Do your workplaces allow staff to flourish or to falter?

After many years researching the role physical learning environments play in the creation of learning environments in schools, I have been turning my attention to schools as teachers’ workplaces. My goal is to develop a current and deep knowledge of contemporary workplace trends for adults, especially those who work in innovative, creative and collaborative work environments. As education moves away from the factory/industrial model that dominated 20th Century schools in the West, teachers need to be viewed as innovators, knowledge creators, designers and curators of learning environments. They are also working in a world saturated with technology and myriad ways of connecting with learners and colleagues. Surely, this calls for an evaluation of the places where teachers work?

I have also been considering how we could increase teacher effectiveness by using what we know about teacher motivation, their current workloads and workplaces. During the past year, I have looked at the design of adult workspaces (other than in schools since there was very little happening there in terms of new adult work environments). At the same time, I have hunted down current research on teacher motivation, satisfaction and workloads. I have been asking the questions: What exactly do teachers do and why do they do it?. There is a reasonable amount on teachers during their first five years in the profession but much less on the mid to late career teachers, who have stayed working in schools.

 Wilderness School staffroom

There is little on what actually constitutes a teacher’s workload – we have some idea on the tasks teachers complete. In Australia, the new national Professional Standards go some way to defining and simplifying the identity of the teacher as a professional, regardless of the sector and school context. These standards for teachers comprise seven standards that outline what teachers should know and be able to do. On thing that clearly emerges, is the complexity and diversity of this work and the expectation that it develops over many years and through many experiences. It is also important to consider the differences between K-6, K-12 and 7-12 work environments since each reflect different needs, different physical environments, different mandatory requirements and different traditions for providing staff spaces. It would be difficult to imagine one workplace design or one professional description would fit all teachers across the K-12 spectrum.

staffroom doorIn order to understand how teachers view their workloads and workspaces, I recently conducted a survey of teachers that captured what a sample of Australian teachers were saying about their current workloads and work environments. The survey covered two aspects of the contemporary teacher experience: the nature of the teacher’s workload in a school and how this work was carried out. The majority of the respondents are from non-government K-12 schools in New South Wales, but the sample also included a wider group of teaching professionals. Nearly all of the respondents were teachers, who spent most or all of their time in the classroom (a total of 84% of the sample). Two-thirds of the respondents worked in schools that had been established prior to 2000. More than half of the sample worked in schools that had more than 400 students. The sample is described in the following table.

 In my next post, I will share some of the key results of this survey.

Profile of sample n = 199 %
Teaching 15 years or less 53 26.7
Teaching duties only 112 57.1
Teaching plus teaching with some executive duties 165 83.9
Executive with some or no teaching 32 16.2
Working in a K-12 school 172 87.3
Working in a school with more than 400 students 116 58.9
Working in a school established prior to 2000 133 67.5

Table: Profile of sample

Designing Spaces for Flipped Learning

Flipped learning is more than swapping around the work that is traditionally allocated for inside and outside of the classroom. Flipped learning goes beyond setting homework such as reading texts, watching an instructional video clip and completing background research in preparation for a lesson. It is not a way of delivering “catch up” or revision lessons, even though many of the strategies for delivering lesson material, such as curating and creating relevant or differentiated content, will enhance a standard programme. Flipped learning is not a work-around for limited access to technology or unreliable internet access.

Flipped learning will not thrive in the traditional classroom setting.

Flipped learning will not thrive in the traditional classroom setting.

According to the Flipped Learning Network, flipped learning is a pedagogical approach in which direct instruction moves from the group learning spaces to the individual learning space, and the resulting group space is transformed into a dynamic, interactive learning environment where students apply concepts and engage creatively with the subject matter ( – FLN, 2014).

If you adopt a flipped learning approach, the physical learning environment at school will

Surfaces for display.

Surfaces for display.

need to change. Swapping when and where group instruction occurs does not mean a classroom can remain in conventional rows of desks. There is no avoiding the need for spaces and time frames that support both group and independent work activities. Students will need access to a range of physical resources – technology, flexible furniture, sufficient space within the classroom to create spaces for team activities, places for independent tasks and surfaces on which to display or plan.

Flexible furniture and configuration of space will support Flipped Learning.

Flexible furniture and configuration of space will support Flipped Learning.

Basically, Flipped Learning demands the same redesign of the physical classroom as any other collaborative, learning community or challenge-based approach requires.

Space and choice.

Space and choice.

A checklist for choosing a child’s school – why educators should pay attention.

David Gillespie’s new book, Free schools – How to get a great education for your kids without spending a fortune, is a valuable perspective on contemporary education from the parent’s point-of-view. Although Gillespie spent a great deal of time researching the current educational landscape, which the average parent might not necessarily do themselves, he maintains his parental perspective by focusing on what matters to a parent looking for the best schooling option for his children. SchoolIMG_0195 leaders are well advised to consider the book because Gillespie offers a systematic way for parents to evaluate and select a school for their child. It is supercharged advice from one parent to thousands of other parents and educators should take the opportunity of listening in on this conversation.

In Part 2 of his book, Gillespie articulates what matters and what does not matter when it comes to finding the right school for your child. The items that do not matter as much as parents might think are: gender-based schools; high fees; small classes and multi-age classes. While small classes obviously provide more opportunity for one-on-one time for each child, it does come at a financial cost. Single gender IMG_3245schools do not cause any significant academic advantages unless coupled with selective enrollments that target the most capable students and stream according to ability. The value added items a significant income can buy within a school (such as individual technology and impressive facilities) are recognised as making the task of learning and teaching more comfortable, varied and easier, but Gillespie says the research still points to the fact these items will not have the same impact on student achievement as effective teachers and principals will have.


The book concludes the quality of teaching in the classroom and the leadership offered by the principal matter a great deal more than any other factors. However, there are eleven other things that matter, once you have established the school provides effective leadership and teaching (Gillespie, 2014, pages 165-6).

  1. Learning to learn is important;
  2. Extracurricular activities (especially music) should be on offer;
  3. Languages other than English should be part of the curriculum (especially for primary schools);
  4. Effective use of technology will make a difference;
  5. Effective behaviour management is important;
  6. Homework policy does not make a lot of difference;
  7. Effective communication with parents (about educational matters) matters a great deal;
  8. Avoid primary schools that do not use phonics to teach reading;
  9. Avoid schools that stream according to academic ability;
  10. Look for schools that accelerate gifted students (if your child is a genius);
  11. If your child has special needs, know exactly what resources are available.

Running through the list of eleven things that matter, in addition to the two non-negotiables of teacher effectiveness and principal leadership, you have a reasonable summary of what happens in schools. By the time I had finished reading the book, I was already running through the responses I would give parents who happened to use this list to test the quality and appropriateness of my school for their children. It would be a good exercise to consider the criteria Gillespie shares and test out what your school prioritises. If your list is different to this one, then you may still need to be ready to argue your case against this very persuasive book and parents who arrive at their interviews armed with this checklist.

Reference: David Gillespie: Free schools – How to get a great education for your kids without spending a fortune, MacMillan, 2014.

Can your “career orientations” influence your workspaces?

An article recently appeared on the HBR Blog Network (Know What Kind of Careerist You Are by B Groysbery & R Abrahams – 25 March 2014). The authors revisited the framework suggested by a management academic in the 1980s. C Brooklyn Deer proposed five career orientations that tend to shift over time and according to circumstances, and these orientations can be linked to satisfaction. Rather than locking people into one personality type, this framework recognises change and variation throughout a person’s career.

The five orientations are:

  • getting secure – seeking regularity and predictability by fitting in with workplace norms;
  • getting ahead – focused on promotions, increasing scope of their work and authority;
  • getting free – focused on autonomy and self-direction;
  • getting high – seeking work that provides greater stimulation, purpose and engagement;
  • getting balanced – desiring a bit of all the orientations and seeking both challenge and fulfillment without sacrificing a personal life. (While this is the most common orientation, Deer says only some people are genuinely motivated by this orientation.)

This framework challenges me to think about how could we design teacher workplaces to respond to these orientations. Can we rearrange the design of our physical workplace (commonly referred to as ‘the school”) to offer opportunities for staff to spend their day in ways that offer security, freedom, balance and stimulation. The work environment can also be designed to offer a “get ahead” orientation by keeping teachers and leaders in daily contact with one another and new opportunities.

Here are some suggestions for teacher workspaces and workplace practices:

Getting secure: allocated storage space and work areas for focused, individual work (can be shared but at least provide reserved zones); food preparation and eating areas sufficient for all staff to use in peak times; core classrooms; availability of all relevant policy documents; clear guidelines on procedure and process; structured communication network that is consistently maintained.

Getting ahead: avoid isolating faculties and departments through poor design; consider placing office space for executive teachers in different areas within the school; use shared or less formal spaces for meetings; create readily available spaces for co-operative and collaborative work; increase opportunities for teachers to see leadership at work; “advertise” opportunities for participation in new projects and roles in a systematic way.

Getting free and getting high: provide the teacher with the same space opportunities that you would for students – a mix of spaces where you can focus on work alone, work with others on a shared project and meet-up with others when seeking inspiration, assistance or resources for your individual projects; some flexibility with work hours or “coming into the office”; fast wireless connectivity; mobile technologies; robust IT network and access to support staff.

Getting balanced: All of the above, but to make balance achievable a few specific ways of doing things in the workplace would be helpful. Organise annual discussions that identify the current orientation and, if possible, translate it into the new year’s timetable, workload and general expectations. Systems for booking spaces and resources. Consistency in workplace processes and systems, including carefully managed and resourced IT. And lastly, communication that is democratic, timely and explicit.

You do not need to wait for a new building project before implementing some of these ideas. Most teacher workplaces have these spaces in some form and number, so leadership could start at any time to build these orientations into the workplace. The thing to remember is to be deliberate and purposeful in the allocation and use of those spaces.

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.


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.


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.