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March 2009 - Issue #5

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Learning space turns school design inside out

Story by Robin Taylor

View articles in related topics: Education, Design, Film, Multimedia

A teacher who knocks down the walls between classrooms and then asks his pupils to help design their new ‘learning space’ sounds a bit unusual. But this is what happened at Wooranna Park Primary School in the outer-Melbourne suburb of Dandenong.

Wooranna Park principal Ray Trotter is an enthusiastic advocate for educational reform and the school’s refurbishment project has been widely lauded as exemplifying a new way of designing learning spaces, away from the traditional ‘box-like’ approach to classroom construction.

Swinburne University of Technology researchers Deirdre Barron and Denise Whitehouse, of the Faculty of Design, are now examining Wooranna Park as a case study in an Australian Research Council Linkage Project to investigate the connection between design and contemporary learning.

Associate Professor Barron, the Faculty of Design’s Associate Dean of Research, says the traditional teacher-dominated classroom, with its ‘lock-step’ approach to curriculum development and emphasis on rote learning is no longer regarded as the best learning environment for students.

“The biggest challenge is how to create new learning spaces. New ways of teaching demand different spaces. With new technologies comes the need for new and different skills – collaboration, integration of technology into daily teaching and more project-based learning.”

Associate Professor Deirdre Barron

The project team is working with interior designer Mary Featherston and two Melbourne schools that have implemented her designs: Wooranna Park and Bialik College.

Ms Featherston works closely with schools to identify their needs and provide answers.

Her interest in how the design of the physical environment can influence learning began with young children and the design of early childhood centres. She also helped to establish Melbourne’s first children’s museum.

“It gave us the opportunity to understand what children want to know about and design to meet their needs,” she says. “The challenge with interactive exhibition design is to attract and captivate visitors. Of course, in schools they are not usually there voluntarily, but the same principles should apply.”

The refurbishment at Wooranna Park was supported by the Victorian Government as a test case to see how new spaces could support progressive learning.

“We needed to find a school where teachers had similar beliefs about learning and recognised the role of the physical environment,” Ms Featherston says.

The interior she designed at Wooranna Park enables students to work independently as well as collaboratively and, unlike a conventional classroom, to move around freely.

The learning space, in an area equivalent to six traditional classrooms, accommodates a group of 110 students from years 5 and 6 and their team of teachers. It brings together settings found in traditional classrooms with ‘specialist’ areas such as a drama space, games area and art room.

Wooranna Park is classified as a highly disadvantaged school, with the 340 students coming from 40 different ethnic backgrounds. With funding from the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and additional funding from the school, the refurbishment was completed in mid-2005.

The scope of the design covered all ‘layers’ of the physical environment, from reorganisation of existing built spaces to furnishings and equipment, to create a harmonious environment. All students and staff in the years 5 and 6 unit were involved in the design process, from analysis of needs, to assessment of existing space and resources and, finally, development of design solutions.

Ms Featherston says their ideas influenced many aspects of design and led to the inclusion of a central drinking fountain, chairs with writing tablets, theatre lighting, angled drawing boards, computers in all areas and a new locker design.

“We discovered that the closed-cell traditional model is not appropriate, but neither is an ‘open field’ approach,” Ms Featherston explains. “It needs to be somewhere in between to allow for communities of learners.”

Local furniture manufacturer Woods Furniture, also a partner in the ARC project, has collaborated with Mary Featherston on a number of school fit-outs, including Wooranna Park and now Bialik College.

For Bialik College, Ms Featherston designed a system of modular furniture that can be configured in different ways, and is now in use in many centres in Australia and New Zealand. A modular system for schools is being developed with Woods Furniture.

Woods sales and marketing director Glenn Webster says that over the past decade the strong swing towards collaborative learning has led to the creation of new designs of furniture to suit the new approach.

He says another change is the need for school buildings to be multifunctional – teachers need to be able to move furniture around to change the layout of a room.

In 2008 the project team filmed and interviewed students and teachers to understand the dynamics of learning spaces.

Associate Professor Barron says preliminary results suggest that the design of spaces is very important in changing teaching practices and supporting teachers who wish to teach in a progressive manner.

“All the teachers have told us that they could not do the types of teaching they wish to do in conventional classrooms,” she says.

Dr Denise Whitehouse, a senior lecturer at Swinburne Faculty of Design, says one of the aims of the project is to investigate whether design and the approach to learning (pedagogy) are linked.

“We are finding some evidence that they are,” she says. “Some of the students from Wooranna Park now attend secondary schools and feedback from those schools suggests that these students are much more independent learners than students from a more traditional schooling background.”

The Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development is a partner in the project and results will be provided to the state government to help it make more informed decisions about the design of school buildings.

Dr Whitehouse says that expensive new school buildings are often built with very little consideration given to the fit-out.

She says the project is the first study of interactions between teachers and students to consider the impact of the physical environment as well as social interactions.

“The teachers we’ve interviewed are showing a real interest in the spaces and how they work, and they are hungry for information on how to more effectively use them,” she says.

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