This article was prepared by Mary Featherston in collaboration with Dr Esme Capp, Principal, Princes Hill Primary School, Melbourne for delegates (educators and architects) to the Association for Learning Environments National Conference 2016 in Melbourne.

CREATING PLACES . . . for the pleasure of learning together

The learning environments of Princes Hill Primary School are unlike those of more familiar traditional schools. How are they different – and why?

As with most schools, PHPS is an accumulation of temporary and permanent facilities spanning many decades and originally designed to support traditional approaches to education. The buildings and surrounding external environments are gradually undergoing refurbishment to better support the school’s approach to learning and teaching.

Over the past few years the school community has been transforming children’s learning experiences in response to changing beliefs about children, learning and society. There is a growing understanding universally that traditional approaches to school education which have served us well in the past are no longer appropriate. Major concerns include student’s lack of motivation and engagement and plateauing or declining results.

PHPS believes in ‘the potential of children, their curiosity and desire to find meaning in everything they experience’ and the school has an urgency ‘to develop new skills and knowledge to negotiate the future: children need to understand themselves as learners, to work collaboratively, engage in new technologies and develop the skills of thinking creatively, laterally and critically. As such, there is a strong commitment by the school to a collective inquiry approach.

The core educational practice of Princes Hill PS - ‘Collective Inquiry’ - is intended to engage children in deep and memorable learning experiences. This approach to learning and teaching brings together a group of children with a teacher to collaboratively explore a topic or question of strong interest and relevance to the participants and the larger community. The teacher’s role is to draw on the ‘informal’ concepts formed by each child from their unique everyday life experiences and to form connections with more formal knowledge - the concepts valued by society. The processes of learning are seen as social and it is the children’s conflicting ideas and theories which are central to ongoing discussion and debate. With the guidance of the teacher a sustained process of investigation and discovery unfolds over time – sometimes lasting for weeks or months.

The inquiry process is highly interactive and therefore responsive to the participant’s developing interests and capabilities - a co-created curriculum which enables young people to be protagonists in their own learning. Knowledge and skills are highly valued and are developed in relevant contexts. The interconnectedness of all realms of knowledge is experienced through the transdisciplinary nature of curriculum content and the depth of exploration points to the boundlessness of knowledge. Learning is also understood to be active, experiential and to always involve emotion - head, hands and heart. Children are encouraged to express and communicate their ideas and understandings using a wide variety of symbolic languages in addition to the spoken and written word: visual arts, music, mathematics, drama, science, digital production etc.

Documentation of the inquiry process is vital as a basis for reflection by the group and to assist teams of teachers in their collaborative planning of future action; it takes many forms – transcripts of discussions, children’s works, photos, video, performance etc. Documentation is also used as a form of embedded assessment. Displays of learning in progress and completed projects inform parents and school community and enliven the environment.

The immersive experiences of children and adults in processes of inquiry provides possibilities for the development of strong personal relationships of trust and respect. Relationships between children and teachers is thus reciprocal rather than adult-controlled (as in traditional schooling) or child/learner centred. School, where young people and adults regularly come together is seen as a place for the development of democratic citizens to actively participate in their school and community. The same values and beliefs which underpin the pedagogical practice also determine all aspects of organisation of people, time and space. Teachers and students are grouped into Neighbourhoods, timetables are negotiable and the physical environment is purposefully designed.

The school has established separate Neighbourhoods or Home Bases for five learning communities: Prep (69 children 3 teachers) Year 1 (62 /3), Year 2 (75/4,) Years 3-4 (133/5), Years 5-6 (116/5). In order to support the wide range of concurrent social/learning experiences essential to Collective Inquiry, the spatial organisation of each Neighbourhood comprises an assemblage of several discrete settings. Settings include: focussed discussions, wet and messy activities, large active groups, construction/making, quiet reading and relaxing and multimedia production.

The design of each setting (space, finishes, services and furnishings) grows out of an analysis of practical and psychological needs and is based on the optimal number of participants and the nature and duration of the experiences. Each is designed to attract, engage and sustain engagement by providing ‘cues’ for use, by minimising distractions from adjacent activities and by placing relevant resources at point of use.

Whilst each setting has an appropriate degree of enclosure to minimize distractions etc they are all interconnected to create a sense of community, to enable supervision and to provide a fluid space for the flow of people and projects. Visual connection and clear circulation paths between all settings enables members of the community to feel connected and to know what is happening. Digital technology is integrated into all areas to support the significant relationship of learning in the real and digital realms. Wherever possible, close links are made to external play/learning areas.

These environments are relatively permanent rather than totally flexible, thus saving teacher’s time and energy which would otherwise be spent in negotiating the changing use of space. Stability means that everyone knows where things are – important in a very dynamic program. Resources, artefacts and student works express the identity of each community of learners, reflecting their backgrounds, interests and development of ideas and building familiarity, emotional attachment and a sense of belonging. Continuous evaluation, resourcing and maintenance is carried out by the school’s Environment Committee, made up of teaching staff and a member of the leadership team. Developing a school wide shared vision enables the institution to respond to changing needs through continuous research, innovation, evaluation and evolution – an adaptive system rather than a fixed model or formula.

Collective Inquiry has been evolving in Australia for over two decades and the theory and practice of many luminary educators and practitioners continue to inspire development, including The Educational Project of Reggio Emilia, High Tech High, George Betts, Michael Fullan, Seymour Papert, Jerome Bruner, Howard Gardner, Hedley Beare.

1. A doctoral thesis was undertaken to describe and theorise the practice of ‘Collective Inquiry’ and it was found that ‘vital skills of literacy and numeracy are developed as well as the ability to collaborate and build relationships, the skills of a learner, a deep interest in learning new knowledge.’ Capp, E. (2014). Collective inquiry: Using cultural-historical theory as a methodology for educational reform. Monash University, Faculty of Education.

2. Evolving the Princes Hill Primary School Culture: Collective Culture Program, May 2016 Bellwether 3

3. ‘Princes Hill Primary School Philosophical and Pedagogical Framework’ 2015

4. The vital role of the physical environment was researched as part of an action design project (2003 - 2008). All the participants in a collaborative inquiry-based program in a government primary school were involved in analyzing and re-designing supportive environments with the intent to identify generic principles to guide future developments. The findings of this study have been implemented at several primary schools and Dandenong and Camberwell High Schools. Featherston, M (2005)