Spaces for learning

Richard Leonard urges architects to embrace the new education pedagogies and to “use the physical environment as a major reform element”.

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

Wallan, Stage 2: junior and middle years wing. Image: Chris Ott

Wallan, Stage 2: junior and middle years wing. Image: Chris Ott

Recently, on a bitterly cold winter’s afternoon in Melbourne, I attended the opening of a modest extension to an inner-urban primary school. All 300 students were as proud as punch and, in ragged unison, greeted the attending guests and community in the singsong chorus of primary students the world over. Your heart melted. Each and every guest, the adoring parents and the gathered community were transported back to their school days in an instant – the more things change, the more some things stay the same.

Eager Year 6 students ushered the guests individually through the new facility with all the dedication of an estate agent smelling sale. Escorted by Simon, my 10-year-old chaperone, I marvelled at the confidence of the children, their delight in their learning environment and their explanation of the myriad activities that occurred in every nook and cranny of the building and its environs. The building was now “their world”; it was exciting and varied and stimulating.

This was not school as you and I knew it. Our schools were based on the same efficiency and control theories as Henry Ford’s production line – and they were about as stimulating and flexible. But the “cages for ages” of our days are being supplanted by radically new settings for students such as Simon, driven by a reversal in educational focus and an understanding of what truly deep learning requires. The teacher-centric model of the industrial age is disintegrating before our eyes and is being replaced by the student-centric model of the twenty-first century. And, hand in hand with leading educators, architects are at the pointy end of the change.

The role of the architect

Education has always been fertile ground for the design profession. Particularly since the 1970s, the design of schools has provided the opportunity for architects and educators to work in an integrated way, with innovation built in at the foundation. However, the new education pedagogies are challenging the knowledge and understanding of all involved – particularly the architect and the educator – requiring a new mental model where examples of thoughtful learning environments are rare.

The architect now needs to understand both the new curriculum and its changing requirements of design. Not only do they need to be conversant with the educational principles involved, a forward vision is now fundamental to encompassing global educational trends. Architects are now required to realize the possibilities for translating these trends into an innovative and appropriate design; in other words, to use the physical environment as a major reform element.

We can no longer simply leave the educator to focus on practice and the architect to focus on construction. More than ever, architects can play a pivotal role in the establishment of an appropriate design brief. In the formative process they can question intelligently the base assumptions and can challenge, guide and lead the development process. The schools of the new paradigm are being developed by an intensely collaborative partnership (between architects, education policy makers and educators) and frequently embrace the community and students.

In his paper “Innovative Pedagogy and School Facilities”, the American architect and educator Elliot Washor says it is essential that the architect understand the dilemma of translating pedagogical designs into responsive facilities.1 The experienced education architect will “have developed design processes for translating pedagogical designs into facilities. They also envision schools that are very different to the schools we have today”.

To develop facilities thoughtfully and successfully in support of the current pedagogies, the designer (like the educator) now needs to be equipped with a new brace of skills, knowledge and techniques. These are best exemplified in Elliot Washor’s call for an integrated design approach between educators, architects, builders, community and bureaucrats.
His chief concerns are:

  • that a new language and terminology needs to be developed for educators, architects and builders that changes the definitions of school space to ensure that the old mental model does not affect the new innovative design;
  • that educators (and architects) need to plan and think more about innovative educational design before building;
  • to ensure that there is a community and student voice in the design process;
  • that architects (and educators) need to become “bilingual” (to understand the varying disciplines involved in the development of schools);
  • to design for redesign. Establish a new mental model and design with the intent to rebuild that mental model;
  • to design to change the system. The more innovative the design, the greater the opportunity for the design to change the system;
  • to line up angels. Embrace the need to incorporate community, business and bureaucratic allies; and
  • to design for flexibility, not necessarily durability.

A school building: built

The newly developed Wallan Secondary College lies about one hour north of Melbourne on the remnants of the old Hume Highway. A state school, the facility has been designed to expand in a series of defined stages on the greenfield site as the student population grows from the initial Year 7 intake in 2006 to its full complement of over 800 students up to Year 12 in several years’ time.

The school was planned with the participation of the local community and educators coopted from other schools – as is common with the development of new schools, when staff are yet to be appointed. Working within standard departmental budgets and allowances, the desire of the planning group was to embrace the new learning paradigm and to connect the facilities strongly to the local community.

Some of the key features incorporated into the design included:

  • development of discrete junior, middle and senior precincts to ensure definition of learning communities and to establish the concept of transition;
  • integration of staff areas within the learning communities;
  • incorporation of Learning Commons in all core teaching areas to facilitate multipurpose, group and project-based activities;
  • integration of arts, science and technology into a single combined facility;
  • integration of food technology, drama and music into a single, multipurpose community facility;
  • development of a range of alternative areas and spaces to facilitate optional learning settings;
  • operable walls to permit reconfiguring of classrooms and team teaching; and
  • emphasis on environmentally sustainable design.

In relatively simple forms, the new buildings embrace the new learning challenges by providing integrated spaces, variety, flexibility and relevance. In the state’s inaugural School Design Awards 2006, it was awarded Best Secondary School and Best School Overall.

A school building: planned

Currently on the drawing boards, the development of the Dandenong Education Precinct for the Department of Education represents a different response to the new education pedagogies. The new school is an aggregation of three existing and very different local colleges. Designed for 2,100 secondary level students, the school is planned around seven Schools-Within-Schools (SWIS) buildings, each containing a learning community of 300 students. There are many inventive and different learning settings proposed here, but perhaps the most notable is the process itself.

During the design process the school initiated a mini-SWIS programme, echoing the curriculum model proposed and road-testing the ideas as far as possible in a dedicated area in the existing school. With the agreement of the department, this process has been extended into the construction phase of the new buildings. Flexible, fully operational SWIS shells will be constructed with the possibility of finetuning the interior configurations full-scale and “on the fly”; the educators themselves, therefore, will simultaneously live in and create the innovation. The finetuning will be undertaken collaboratively with the teachers while they work in the facilities and will be supported by the guidance of specialist external expertise (including the design team).

This technique should avoid the dilemma of the 70s open-plan classrooms, where facilities designed by architects and education policy makers often failed to be fully exploited by the educators – because the educators had not led or developed the design. The physical design did not match the programmatic design and the schools were often landed with unusable and noisy spaces.

In exploring the new education pedagogies and the built-form response, this evolutionary model is an entirely sound and prudent technique to ensure that the best educational outcomes can be achieved. The process aligns perfectly with the evolving nature of the new pedagogy and the need for facilities to adapt with the educators.

The state

To varying degrees, all of the states have been embracing the new learning pedagogies and instigating programmes of curriculum and facility reform. These initiatives have had profound implications for educators and architects.

In Victoria, for example, the state government has embarked on an education facilities programme that is vast in terms of scope, pedagogical change and financial commitment ($1.9 billion committed for the course of the government from the May 2007 budget). The largest programme has focused on regeneration and includes the development of a series of large primary and secondary schools in a number of key areas including Bendigo, Geelong, Broadmeadows and Dandenong. These projects have linked schools and their architects with leading educators (Kenn Fisher, Julia Atkin and Prakash Nair) in a collaboration to explore reform in both planning and curriculum.

Simultaneously the state government has set up innovation programmes, establishing on a smaller scale creative partnerships between schools, educators and architects. The focus of this initiative has been to develop transformative spaces in support of the new learning paradigm and to inject into these schools a living, working example of the new learning model – a “Trojan Horse” of new education.

All of these are courageous examples for which the government should be congratulated and encouraged to take further. There is much ground to make up.

The federal government

Education is one of the “hot potatoes” of politics and, in the views expressed by Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, education will need to be a priority if countries are to prosper in the post-industrial age.2 The new, knowledge-based economy – the creative class – has profound implications for all governments, especially in terms of education priorities and curricula.

It is apparent that both major political parties are pursuing roughly similar policies of centralism, standardization and control: witness the current discussions on a national curriculum. The states and the territories, in their recent submission to the federal government, focused on the national curriculum, reporting standards, performance and workforce reform. Its laudable objectives were “to commit all Australian Governments to a national framework for schooling and co-operation between governments as a means to achieve the best possible results for all Australian students”.3 Yet it is worth considering again our current system derived from the factory-based education model. In How People Learn, the National Research Council in the United States notes “the emulation of factory efficiency fostered the development of standardised tests for measurement of the ‘product’, of clerical work by teachers to records of cost and progress (often at the expense of teaching) and of ‘management’ of teaching by central district authorities who had little knowledge of the educational practice or philosophy. In short, the factory model affected the design of curriculum, instruction, and assessment of schools.”4 These comments have very direct correlations for Australia.

It is frustrating that most of the current discussions are not about deep, authentic learning; they are not about new pedagogy, nor are they wrestling with what it means to equip our children – children like Simon in Year 6 – for the evolving new world and new economies. This is surely the real core of the issue. Under the current debate we are not, for example, considering the reformative approach of Finland and learning from its initiatives and spectacular education outcomes that were identified in the 2005 OECD Program for International Student Assessment.5 In the OECD analysis, by the way, Australia was assessed as punching above its weight on a dollar-for-dollar basis: not bad, but by no means the best.


The discussion is warming and perhaps we – the community, the educators and the architects – now have the opportunity to effect real change. In his book stressing the urgency of education reform, Rexford Brown commented that “Communities, through the democratic, learning-oriented conversation, can decide what knowledge and habits of mind will best prepare students for the world they lie in and will inherit, and they can support their decisions through strong, sometimes courageous political leadership; or they can let things drift on in a muddle.”6 On that cold Melbourne afternoon, being led around the primary school, I understood that young Simon was already a knowledge worker and would surely slot into the creative class seamlessly, given half a chance. It was also an empowering experience to appreciate that facilities do matter, that design does have a significant impact and, most importantly, that design can be a tool for reform. The challenges for us all – and particularly those planning and designing schools – are staring us in the face. This is a rare opportunity for architecture to interact with the new education pedagogy in a truly radical way – an opportunity for design-led leadership to support a genuine transformation in education. Lest we let things drift on in a muddle.

1 Elliot Washor, “Innovative Pedagogy and School Facilities”, DesignShare, 2003.
2 Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books, 2003).
3 Professor Peter Dawkins, “Federalist Paper 2: The Future of Schooling in Australia”, The Council for the Australian Federation, 2007.
4 John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown and Rodney R. Cocking (eds), Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning, Commission on Behavioural and Social Sciences and Education, and National Research Council, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (National Academy Press, 1999).
5 Barry McGaw, OECD Program for International Student Assessment, 2005.
6 Rexford G. Brown, Schools of Thought – How the Politics of Literacy Shape Thinking in the Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 1993).


Southbank, Melbourne, Vic, 3006, Australia
Builder Devco Project and Construction Management
Building surveyor Reddo Building Surveyors
Engineer Taylor Thomson Whitting
Environmental consultant Sustainable Built Environments
Landscape architect Oculus Landscape Architecture & Urban Design
Project manager Indec Consulting
Quantity surveyor Clive Davies and Associates
Services consultant Connor Pincus and Saunders
Structural engineer Meyer Consulting, Taylor Thomson Whitting
Site Details
Location Wallan,  Vic,  Australia
Project Details
Status Built
Category Public / commercial



Published online: 1 Sep 2007
Words: Richard Leonard


Architecture Australia, September 2007

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