(Or why learning space design is failing and how we can fix it)

Towards the end of 2017 I tapped into the wisdom of my Twittertati to complete a short online survey. I wanted to discover more about the relationship between school design and those who benefited from it: the teacher and the learner.

Click the button below to participate in our research regarding what makes a great learning space

The survey was targeted at educators across Australia.

We wanted to gain insight directly from teachers and educators; to explore how current learning spaces are performing in terms of how flexible, healthy and inspiring they are; and understand what the key influences driving change are and, more importantly, should be.

The results are startling.

In response to the question of how flexible, collaborative, and healthy classrooms in today’s schools are, educators came back with an average rating of 5/10.

We were also astonished to discover that in response to what currently influences new learning space design, only 25% of educators said pedagogy.

Even more alarmingly, only 3% said that change is driven by the expectations of the learner.

However, when we asked what should drive change in the Australian school environment, 75% of respondents said pedagogy should be the key driver, with a further 19% choosing student expectations.

So why, if 75% of educators agree that pedagogy should drive design, are 50% of our classrooms still failing to deliver the foundations for flexible, collaborative and healthy learning?

The Role of Assumption

At the 2015 CEFPI (4LEA) conference, learning theorist, Ewan McIntosh shared an insightful view of this disconnect in his compelling keynote, ‘Meeting Places, Learning Spaces’.

His phrase, “the assumption of expertise that gets in the way of plumbing the real changes of learning“, really resonates with me and I believe his perspective can help us unlock the conundrum that is school redesign.

And so, it begs the question: why is learning space redesign so often disconnected from its purpose of learning?

The Assumption of Expertise

This assumption of expertise lies not only when, as Ewan describes it “a deputy head applies a fluorescent vest and tries to design a learning space”, but when we, the architects and change makers of educational space, forget to not only listen but actively seek the voice of the end users – the learners. Sadly, it’s often the case that the design process is quite opposed to the vison and values of the people engaging in it.

This is not purposeful, but often driven by the perception that we need to build, and we need to build now! For so many, the fear of lost funding, rotating political governance or a departing principal’s swan song makes time of the essence and values like listening, collaborating and valuing student and teacher voices fly out the window.

Designing with Empathy

For many of us in design, commercial pressure has slowly eroded the importance and practicality of truly listening to the needs of our clients. Tom Barrett shares his insight into the power of listening in his blog ‘Empathy: An Aggregate of Personal Truths’

Barrett sites Del Tufo who explains “we learn empathy when we experience connectedness and surface shared values”. At the core of this notion is the need for listening and collaboration in considered design.

A Lust for Listening

A lust for listening, and a reverence for the insight it affords, plays a key role in ensuring that we design space to align with the key ingredients of education, that is

People, Pedagogy and Place.

The 3 P’s

Change in school Place should be driven by Pedagogy and aligned with the values and vision of the People who will benefit from it.

Thinking should be tailored to the context and culture of the school, and it should be for the people, by the people (or at least the learner!).

Innovations Golden Bullet

  • Too many designers and school leaders assume, rather than wonder
  •  Dialogue, reflection and understanding the needs of learners requires time
  • Too many educators fear having a creative voice and often the student has NO voice. If you don’t listen carefully you’ll miss the insight – Innovations golden bullet 

Shared insight, critical feedback and collaboration between all the people learning in the buildings are the key tenets for success when it comes to re-designing or building your school.

How Might We?

Those looking to change their learning environments should ask themselves: how might we engage with each other, our community and our students to combine creativity and insight to deliver learning spaces that resonate with successful learners?

I believe that education has the power to transform lives, and that architecture and design can tell the story of that change.

The design of spaces for learning takes time. It takes vison and understanding that any and all change must be predicated by real and meaningful engagement.

Here’s what I think we, as architects and change makers of educational space, should do to drive change for the better:

Ø  Understand that intellect and emotion are the cornerstones of meaningful design

Ø  Design using a process that does not jump straight into a solution.

Ø  Never assume

Ø  Use insight to fire innovation

Ø  Listen. With your heart, mind and humility.

If you would like to bring together your People Pedagogy and Place, please contact me to carry on the conversation.