Open Aspect, Library and Learning Centre, UEL

Here it is: for most of my classes, students in rows of desks. That is, unless we choose to go to the library and use the funky furniture there, or perhaps go outside to think about a concept differently, or we might move the desks together in clumps to work on a project. Generally speaking though, the learning experience of most of my students, most of the time, is of me at the ‘front’ or walking around the room and them with one person either side, getting on with it. Sometimes the 21st century doesn’t really make it to class on time.

For someone who considers themselves an innovative thinker to some degree, it pains me to think that I fall into lock step with the status quo so often. On the other hand, I readily accept that the classroom is not mine as such. I share it with at least three other colleagues during a typical school day, from various departments and for various purposes.

This is probably the case for most teachers in secondary school, that we often share spaces with others across time (which I don’t mind at all – I’d love to do more collaborative teaching) and we are often encouraged to ‘leave the room as it was’ i.e. rows of desks. Does this mean that no effective learning can happen in our classes? Not. At. All. I hardly ever do chalk and talk (I do draw some pretty awesome diagrams of things like the spectrum of modern political structures if I do say so myself). I never dictate notes. (Let me tell you – my HSC kids would love me to do that more often. It’s the easy way for me to say I’ve “taught them” and for them to say they “learned something”.)

Many people think that by changing the learning environment it automatically changes the nature of the learning experience. Throw a few beanbags around, or maybe tables on wheels, or build a new science wing with shiny new labs, and suddenly the 21st century has arrived and everyone will be scanning QR codes for gamified homework tasks and differentiated learning will blossom and…. you get the drift.

Whilst it’s true that environmental factors do affect an individual’s aptitude for learning at a particular time (light, noise, air quality, temperature, furniture, materials provided, teacher voice etc – and these parameters should be considered) if the teacher and students don’t walk in to that new space with a new way of thinking about teaching and learning, the past will be sitting there waving at you the first lesson back. On a beanbag.

Interesting side note: This is also true in the case of virtual spaces. Many systems I have seen that schools deploy for online teaching and learning basically reflect the real world, being a repository for documents and tasks rather than a truly transcendent environment for learning. That has a functional purpose, but it’s not very innovative.

My little research project as part of a Master of Research degree at Macquarie Uni is looking into the role of user voice in the design of new learning spaces. What I want to look at is how and why teachers are involved in the design process for new school learning spaces (or buildings) and whether it is even worth including them. I’d like to think it is highly valuable, as much of the literature points to the disconnect between designers (architects) and educators in terms of the aims of a given design brief. Nair, Fielding and Lackney’s The Language of School Design and similar publications go some way to bridging this gap. And there is an increasing awareness and adoption of design thinking approaches to curriculum design. However, I’m forming the theory that what most teachers want is a more shiny version of what they have. This is because they are not trained as designers (usually) and are so often hemmed in by the expectations of current reality that they don’t have the time or inclination to think about how things could be different.

Myriad (and sometimes conflicting) priorities, structures, processes and beliefs dictate what functions the classroom space should perform. Mostly a result of the industrial origins of our current schooling systems, most classrooms provide the space in which about 30 young people can be supervised and guided by a qualified adult in order to build knowledge and skills according to a set curriculum and agreed timings. Innovation doesn’t fit easily into this machinery.

Innovation by its very nature is distinct and reactive to the status quo. Therefore, innovation for most teachers is not part of their job description. We do it because we are brave enough to suggest that things could be better – even when there is no peer reviewed evidence to back us up. Yet. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There are wonderful examples of learning spaces that inspire, calm, cultivate and push the boundaries of what is possible.

So, do we need to rapidly start considering teaching and learning when the architect starts wandering around the school grounds with the boss? Absolutely. Ideally, we need clear models and frameworks of what will go on inside a space before deciding how that space will be formed. Sometimes, this will be a dialogue between the design of the space and the design of the learning, but at some stage early on educators must be allowed to innovate in how they do what they do. Sometimes, this process may be ongoing, with the space being changed and adapted as needed for learning.

Regardless of when it happens, teaching and learning have to be at the forefront of the design of new learning spaces. This should not just be a case of “user-centred design” – which I find to be a slippery idea that gets designers off the hook just by considering what the user might want. The users of that space, I suggest, should play a key role in the design process. Research and precedents should be consulted and discussed. Innovation should be cultivated and promoted in all learning spaces, regardless of the number of beanbags. Otherwise, we’ll find that the elusive 21st century never arrives in our schools. If this happens, schools may find themselves less and less relevant to the learners of tomorrow.