Designing Spaces for Future Focused Schools

The one-day workshop that I hosted last year at the University of Westminster and co-organised with the Association for Learning Environments UK was a design challenge to five multi-disciplinary teams to respond to an innovative learning brief from two school principals. Actually the real challenge was to keep within the Department of Education’s space guidelines. We were looking for innovation but to also show what is possible within a relatively tight constraint.

“We can now measure collaboration!”, said OECD Senior Analyst Joanne Caddy in her keynote presentation. “If we can measure collaboration, then we can look at how the learning environment including the space supports collaborative learning,” she said.

Creating learning spaces where students can effectively collaborate has become ever more important as schools focus on developing this life time skill seen as key to effective participation in both the workplace and society.

Empowering users, and particularly students, was also emphasised by Frances, Lady Sorrell, Chancellor of the University of Westminster and co-founder of the Sorrell Foundation when she opened the workshop. Looking back a work done by the Sorrell Foundation on “Joined Up Design for Schools” Lady Sorrell reflected on how important it is to involve all stakeholders and in particular the students in the design of the learning environment.

This set the scene for the groups of teachers, architects, students, policy advisors and representatives from the UK’s (England) Department for Education to start work on the “future focused” secondary and primary schools outlined in the briefs set by Dave Strudwick, Director of Way American Online School and Gary Spracklen, Head Teacher Prince of Wales School, Dorchester.

While words like innovation are bandied about in the often perhaps forlorn hope that the result will become mainstream, in this exercise a seed of realism was planted. The designs had to respond to the area constraints set out by the Department for Education’s Education and Skills Funding Agency. That was the challenge!

The groups set about the challenge in different ways. The team led by Lene Jengsby Lang from Autens in Denmark started by using a physical model in which different types of furniture were placed to delineate different spaces and which became the focus of conversations in the group. Listening in to this conversation I was struck by how effective the model was for establishing a common language that people could use to discuss ideas without the constraints of jargon or the esoteric language of architectural plans. Other groups approached the challenge either through drawings, diagrams or sketches and then creating models to probe ideas; or initially simply by having a conversation.

The team led by Lyle Christie, Reiach and hall, imagined a future where learning has become shared between the virtual and the physical. Physical learning will be for everything that is not possible on-line, said Lyle when summing up his group. “From actually combining disparate chemicals and seeing them froth out of a test tube to making a cake.”

What did we learn? The clarity of what was required by the Headteachers created effective and meaningful dialogue with the multidisciplinary teams. It was this process that enabled innovatory and future thinking designs that were within the current costs and area requirements for UK schools.

The strength of this approach allowed the design team not only to meet and exceed what was a “distinctive” brief, but to design for both transition and the evolving use of the new spaces in the future.

An important message from the workshop was that a one- size fits all approach will not meet the learning and teaching needs for “future focused schools.” The process needs to take account of context but needs to be designed from the “inside out” through collaborative engagement.

The report of this workshop is here: Designing Spaces for Future Focused Schools

The day was rounded off by a discussion on the OECD’s School User Survey and Case Study collection on transforming learning environments. Both are examples of putting the users in the driving seat. The School User Survey aims to help schools improve their learning environments by enabling to articulate what works and what doesn’t, and the Case Studies aim to document small and large transformations in learning environments that others can draw upon. The OECD is seeking examples of transformations in learning environments, share your experiences:

Maria Ustinova, an education consultant with the World Bank, also presented the results of the OECD School School User Survey across a sample of schools in the Russian Federation.

Jennifer Singer, design advisor from the Department for Education, discussed the government’s work measuring the quality of school buildings and how to improve the user experience. Providing better evidence of what works is paramount, she said.

The point of course is that making changes is one thing, but it is important to reflect in some way on how successful these changes are, but also to share that information.

Thanks go to Terry White, Chair of A4LE UK for all the work in helping make this event such a success; Michál Cohen (Walters + Cohen) for helping to facilitate; Murray Hudson and his team from Gratnells and Planning Learning Spaces for their support but also filming, photographing and recording the day; Ecophon for their sponsorship support and participation; and not least all the participants for making it such a success.