Thinking outside the box

Interior designer, Mary Featherston has just spent two days with us; sharing insights and experience with our system and school leaders. Interestingly, there was an article in the SMH’s Essential Lift-Out on 31 July by Andrea Jones on the design work of Mary and Grant Featherston.

We were most grateful to her for providing a fresh perspective on designing learning spaces for today’s schooling. In education as with very other sectors, there is a strongly held belief that we ‘own the game’, we know best and anyone ‘outside’ the game is too often viewed with scepticism.

Mary’s vision for creating purposeful learning spaces for children grew out of her respect for the Reggio Emilia project. Her perspective on learning spaces has challenged our thinking and pedagogical frameworks.

She views the learning space not as the sum of its parts but as an organic and complex whole.

It’s interesting that we speak of schools as being family like places where children can learn, play, share, reflect and collaborate. Yet, how many of our schools look and feel like homes or even workplaces?

How much time do we spend articulating the purpose of schooling, what feelings we want to evoke in these learning spaces and most importantly what we want our students to learn about themselves, others and their environment? If our homes can offer something valuable to the process of schooling – what other areas/social experiences/sectors can we incorporate into school design?

Stephen Heppell often talks about schools particularly high schools as artificial and punitive 19th century environments that some how we continue to replicate. The environment then shapes the learning. Since most schools are designed around how you manage the business of schooling you get factory models that see schooling as an automated process. We know and are committed to the understanding that the business of schooling is learning; therefore the question for school design is how does the environment enhance the learning of the school community?

As a designer, Mary accepts the complexities and challenges but believes we have reached a level of urgency, which forces to act and act now. We can’t wait for greenfield sites to begin the process. Schools can do much with existing classrooms if they question and change existing factory models of curriculum and pedagogy and then design accordingly.

As educators, we need the courage to challenge our own educational precepts; to step outside the classroom. In otherwords, think outside the box. Wouldn’t it be good if schools looked different from one other – reflecting the distinct and unique educational needs of each learning community?


10 thoughts on “Thinking outside the box

  1. Good Greg but i’m calling you on this one. I agree on the words but I’d like to see a bit of action. I want to hear the ideas and see the plans and listen to the concepts. I’ve seen and heard architects talk about organic spaces, awhina spaces etc and then build things where practicality goes out the window. Im a victim of the worst case of leaky building and am now looking at 5 mil worth of repairs just 7 years after a brand new build. They have great concepts and ideas and are very creative people but we must temper with practical. Im taking a “facta non verba” stance here.

  2. I Agree with Luke Sumich, especially after witnessing the terrible blue prints of the future primary school within the Westmead Educational Precinct “WEP” I find it hard to see how the CEO have implement any advancements at all in better school ergonomics or improving technology…. From a student’s perspective, it will be a very long time at this rate before any traditional concepts of the school environment will dissolve:

    Take for example “CeNet”. Wasn’t its glorified to be the solution of the school students’ needs … Yet it’s impossible to even upload more than 10MB to the server… or hold multimedia based class discussions.. Cenet at the moment is a very basic solution that has cost the Catholic Church a lot of money and is showing no signs of Web 2.0 potential…

    Correct me if i am wrong…

  3. As always, Luke and Jsinc the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I couldn’t agree more.

    The approach we’re taking in Parramatta is to start with the fact that the learning is the most important. Everything we do from the nature of the built environment to the pedagogy reflects what we understand about how young people learn in today’s world.

    This has been incredibly challenging in a schooling experience which continues to cling to an industrial model – which sees learning as control and process. I don’t have the quality control over the architects and builders and I’m sorry for the situation you face at Summerland.

    Those things can be easily remedied by finding builders who can deliver. It’s much harder to find good examples of schools that are designed and provide education based on meeting the needs of today’s learners. This is the biggest challenge for me.

    We’ve begun our work along these lines and it’s leading us into some innovative ways of designing schools. We have some emerging examples that are showing how you can put learning at the centre.

    It’s one thing to get an architect to design a building, it’s another to find people who understand the appropriate use of space within those walls. It’s a question we’ve been grappling with.

    We recently worked with Mary Featherston how has done some exciting work in Victoria. Mary works from the premise of understanding how people interact with each other and with the space they occupy and how that supports good learning and teaching.

    The outcome is that each learning space can by definition look very different from next door or down the road – and that can be threatening to a lot of educators. It also means we need to find good architects and builders who don’t build leaky schools.

    I’d also put it to you this way, there have been many schools designed and built by a particular principal and soon as the principal moves on, another moves in and changes the design to reflect his/her personal beliefs/understanding of learning. Unfortunately, we’ve wasted more money on this sort of work than fixing our leaking schools. What we need to do is focus our attention on the learning and not on personal preferences. The only thing that has been developed at Westmead is a concept map of where the school might be located. Work on the structure and design is in the initial phase and it will reflect all I have said above – the learning will reflect the design not an individual’s likes or dislikes.

    Catholic Education Network (CEnet) is a learning mangement system that has been in schools for almost a decade. It’s currently undergoing a major review as all LMS and virtual learning environments are. These proprietary products have been slow to react to the rapid emergence of Web 2.0 as JSinc points out.

    The problems are not just CEnet’s alone. The sad fact is that Australia lags behind much of the western world in infrastructure and connectivity. We fail to meet the MCEETYA benchmarks. Much work is going on in planning to upgrade this connectivity to support web 2.0 technologies.

    It seems to me that a superficial dismissal of CEnet with the assumption that Web 2.0 technologies are changing the nature of learning and teaching in today’s world, ignores the reality that learning in our schools is firmly locked into an industrial model.

    Perhaps we need to ‘call each other on this’, it’s not what’s wrong that is the problem but how we fix it that counts!

  4. Its great to hear CEnet is currently under review and hopefully that it will under go a drastic make over, as it is currently the only backbone of all school communications between student and teacher outside of school grounds.

    I hope that sooner then later, the “industrial model” will break off, i just ponder if anyone really has that power to do so…

  5. You cannot laud web 2.0 and use it as part of your 21st century ‘vision’ yet remain tied (for obvious reasons) to CEnet and continue justifying it existence on the basis that ‘it ignores the reality that learning in our schools is firmly locked into an industrial model.’

    It only seems to you a ‘superficial dismissal of CEnet’! to the rest of us are not intimately bound with or to CEnet it is a perfectly reasonable and accurate assessment. And I am afraid that Web 2.0 technologies are changing the nature of learning and teaching in today’s world (and you know which schools). CEnet will never meet the needs- it will always be too slow, too old, too outdated (even now). Time we euthanised CEnet like the old dog it is and invest the money in organising and facilitating Web 2.0 (and Web 3.0 when it arrives) in the schools wordlwide.

  6. Hear, Hear!

    If CEnet is to remain, i strongly believe it must be re-evaluated from an outside source (not from Catholic Education Office perspective) … and once it is re-examined, the report and recommendation should be released to the public (in particular schools/students/teachers) and their say should count, after all we(students/teachers) are the users of the solution, and the developers(CEO) should meet the demands and needs of their user.

    As outlined in the SDD course: “Developers have a responsibility to meet the demands of their users throughout the life time of the product”

    I wonder if this is the case with CEnet?

    Has it meet student demands in the last 5 years?

    I don’t think so…

  7. Oh that it were so simple. If every teacher was web 2.0 savvy we wouldn’t need LMSs or VLEs. So I agree to that extent. These technologies are the bridge we need to move everyone ( not just those there ) to a new way of working. This is not mere sophistry or denial but the reality of delivering systemic sustainable change that is both innovative and scalable. The semantic web and AI will provide an even greater impetus for change.
    No one person has ” the power” to change, and thats the very struggle . However we all have that capacity. As Oscar Remaro observed, when I dream alone it remains a dream, when we dream together it becomes a reality.
    It will always be a work in progress and one that requires teachers to share their practice.. that’ll make a big difference

  8. While we’re ‘calling people’ on things you note ‘I dream alone it remains a dream, when we dream together it becomes a reality’. The difficulty is we minions are finding it difficult to be allowed to dream unless we dream the prescribed dream that you describe. I refer to your Sunday Herald article of 24/8 and the numbers of schools where walls are not present. None have had any choice in the matter. For the capital work to go ahead it had to comply with the prescribed vision.
    Senge talks wisely that when you prescribe you get compliance, when you develop a shared vision you get commitment. The anecdotal talk at Rosehill was very much compliance. You talk of a myth that you don’y like walls. Sorry the reality supports that you don’t.
    As for CE Net no one questions the value of such platforms, problems notwithstanding but it is the sense one gets that only those schools that comply with CE Net or Mac get any profile or the bulk of the funding.
    As someone who works in a school that unfortunately has the legacy of being entirely built 40-50 years ago it sends an awful signal to my community when they simply cannot meet the new paradigm of learning spaces without walls, can’t embrace CE-Net as bandwidth and speed are too slow yet we are exhorted to dream.
    Fullan , citing Marris 1993 has something valuable to say on the issues:
    “When those who have the power to manipulate changes act as if they have nothing to explain, and when their explanations are not at once accepted, shrug off opposition as ignorance or prejudice, they express a profound contempt for the meaning of lives other than their own. For the reformers have already assimilated these changes to their purposes, and worked out a reformulation which makes sense to them, perhaps through months or years of analysis and debate. If they deny others the chance to do the same, they treat them as puppets dangling by the threads of their own conceptions.”

  9. Since becoming Director I have sought to share what I think is contemporary learning theory and the practical implications from such an understanding for learning and teaching in Catholic schools. This is the subject of some considerable publications, presentations and posts.

    I think I’ve been at pains in these areas to stress that in responding to learning in today’s world we require a collaborative, contextual journey that builds on the fine work that has and continues to happen in our schools and indeed in most schools across Australia. That is why we use the Jim Collins “Good to great” theory of improvement. It is also why we have been working with all school leaders to establish a system leadership framework. We have engaged with the best like Michael Fullan, Vivianne Robinson and David Eddy to guide, challenge, critique and affirm the work we are doing.

    The comments on funding are simply wrong. We have a building refurbishment program aimed at meeting the needs of all schools, not just someone’s personal preference. It is formulated by the Diocesan Financial Planning and Resources Committee.

    I’ve written about bandwidth before and agree that we are severely limited in what we have available. We are working both locally and nationally on improving the current capacity. In the meantime, we have to ensure that we are using existing capacity to its best for the students. The bandwidth issue is even more complex since we are trying to ensure that our solution is scalable for the whole system in Parramatta. Solutions for an individual school are much easier to solve especially if you are in a metropolitan area!

    The comment about CENet and Mac compliance is also incorrect. Schools have been giving the purchasing power to decide what ICTs are most appropriate for their students. Whether it is Mac or PC is entirely up to staff who hopefully understand the needs of their learners and are able to determine the most appropriate tools for improving outcomes.

    It is a challenging journey and will be well worth the effort as we are beginning to see with some exceptional innovative practices by dedicated teachers and leaders.

  10. Greg, I found your blog through John Connell and felt compelled to write a comment about new 21st century learning spaces. We are constructing these new spaces here at Elsternwick Primary with the senior centre just recently opened and the first of the junior spaces due to open later in November ’08 as well.

    We took the work of Prakash Nair and Dr. Kenn Fisher as our starting points in design [e.g. no corridor space] and used the work of Mary to design furniture to build collaborative spaces.

    For us one of the design principles was that teacher’s instructional improvement is supported when their practice is deprivatised – open for observation and dialogue.

    Building the space is part of the puzzle – changing the culture is another.

    I have submitted a few photos of the spaces on my blog.

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