Article published in ‘Futureproofing Schools’ published by the Faculty of Architecture, Building & Design, University of Melbourne May 2012

DESIGN for the pleasure of learning together

Over many years as a parent, researcher and designer I have had unusual opportunities to watch young people ‘at play’ - when they are organising their own activities. I am intrigued by their boundless curiosity about one another and the world - their capacity for imagining, creating, inventing, negotiating and mastering new skills. A ‘game’ may be sustained by a small group of children for a long period of time and they may be so immersed in the activity that they are oblivious to all that is happening around them - except for occasional recourse to adult assistance. It seems that these are pleasurable and memorable experiences and may be returned to again and again. Invariably they take place in informal contexts: at home, playgrounds, museums, even airport lounges. How does this relate to ‘learning’ in the formal context of schools?

When young people are surveyed about what they would like in their ‘ideal’ school they give similar responses: doing things in small groups, more active and hands-on experiences, more unbroken time, a more ‘joined-up’ curriculum, and more interesting ‘organic’ buildings.

These observations and ideas have led me to pursue a personal action research project over many years in which I have investigated ‘progressive’ schools in various parts of the world that respond to young people’s curiosity and drive to learn. I have also been fortunate to collaborate with several remarkable educators in the creation of learning environments within local primary and secondary schools - from low-budget refurbishments to multi-million dollar purpose built schools. Each of these environments has a unique character in response to the particular school community, but they also share many similarities in response to beliefs about children and learning.

Generally, progressive schooling emphasises: student centred learning, democratic relationships, collaborative problem solving, experiential learning, transdisciplinary curriculum. All of these pedagogical practices have profound implications for organisation of people, curriculum content, management of time and design of the physical environment.

Design is concerned with containment of space (the built shell), sub-division of space and location of things in space (furnishings). In my experience there are two major determinants of design of progressive/contemporary schools: the sub-division of a school population into large, separate communities or neighbourhoods and an inquiry-based approach to learning and teaching. This differs radically from traditional practice of single teacher, cellular classrooms for general and specialist teaching.

Inquiry-based learning may be interpreted narrowly as ‘thematic projects’ or ‘project based learning’ (PBL) where teachers set the topic, time is limited and outcomes are predetermined. The most highly evolved pedagogy and design that I know of includes the Eveline Lowe primary school (UK 1960s), Montessori schools designed by Herman Hertzberger in the Netherlands, the schools for young children in Reggio Emilia N.Italy – (and schools throughout the world that have been inspired by their theory and practice.)

The processes of long-term inquiry-led projects are dynamic, unpredictable and share some of the intensity of naturalistic play, scientific method and the collaborative processes of design. The unique characteristics and background of each participant (students and teachers) contribute to the evolution of the project and the group together develop skills and understandings that could not be achieved individually. Essentially the process is driven by a carefully considered ‘research’ question – a question that is intriguing to all the participants and that has the potential to hold their interest over a long duration – possibly weeks or months.

Studying the documentation of rich inquiry / discovery projects has helped me to envisage the diversity and quality of experiences involved and the necessary supportive social/temporal and spatial environment. The environment must also support different modes of engagement: playful exploration, focussed inquiry and rigorous study. Taken together this has formed a detailed generic ‘design brief’.

Generally a project will begin with a small group of students and a teacher discussing their responses to the question and attempting to resolve their conflicting hypotheses. Documentation of previous ideas will be reviewed at the start of each session before further exploration, experimentation and expression using a wide variety of media in the real and virtual realms. Crucial to the unfolding inquiry is documentation, in many forms, as a basis for discussion amongst the group, with other teachers and with parents.

These projects take place in various settings within a ‘neighbourhood’. Each neighbourhood is home for a ‘community of learners’, varying in group size from 50 – 150 students together with their team of teachers. A neighbourhood is an assemblage of discrete settings interlinked to form a flowing space. The space invites movement and exploration and gradually unfolds to reveal a wide variety of social and learning settings. Articulating space in this way is intended to create a home which is open and generous but not overwhelming. Most importantly, a lively convivial environment is created where friendships can be developed within a democratic community and where students can see their team of teachers collaborating. The interior provides a ‘landscape of possibilities’ - a living/learning/working environment comprising a wide variety of discrete settings: intimate and spacious, quiet and active, wet and dry, light or dark, for discussing, researching, experimenting, communicating, creating, documenting, reflecting and relaxing.

Each setting is purposefully designed based on the optimal number of participants and the nature of the experience(s). Each has a particular size, degree of enclosure, relationship to adjoining settings, lighting, services, surfaces, furnishings and loose items. Each is designed to attract, engage and sustain engagement by providing ‘cues’ for use, by minimising distractions from adjacent activities and by placing resources at point of use. The intent is that design of the physical environment, together with periods of unbroken time, will nurture deep and transformative learning experiences. Settings are interlinked to embody the interconnectedness of all areas of knowledge and the dynamic processes of learning. Many and varied activities occur concurrently. Connectedness of settings also enables students to stay ‘in the flow’ of a project, moving seamlessly from one experience to another – without having to wait for the next timetabled session in a remote specialist facility. The environment encourages learning in context through melding together functions which are traditionally housed separately as general purpose and specialist spaces.

Teachers individually and as a team, can observe and interact with students in a variety of contexts, leading to deeper and richer relationships. Visual connection between areas enables one teacher to be wholly occupied with a group of students, as in a direct instruction session, whilst other staff move to facilitate where needed. Openings between settings, actual or glazed, enable all the participants to be aware of who is where and what is happening, this also encourages purposeful choice and spontaneity. Students are encouraged to develop independence and self-management in a number of ways: personal storage within learning spaces, fittings & furnishings which provide ease of access to resources and clear circulation paths for ease of movement.

Students working individually or together may be immersed in a particular experience whilst maintaining a sense of connection to the whole group. This is achieved by the locating settings relative to one another and by various boundaries or enclosures around each setting, from minimal (change of floor surface / change of level and items of furniture) to transparent (glazed panels, walls and doors) to solid (full height walls).

The configuration of space is non-hierarchical to support and reflect democratic relationships. It also recognises the significance of the social and emotional components of learning and the value of all forms of learning: adult or student directed, passive and experiential, real and ‘virtual’. These environments are relatively permanent rather than totally flexible. Stability means that everyone knows where things are – important in a very dynamic and unpredictable program. Teachers comment that permanent settings save time and energy which would otherwise be spent in negotiating and scene shifting. Purposefully designed environments enable the development of richness and complexity over time.

The transformation of a school from traditional to ‘contemporary’ learning is challenging for all the protagonists. There is an urgent need for educators, design professionals and policy makers to learn collaboratively from the experience of existing innovative schools and to develop design processes and, I would argue, detailed generic design briefs.

Mary Featherston 2012
Senior Fellow, University of Melbourne
Faculty of Architecture, Building & Design