School design: The bigger picture - Education Matters Magazine
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School design: The bigger picture

School design and architecture

According to architect Sam Crawford, when it comes to school design, schools should think of their campuses as miniature cities and adopt the same level of detailed planning that goes into the design of our great urban spaces.

Density is increasing in all Australian cities. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that Australia’s population will grow 20 per cent by 2030, to almost 30 million people. Most of that growth will occur in the major capital cities.

Rising populations are putting pressure on our schools to continue to meet the needs of students, teachers and the communities they serve. The NSW Government alone is investing $6 billion over the next four years to deliver more than 170 new and upgraded schools across the state. Other states, albeit with smaller budgets, are following a similar pattern.

But with increasing student numbers and new schools planned for many communities, how is the design of our schools adapting to changing densities and pedagogies?

We must of course consider new educational models, such as shared classrooms and flexible learning spaces that support the latest pedagogies. But my own experience of visiting schools tells me that a school’s public domain – outdoor spaces, walkways, everything but the classroom – is often not well considered. Students spend a lot of their time outside the classroom and that interaction is incredibly important. Every space can be a learning space, from the cafeteria right down to the amenities.

The National Council for Social Studies says students learn invaluable life skills while they engage with a school’s in-between spaces. Learning the spoken and unspoken playground rules and chance encounters with peers and teachers all work to develop young people’s ability to actively participate in their communities.

While considering the in-between spaces is critically important, many schools are also falling behind in the design of their buildings and facilities. A well-designed space will make students more receptive to learning. Conversely poorly considered spaces do not support teaching and learning – the very thing that is at the core of the mission of any school.

Increasingly though, principals and school leadership teams are coming to understand the value of a high quality design process. There are so many obstacles to achieving a great result – tight time frames, sensitive consultation with the school community and budgetary pressures. A good design process will help overcome these obstacles and help deliver better education outcomes for students, teachers and the community.

Every space is designed, whether or not a designer or architect thinks about them. They’re either designed by neglect or they’re designed with thought. If spaces are designed with thought and care, then they’re going to be more useful and more delightful for the people who use them. Delightful spaces give people a sense of wellbeing or elevated comfort.

Environments can evoke delight at the micro or macro level of a space – sitting in a classroom where sunlight falls on cold days or having a window to gaze out of while working on an essay. Delight occurs when designers demonstrate empathy and understanding for the people their spaces will surround and when designers and their clients listen to the end-users.

The spaces in which we live and move have profound impacts on our wellbeing, our psyche, and our behaviour. The decisions educators and architects make about built environments are critical. Children spend a good part of their waking hours at school. Considerable thought needs to be put into how we design school campuses: the buildings, the grounds, the play equipment, the amenities and the spaces in between.

Wherever possible, school design should involve close and ongoing collaboration with various stakeholders: teachers, parents, the community and students. This can happen through workshops, forums or even through lessons. At my own children’s school, envisioning a new campus design was made into a classroom project. This gave the children and their teachers the opportunity to reconsider their environment and engage with quite complex issues including the lifecycle costs of the building and how the classroom relates to external play spaces and surrounding streets.

When it comes to classroom design specifically, teachers are one of the most important stakeholders. But too often they’re left out of the process. Teachers need to be brought along for the journey of changing the way they teach. In visiting several schools recently, it strikes me how often I heard similar comments from principals, “We’re actively interested in group teaching, group learning and shared spaces between classrooms,” and yet only a very small percentage of the teacher body actually teaches that way. This attitude isn’t necessarily due to teachers’ resistance to innovative design or teaching methods. It’s just that teachers’ current training hasn’t necessarily been considered.

While comprehensive stakeholder engagement is often heralded, the actual implementation is more often than not perfunctory. A lot of care needs to be put into developing a process whereby people do have a say; not just once, but a number of times through the process so that users are not just shown a final design to rubber stamp.

If you deliver something to the school community they don’t love or need, then they’re probably not going to care for it and therefore the cost will be greater in the long run. Too often we only think about the cost of the project to completion, which is when it gets handed over by a construction team. But really the cost of a building is ongoing for as long as it exists. So while the initial cost of thoughtful design – design that is suited to the needs and aspirations of students and teachers – may be a little higher, the school buildings will last longer, require less maintenance and be adaptable to shifting needs, thus ultimately saving money, which is something everybody can agree is a good thing.