This presentation was given as the opening address of the ‘Transitions’ Symposium in June 2017 for Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change - Melbourne University.  It includes brief reference to education / design projects that have inspired me over many years and some provocations about the relationship between pedagogy and design.


We are all here today because we are seeking to create better schools & schooling. And certainly, the clamours for change are growing louder and more urgent. Some argue that change is needed because student results are plateauing, some point to lack of student engagement (as detailed in the recent startling Grattan Institute Report), some argue for more creativity, more technology, more STEM etc.

But perhaps there is a more compelling reason – we are underestimating our young people with schooling that fails to respond to their capabilities and interests. If we were start from a belief in children/young people as seekers after meaning and understanding – as ‘researchers’ - would we create happier people, more pleasurable and relevant learning experiences, better schools . . . even better societies?

So, if we start with an image of young people as active protagonists in their own development, from birth, how then can we sustain their curiosity, their researching . . . and what kind of schools might we create?

Here is a very young child, Laura (I show this with thanks to the educators of Reggio Emilia who created these images in 1983). Laura is 11 months old and she has been in a Reggio school for 3 months - her teachers have given her a catalogue to explore – (at this time watches made an audible tick tock sound) . . .

Laura – is a researcher involved in hypothesising, observing, discovering and applying her findings. My own experience of observing and collaborating with many young people over the past 50 years leads me to the same conclusion about how we learn.

Here are children playing - or are they learning – as they have been doing in my house since 1970.

This novel environment of interconnected platforms and garden provokes children in many ways and I have come to see that children learn through all their senses and intellect – they are curious, energetic, imaginative, gregarious, unpredictable, witty - and are capable of very long periods of concentration.

These experiences with children in the house also give me valuable lessons about the essential role of the physical environment as a ‘laboratory or workshop’ to support ‘research’.

In the 1980s I was involved in establishing the first children’s museum (in the old Swanston St building.) We had only 8 months to develop and design the first interactive exhibition but I thought it was important to consult not only subject specialists but also young people from 6 – 16 yrs. I asked teacher friends to make available half a dozen children for a brief time in an informal setting – children were not to put their hands up to speak but just to have a conversation about what should be included in an exhibition about the human body.

Their ideas flowed – vivid memories – questions – a lot of laughter and many innovative ideas for interactive exhibit design. They also showed self-understanding and empathy for others points of view, for example, they wanted to see real things – actual human organs, but they recognised that their parents could have difficulties with this!

Listening to the recordings of these conversations revealed that the content all came from children’s informal experiences i.e. out-of-school. There was no reference to school learning at all. Also at the end of most of these sessions the teacher (who had been observing) would express amazement about a particular student who had been an articulate participant in our discussion but was a very challenging behaviour problem in the classroom.

The exhibition was very successful (there was very little competition 30 years ago!) and observing the high level of engagement of children and families in the ‘EveryBody’ exhibition raised the question of what could be learnt from this project – both the consultative process and design of the physical environment - about how to  meaningfully engage young people in formal school education?

With this question in mind, 25 years ago, I went on my first study tour of the educational project of Reggio Emilia, N Italy. This project has its origins in the aftermath of WW2 when a group of parents set out to create a new school based on cooperation rather than competition.

With the guidance of an inspired educationist – Loris Malaguzzi – they chose to start by closely observing and documenting children and this led to their enduring belief that children are curious and capable – that they are active protagonists in their own learning rather than passive recipients of transmitted information.

They also believe - based on the works of Vygotsky, Dewey, Hawkins, Bruner amongst others - that learning is a social process in which the curriculum is co-created by children and adults in a democratic and reciprocal relationship.

In response to these beliefs about children and learning the Reggio educators have evolved, over several decades, their core educational philosophy and pedagogical practice of small group, inquiry projects (progettazione).

These long-term projects are intended to engage children in deep and memorable learning experiences which bring 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 create connections with systematic knowledge - the concepts valued by adult society.

It is the children’s conflicting ideas and hypotheses which are central to ongoing dialectical discussion. With the guidance and questioning of the teacher a sustained process of investigation and discovery unfolds over time – sometimes lasting for weeks or months.

The inquiry process is iterative and highly interactive and therefore responsive to the participant’s developing interests and capabilities - a co-created curriculum which gives children agency. 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 deep exploration.

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 student centred.

And from the very beginning, Loris Malaguzzi believed that pedagogy and design of the physical environment was inseparable. As well as many beautiful school buildings, the Reggio educators together with architects and designers have created ranges of furniture and ingenious equipment.

It was my interest in Reggio that led me fifteen years ago to Wooranna Park PS in Dandenong and to the remarkable educators Esme Capp and Ray Trotter. They had for many years been investigating ways to ‘do schooling better’ and had developed innovative practice based on their belief that children are not ‘empty vessels waiting to be filled’. Ray and Esme had come to the view that their physical learning environments were not fully supporting their inquiry-based practice and they sought my help to re-conceptualise and re-design their poor quality 1970s buildings. After many hours of discussion and observation we sought Education Department support and received a small amount of funding for a research project to examine the links between pedagogy and design of the physical environment.

The ‘Inside-Out Research Project’ involved all the Years 5-6 students and staff together with the school community to examine the richness of social and learning experiences involved in long-term inquiry projects.

Together we identified approximately 12 discrete types of experiences. The students first investigated ‘what is design?’ and then looked in detail at the requirements of each social/learning setting. To expand the children’s ideas, we undertook a number of small group excursions.

Next, we examined whether the scope of settings was appropriate – could each setting be available just when it was needed in the course of a project? Where should each be located and the circulation routes between. And would there be enough staff for some to be ‘dedicated’ whilst others could be available to facilitate as needed ?

3 years ago Esme Capp completed a PhD thesis which establishes a theoretical basis and educational philosophy for this approach. The thesis is available online titled ‘Collective Inquiry: using cultural-historical theory as a methodology for education reform’. I have continued this work with Esme since she has been principal of Princes Hill Primary School.

The same principles which underpin the pedagogical practice also determine all aspects of organisation of people, curriculum content and time - and finally spatial organisation and design of the physical environment. Each community of learners, (50 – 120 children with their team of teachers) is grouped into a Neighbourhood or Home Base, timetables are negotiable and the physical environment is purposefully designed.

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.

These schools/systems of schools all belong to a ‘progressive’ stream of education – they are dynamic, democratic and creative – they have clearly articulated principles and a strong belief that pedagogy and physical environment are inseparably related.

I am inspired by these examples and believe they hold answers to the development of school education which is responsive to young people’s present lives … and their needs in an unpredictable future world. I am very concerned that the way we currently create new pedagogy and facilities is ad hoc and whimsical, lacking clearly articulated visons or principles and therefore lacking criteria against which to judge any pedagogical practice or design. And we know that physical facilities once built will remain for decades.

Now is a good time to make radical change – to re-imagine education – as there is a growing consensus between educational luminaries (Robinson, Yong Zhao, Elmore etc), industry and corporate leaders (Deloitte, PwC etc) and the ideas that young people have expressed over many years about their ‘ideal school’.

Perhaps what is needed now is a collective, multi-disciplinary development – enabling each school to be a self-organising system – evolving in response to their community and a rapidly changing world. They will not be cookie-cutter clones – as I can attest from the schools in Reggio – same principles but each with its own characteristics.

There is a rich legacy to draw upon. We have extraordinary experience and expertise – much of it in this room now – for creating wonder-ful schools.