This essay was published in ‘EXCHANGE: Collaboration,Convergence, Conversations’, 2013 a publication by Hayball Architects to celebrate 30 years in practice.

Purposeful Design For Learning – The New Pedagogy

Over the past decade, questioning of the effectiveness of our schools has led to a great deal of activity and some change. The extent of change has been limited by conflicting views about what would make schools more effective. Some suggest that making traditional schooling more stringent would halt declining academic outcomes whilst others seek to create new approaches to learning and teaching which may be more appropriate for our contemporary society. It was, perhaps, harsh criticism of the dilapidated condition of many school buildings that triggered real action.

Governments worldwide have recently spent billions on new school buildings - in the name of Building an Education Revolution. But due to the political and economic imperatives of the times there was great urgency to complete these projects and make them publicly visible. Extremely tight building timelines meant that there was no opportunity for educators and school communities to consider what an 'education revolution' might really be and therefore what sort of buildings would be most appropriate.

Politicians and bureaucrats looked to architects and architecture to shape the revolution. In most projects any significant departure from familiar school planning was prohibited by conservative design briefs. Sometimes the traditional institutional blandness was replaced with a 'corporate' ambience and a funky façade but generally the learning experience for young people remained largely unchanged.

As the building dust settled, discussion intensified about fundamental questions: what is the role of school education in developing citizens for a rapidly changing world and just what is the basis for 'contemporary' learning and teaching? During the frenzy of BER a few school communities, against the odds, did make time to interrogate their current teaching and learning practices and to set in place processes to develop new school wide educational visions. Such projects - notably contributed to by Hayball - are now providing test beds for research and development and helping others to envisage contemporary learning possibilities.

There has been a surge of interest in the relationship between pedagogy and school design. Educators, academics and designers, often in collaboration are contributing to a rapidly expanding body of theory and practice. When the physical environment is purposefully designed to support particular values and beliefs it can become a 'teacher' in itself. Design is now acknowledged as playing a vital role in making certain social and learning experiences possible.

It is very difficult to envisage change when all we have known is the traditional model. Educators, parents and design professionals need opportunities to visit innovative projects and experience their attributes: the collaboration between a team of teachers in a congenial, shared learning environment; the extraordinary capabilities of young people when they can pursue relevant inquiry projects across many disciplines and over long periods of time; the dynamic processes of reciprocal learning between young people and their teachers; the insightful and imaginative expressions of young people when they have access to richly resourced creative settings for drama, digital production, visual arts at any time; the purposefulness of students when the environment supports them to self-manage.

Luminary educators and industry leaders are calling for graduates who are good team players, lateral thinkers and self-starters - these characteristics resonate with what young people have been telling us what they want of their ideal school. In several published surveys children of all ages express remarkably similar ideas: better relationships with teachers, more active and hands on experiences, more opportunities to create things together, more relevant and 'joined-up' curriculum, more unbroken time and more interesting environments. These tend to be the attributes of so called 'progressive' schools which have always existed in very small numbers alongside the 'mainstream'. These alternative schools, in various parts of the world, often have radically different and inspiring physical environments - the result of close collaboration between an educational thinker and a great architect. But too often these schools failed to endure after the departure of their originators.

This is, I believe is the challenge - the way that schools are now being 'transformed' is ad hoc and wasteful - too often dependent on the whim of an individual educator who then moves on. To develop wonderful schools we need systemic innovation, evaluation and evolution.

Mary Featherston 2013