Revisiting my writings on the design of spaces.

Last year I travelled to Finland, Canada, the Netherlands, England, Denmark and Sweden with the purpose of visiting interesting spaces for learning and collaborating. To launch my PlaceShaping Project, I thought I would re-post some of my thoughts from that trip.

One thing I observed when visiting the schools and universities on the study tour was the tendency for occupants (namely teaching staff and administrators that didnot quite grasp the concepts behind collaborative spaces) to commence a process of closing down the open spaces.

The arguments for doing so are familiar (noise, distractions, privacy, organising clutter) but are not really valid in an environment that has already committed itself to flexible, open spaces. By putting up walls, perhaps both literal and conceptual, the whole design is compromised. Other spaces stop working effectively and issues with lighting and ventilation emerge.

Often what is needed is a new approach to using the open spaces, rather than retro-fitting walls. It is true that classes make noise, it is true that working in an open space can make you self-conscious or afraid of accidental scutiny and it is true people like to own a space of their own. I know this because I have taught in schools for more than twenty years. However, I would argue there are solutions to all of these problems that do not involve making boxed in spaces.

The first step towards avoiding the plasterboard solution is to make a list of the reasons why walls are wanted. The next step is to prioritise the problems, working from most long-term significant to maaters of personal preference. This process does not trivialise the individual’s point of view but it is important not to emphasise the transient over the lasting.

It is possible the original design may not have been as suitable as first thought but proceed with caution. I would suggest the open collaborative spaces should be preserved at all costs, with other solutions, such as sound-absorbing materials investigated or creating smaller private workspaces elsewhere, investigated.

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Humour, X Factors and Books

1. Where has the wit and humour gone?

As educators we may speak about the joy of learning, the excitement of discovery, the challenge of puzzles and the nurturing of imagination, but what about fostering humour and wit? When did we start taking the everyday so seriously, forgetting to inject the opportunity to laugh at the absurd and funny? As someone who teaches English, I know from bitter experience how difficult it is to explain how humour works on a text, let alone teach the gentle art of wit.

So turning to the physical space, why have so many spaces designed for children lost their witty charm? In our pursuit of citrus coloured glass panels, clean surfaces and ovoid shapes have we forgotten to inject a little humour? When researching my thesis, I spoke to far more children than adults about their favourite places for learning. The middle-school aged children did not wax lyrical like Kevin McCloud about soaring rooflines and inspiring conceptual connections with the outside environments. They were not bothered with “echoing the rolling terrain” or the sustainability of air-conditioning. These students wanted comfortable places where they could have fun doing their work and playing with their friends. They also wanted things that kids liked, not what adults admired.

Fortunately, the art of injecting humour into the built environment is not extinct in the learning environments of Europe (or at least the ones I happened to visit). Even if they are the exception rather than the rule, the smiles that were evoked by touches of whimsy were appreciated, and whimsy did not need to translate into childishness. Here are a few examples of what I am talking about: * the use of original graphics to indicate toilets (bold outlines like fashion sketches, or funny cartoons); * labelling rooms with humorous titles or graphics (rather than “payback”s to dead benefactors or figureheads); * adding suggestions for potential functions for different spaces (rather than calling the space “silent study”, try a pavilion for quiet reflection and last minute exam swatting or the engine-room for solving problems instead of seminar room); * use wallpaper mural or a handpainted mural to direct the use of a room (or why not use the colours of the thinking hats matched with a graphic or quotes). The important thing is to not take things too seriously.

Spaces in schools really are quite temporary (no matter how much money you have invested in the construction programmes and what the master plan says) – each year rooms are reassigned, needs change and so on. Signage is equally temporary, so experiment, consult your students, choose a theme. The most important thing is to encourage engagement with learning, and often a new tact is a great way to renew interest and revitalise an old space.

2. Books should still  maintain a presence in the 21st Century design.

From time to time, I hear people dismissing books as old pedagogy and that space does not need to be allocated to the display and storage of hard copies of books. Nothing in my experience and travels seems to support this zealous approach to purging the book from the modern school.

The new designs have maintained spaces dedicated to print materials in a variety of ways. One Finish school created a bookshop feel for their collection by assigning a space off the communal cafeteria to the library. Large glass door slid back, allowing free flow from the cafeteria. The most current literature was displayed prominently like the latest best sellers, whilst research materials were accessed from shelves at the back (still using the usual catalogue system). There was no need to provide tables and chairs, the cafeteria did that job.

Another very high tech and spec academy placed a library space at the centre of the main circulation area. Fiction was prominently displayed for study and recreational purposes. Interestingly, this space was a designated “IT free zone”. You went here to use the unique resource of books and interactions with other people.

Libraries were also in the most unexpected of places. This is the library space in the food hall at the airport in Amsterdam. Yes, the books were real.

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All in all, a few observations could be made about the libraries in new designs. The respect for the role printed texts can play in the learning programmes has not diminished with the increase of web-based resources. The library spaces were not always called libraries, if the trend of labelling throughout the school followed other patterns (i.e. an equally contemporary name was found for the space in keeping with the other learning spaces). Library staff were actively involved in providing resources for staff and students. The space was not banished to dark corners of the building, instead placed in a highly visible area that could be easily accessed by students. Books were prominently displayed, and lastly, the librarian had a strict (almost ruthless) culling process. Only the best and newest books were kept on the shelves, with older copies of still current books sent into the classrooms to be used by teachers with their classes (including cutting them up or using them in art projects or allowing students to borrow on an honour system, if they lack research resources at home). And probably the most encouraging thing of all, in each of the schools I visited, the library was as alive as the other parts of the schools.

3. The X and Y Factors

One of the findings of my research was the importance of human relationships in the creation of learning environments, and in particular, the nature of the informal learning relationships that occur with the classroom. Another key finding was the role transformational leadership approaches play in fostering positive relationships and the creation of a consistent learning culture.

Over the past few weeks, I have had time to reflect on these findings in the light of a range of European and British schools. Without a doubt, the power of positive relationships was paramount in the schools that both appeared and were measured as being highly effective. These relationships were genuine, powerful and consistent. The focus was upon learning and how to foster the potential in each student, without losing sight of the individual humanity of each person. Belonging and developing personal, real and individually-owned attachment to the work of learning were key to cultures of the schools. The notion that “you have to love kids and love learning” was repeated in all of the different schools.

In each of the schools, the leadership of the principal (head teacher) was obvious, no matter how large the school. These leaders demonstrated characteristics usually associated with transformational leadership styles. We were often hosted by executives other than the principal, yet it was clear staff and students had a shared understanding of the school’s culture and direction, and this understanding had been incorporated into the individuals’ way of doing things.

Although the two factors of relationships and leaderships are vital to the growth of an effective school, the real Y Factor was the student’s attitude towards their education. Without fail, the most impressive testimonies to the success of a learning culture were spoken by students who wanted their education as much, if not more so, than the adults in their lives. These students from Finland, Sweden, Denmark and the UK spoke with a passion for their own learning. They were not necessarily the brightest or the most important students, but all were students who had constructed their own educational paradigm that was in synch with the school and the national system. Interestingly, the most academically gifted students I meet were in a highly selective school that was in the very worst of conditions. However, what they said was not different to students from other schools.

Whilst it was clear that these students were not necessarily going to find the whole schooling process a straightforward path, there was a refreshing commitment to doing their best and maximising their own opportunities and achievements. Maybe these were the types of students who are typically chosen by teachers to co-host visitors from abroad, but without doubt these are the students that are going to succeed because of their share of the Y Factor.

Space, flexibility and relationships matter.

One of my personal goals in visiting schools in Europe and Britain was to see if my research findings might apply in other non-Australian school contexts. Given my experiences of the schools and university spaces have been brief, which lends caution to any comments I make, there was significant correlation between the Australian and European experience in terms of what matters and what makes a difference in the learning environment. Very briefly, my research identified a number of factors that influenced the creation of effective learning environments. These factors could be summarised under the three key areas of architectural features and principles, leadership and contextual elements.

Broadly speaking, the European examples that I visited emphasised these very factors. In the realm of architectural principles, flexibility and access to spaces that are large enough to carry out the activity were emphasised. Leadership of learning and pedagogy from the principal/head teacher was non-negotatiable. School context, both in terms of the student community profile and the school’s own culture, made each school different from the next. It also reminded the visitor that a “cookie cutter” approach to designing schools is not possible nor desirable, if you want a school to be owned by the students and staff who work there. It is an economic reality that organisations like schools cannot provide unlimited space for learning, therefore, creating spaces that can be either shared or re-purposed during the day is vital.

One lesson to be learnt from a very innovative environment in Denmark is be cautious of creating a space that has only one function. In this school had originally created an open lecture/auditorium space in the centre of the building. However, this space was later enclosed to facilitate the desire from teachers for a more theatre-like environment that did not disturb other classes. As a result, this large communal area is timetabled or booked by classes and cannot be used in a more flexible, spontaneous manner. The school has also lost access to the original concept for the space – it would take firm leadership to return the space to the open area it was once was.

In Delft there is an exciting example of a space for community learning. A public library has been established in the city centre, but it is more than a lending library. It provides a space for gatherings in the tiered seating area that also doubles as the stairway to the first floor and cafe. A video wall provides information and ambient images for the quiet reading area (complete with comfortable armchairs). On a wet Saturday morning it was alive with family groups, playing and reading together. In one section an artist in residence works and conducts workshops for the community. Whilst it is a visionary idea for the local community, spaces such as these continue to struggle for funding that will sustain this important community asset.