important. But, when we focus on education only for these kinds of utilitarian outcomes, we argue that we have forgotten that education also has a transformative dimension and that it’s not just about creating an accomplished life for a young person but also about helping them achieve a meaningful one.

And so, what we call the third space, is this space which includes the first and second spaces of education reform but also reminds teachers and parents and young people that the purpose of education is broader than just any given outcome for your individual life, but that it’s also about how to have a more meaningful experience overall.”