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Building the Foundation for Education through Smart Classroom Design

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Australia is redesigning classrooms to emphasize openness, flexibility and collaboration. However, the built environment of our schools is currently up for debate. While some believe the old design is no longer conducive, others have found that the popular, open learning environments are not working as well as previously imagined. 

Jobsite ANZ spoke with Jenny Moes, HSIE teacher, regarding her experience in the classroom. Moes stated that many teachers, including her, are hoping for the construction of the open learning classrooms to slow down. At least, they’re hoping some of the fundamental design elements will be changed. 

“Open learning spaces have been around for decades. They used to have dividing doors between them; the loss of dividers actually cuts down on choice, rather than create more,” Moes said. 

School students are not adults—they need more guidance, structure and direction, regardless of their learning style. These can be difficult to control in large open spaces.

“Schools should not be replicas of adult workspaces. Students can still learn things such as collaboration, independent work strategies and critical thinking in open spaces that also have the opportunity to be ‘closed’ when needed.” 

The Test Subject

In New South Wales, St Philip’s Christian College at Gosford has been researching and exploring the different types of classroom environments for encouraging student engagement. 

Several years ago, the College removed many of the classroom walls to create open learning spaces. While this modification brought many positive changes in student learning and teacher collaboration, the sensory overload of a completely open space proved too much for some students. 

In an interview with The Educator Australia, Helen Finlay, Head of Junior School at St Philip’s Christian College at Gosford, said she invested a lot of time into determining the most effective learning environment in the development of the new Junior School Campus. 

‘When I first arrived, the students were working in open spaces,” Finlay said. “The sensory load on the students was huge. Some students, particularly those children with additional needs, would find it quite tricky to focus during more explicit instructional times.

When I first arrived, the students were working in open spaces, the sensory load on the students was huge.

“Whilst I embrace the idea that learning should be child-centred with many opportunities for rich inquiry and collaboration, research also tells us that effective inquiry can only take place if the students have been taught the skills they need to do this,” Finlay said. 

“Our new building is fully flexible with operational walls that may be put into place during our protected literacy and numeracy blocks, then they are moved back for our more problem-based, inquiry style learning and the spaces become beautifully appointed open learning environments.” 

Ultimately, the College decided a space which offers varied settings may be a more desirable learning space. It can be achieved through manipulation of the physical space, with moveable walls, blackboards, interactive whiteboards, and other dividers. 

Below, we will look at four schools embracing new designs. 

St Michael’s Grammar School – Embracing the Balinese House Concept 

Architectus completed a new K-12 educational building for The Gipson Commons at St Michael’s Grammar in Melbourne. 

Rising over three levels, this innovative design features unique learning spaces while the ground floor offers an inviting cafeteria space for refueling, recreation and social interaction. Upstairs, there are dedicated learning spaces that can be used by class groups, individual learning and group work with reflective zones located away from social ‘centres’. 

John Sprunt, principal at Architectus revealed that the design was inspired by the Balinese House concept, which boasts a spacious courtyard and small pavilions, ringed by a wall. 

“To cater to the mix of learning styles in a classroom, schools are increasingly embracing the concept of space and form to stimulate young minds and using building materials and finishes as a backdrop to the colour of learning,” Sprunt said. 

Wellbeing is synonymous with improved learning outcomes, added Sprunt. Therefore, visual connections to the outside that inform students about the time of day and weather are important in creating a sense of calmness and security. 

“Additionally, acoustics, thermal comfort, daylight and air quality are paramount in enabling wellbeing and improved learning outcomes,” he said. 

“In the past, schools have often been designed with a focus on minimising distractions, as this was thought to enable higher levels of student concentration,” explained Sprunt. “Some schools are still aligned with the notion that classrooms have four walls, no glass and students seated in rows to face the teacher at the front of the classroom.” 

However, he noted that “[a] cookie-cutter approach to design won’t suit everyone.” 

Belconnen High School – Traditional Library Transformed 

Matthew Moran, Associate Architect at Bickerton Masters, spoke to Jobsite ANZ about the recent completion of Belconnen High School. 

“The classrooms are designed to allow students and staff to work in a collaborative manner across various disciplines. The high level of transparency not only breaks down the physical barriers between the classrooms but brings in much-needed daylight to the circulation spaces,” Moran said. 

The classrooms are designed to allow students and staff to work in a collaborative manner across various disciplines.

“The traditional library has been replaced by a “learning common” which is essentially an un-timetabled space for the students to work in groups or solo.” 

The ACT Government invested over $25.7 million to complete the necessary upgrade to Belconnen High School which involved the creation and conversion of indoor and outdoor learning spaces. 

The upgrade has one more side-effect. According to Belconnen High School principal Dave McCarthy, the modernised facilities are creating a great sense of belonging and pride in the school. 

“Our new school is an open and visible environment which is the most crucial element in changing the culture of the ‘traditional high school paradigm’,” McCarthy said. ”The open design changes the whole feel of the school; it just doesn’t feel like a traditional school. The high visibility is what helps us to establish a strong learning culture.”

Ballina Coast High School – Encouraging Collaboration 

EJE Architecture was engaged to design a building for 1,000 students as part of a new direction of education for High School students within NSW. 

The new design incorporates the latest technology, innovative classroom design, 63 new flexible learning spaces and six outdoor learning spaces. It is built over three levels, creating a dynamic learning environment that encourages collaboration between learning stages and faculties due to their close proximity within the building. 

For EJE Architecture it has been a very rewarding experience to be part of a Department of Education flagship development that will facilitate a new direction in education. 

South Melbourne Primary School: The School With no Classrooms 

Victoria’s first vertical state school welcomed students earlier this year. While there are numerous other vertical schools in the works for Victoria, there is a feature that makes this particular school unique. It has no actual classrooms—the one feature typically associated with a school. 

Designed by Hayball, the six-storey school has “learning neighbourhoods” in place of traditional classrooms. 

“Classrooms have been minimised; there are no formal classrooms in this school,” said Hayball director Ann Lau. “Each learning neighbourhood will effectively accommodate 75 children with three teaching staff. This is very much about collaborative learning rather than didactic learning. 

“Learning can actually take place indoors or outdoors depending on the weather.” 

Being located on a compact site in the growing Fishermans Bend Urban Renewal Area, it made sense to build up rather than out. This resulted in developing a hybrid space that could be used not just by students and teachers, but also members of the community.

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