Can you build in love? Ponderings from a first-time attendee at Learning Environments Australasia (LEA) Conference 2023

By Judy Bruce

Angela Clemens is a Ringa Whao for Tārai Kura and she attended the “almost recent” LEA Conference in Ōtautahi over May 17 – 19, 2023. “re:Activate – generating a city of learning” offered educators, architects and other professionals involved in the evolution of teaching and learning facilities a chance to discuss the future of educational facility design.


In this article Angela shares some of her ponderings, wonderings and takeaways from the experience and kōrero from sessions and with fellow attendees. In a nutshell, for an educator who loves beautiful learning design and well shaped spaces, it was a bit of a geek-out conference. It is one that Angela highly recommends to others who want to explore and re-think visioning for learning through the lens of how we create learning spaces, who for, what with, and with the future in mind.

Kaupapa and themes

The conference delved into three broad themes (abbreviated from the LEA conference website) and each theme was woven across presentations, site visits and reflective kōrero.

  1. Hono | Connecting – about building relationships through shared experiences and working together to provide people with a sense of belonging in a learning space.
  2. Whakawhanake | Developing – to develop or improve on something either existing or new can be simple or complex, however, we hope for positive outcomes for all concerned.
  3. Whakarārangi | Designing – to design for a specific learning setting while aligning to the special character or cultural needs of the people who will go on to work, live and grow in a learning space.

Jacque Allen (Conference Chair) and other opening keynote speakers clearly laid down a wero for everyone there: “to go back to our schools, our offices and design studios, and stir the pot…to change some of the outcomes from learning spaces” that we know reek of inequity or diminish individual and collective potential. 

The conference opened with a broad but pointed call to challenge our thinking, to take guidance from mana whenua in Aotearoa and indigenous peoples of Australia, and make generational change for places of learning. Both by design and messaging, there was a strong sense that we are all part of a community of professionals working together to enhance the educational experience, to improve outcomes for learners through quality learning environments. This resonates with the aspirations and kaupapa of Tārai Kura, and what Tārai Kura Ringa Whao see and hear in schools and kura across the motu. It was uplifting to see and hear the vision in a uniquely Australasian context, and be able to connect with environments and their designers and leaders of learning, who have brought these changes about. 

 “re:Activate – generating a city of learning” created space and conversations for designers of educational experiences and learning environments to reflect upon how we are changing or might change our expectations and practice to reflect how education has shifted, and be responsive to future possibilities. This was imbued with a call to be inclusive and deeply consider diverse communities, learner needs and aspirations, cultural identity, and to improve outcomes for our learners by creating learning opportunities beyond the “norm” of educational history – to imagine a different world of learning.

Culture and inclusion 

Guest speakers, including Keynote Dr Liz Brown (Kōia te Mātaraka), said in a variety of ways for us to drive design from values of positive inclusion for everyone. Liz spoke of the indigenising power of narrative, and offered a way to think about this by asking the question, “Is there a space for the rangatiratanga of MY language to be, without colonising impacts being visible?”

Throughout the different sessions and conversations had at site tours, and over kai in the stunning main hall of Te Pae, we could see that environment shapes culture. This can be flipped to the equally important notion of culture responding to its environment. Back to that original wero – what will we change?

Site visits – Ōtautahi as a network of new learning spaces on display

The schooling network of Ōtautahi I Christchurch, as a result of the earthquake recovery programme, offered a unique opportunity for attendees. Equity and inequity were both on display across the four sites that Angela visited. There were contrasting stories shared of hope, satisfaction, frustration and disappointment. The generosity of hosting schools and kura allowed Angela to see some stunning examples of mana whenua and community involvement, creative problem solving, future-focused design thinking, and the ever present practicality of the education profession focused on the end users, their learners and kaiako. Even hooks on the walls and curved pathways shared both a narrative and practical purpose.

It was inspiring and heartwarming to hear stories of school community members becoming involved in the architectural brief and planning, having seen their own children through a school. Also, to hear of tumuaki honouring the wellbeing of their staff. Sunlight and flexibility of spaces were the order of the day, with some beautiful cultural narratives and artefacts on display at the sites visited. You could see and feel history had been interrogated for perspective and deep commitments made to inclusion and environmental sustainability.

Cobham Intermediate School – sustainable and inclusive design, reflecting the whenua — Image by: Angela Clemens

One experienced tumuaki brought Angela to tears as he spoke of plans undone, plans delayed, and the single desire to “only move the kids once” over more than ten years. 

It was apparent across these site visits that there were opportunities both lost and taken to realise learning design visions grounded in tradition, access and inclusion, fun, connecting people and place, simplicity and practicality. There was a drive to create spaces within spaces, spaces that speak of culture, language and identity. The deliberate efforts to create flow and move away from boxes, to be innovative with shape, was another standout.

Christchurch Boys’ High School – light and flexible spaces — Image by: Angela Clemens

Big idea – Perception

Attendees were left with no doubt that perception is important for possibilities to be realised. Dr Fiona Young (Hayball and Monash University) and Dr Dion Tuckwell (Monash University) shared research and findings on strategies and protocols to activate collaborative environments. MakingSPACE opened up conversations and thinking about perception itself being influenced by

  • ability

  • intention, and

  • socio-economic contexts.

Fiona and Dion articulated what enables – or disables and limits – the learning principle: teaching practice and positive pedagogy. Yet, there are so many definitions of collaboration that underpin effective use of space and learning design. They reminded us that Designers/Architects are taught through the lens of space. Whereas, teachers are taught through the lens of learning. When we come together to create new learning spaces there is work to be done on transitioning practice, to support educators to be where they need to be with practice that realises the full potential of any new spaces. Equally, for those spaces to be designed in ways that enable the full vision for learning.

Angela admits to a bias for curves and love of circles, and was astounded to see how often these came up as a valued solution. It was of interest to hear that designers recognise that to work with circles is to connect function. Rectangles have only a 90 degree angle point at which to connect. The lasting impression of this session was the call to “create the space that gives choice” and how powerful that is as a principle of design and decision making. A powerful tool for visioning: we were asked to compose a postcard of our imagined ideal future learning environment, to send to our future selves. There was an extraordinary level of commonality, even across disciplines and cultures.

Making Space & The Mayfield Project — Image by: Angela Clemens

A WOW moment resource from the conference – The Mayfield Project 2023.

WOW moment

The members of the 2023 Mayfield Project have produced a toolkit for activity-based, authentic collaboration. They responded to the challenge of how to promote social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (referred to as JEDI outcomes) in learning environments. While there are many other tools out there, this has been done with Australian and New Zealand architects, educators and Ministry of Education involvement, and it responds to multi-disciplinary problems of practice for designers of learning spaces and educators. Do take a look! The resource is downloadable from here; each project focus has its own set of cards, guidance and examples of the tools in situ. These are designed to enable authentic listening, engagement and ultimately JEDI outcomes!

The project focuses on four key stakeholder groups:

  1. Designers of space

  2. Designers of learning

  3. Community

  4. Learners

The Mayfield Project, Engagement Design Tool — Image by: Angela Clemens

The White Elephant

Across formal and informal spaces, it became apparent that there is a very real and increasing tension around ILEs (innovative learning environments) and what teachers and parents say they want.

The conference site visits showed that in some of our learning spaces, walls are going back up. Single-cell classrooms with doors and walls that open to a shared space seemed a popular compromise or response to ILE thinking. This had Angela pondering, how open are those doors, really? When is a break-out room just another single-celled space? One participant from Australia shared with her their experience that “open/innovative learning environments are a bottom line for us” and “teachers are required to change practice to move to more collaborative pedagogies”. Underpinning this comment was a belief in the benefits that ILEs afford for teaching and learning. There was some surprise expressed that this is not necessarily the case in Aotearoa. Across the professions, two countries and different philosophies of education, the shape of our learning spaces continues to be open to the wero of what will we change. There were repeated themes of research, resistance, and choice, with more to explore here.

The last word

The last word goes to a young man introduced to attendees as Buddy. Buddy goes to school in Aotearoa New Zealand. Buddy is the nephew of guest speaker Josiah Tualamali’i (health and social justice advocate, founder of The Pacific Youth Leadership and Transformation Council), who shared his nephew’s experience of schooling, and the story of his nana as part of a community. Josiah asked us all to ponder upon what we can build beyond built environments. The question followed, 

“How do we place wellbeing in design?” 

…for it is more than air quality and lighting or noise control. Josiah shared with us that the things that had been designed for Buddy at school had given up on him. When asked what he needed or wanted to help him learn, Buddy asked us to design for full participation of whānau from the beginning, and said:

“Bring my family into my learning spaces. They love me. I learn better with them.”

The weight of Buddy’s words came to mind when Meiling Honson and Elisapeta Heta of Jasmax were describing their experiences supporting schools with new builds. They emphasised how critical the emotional environment is for learning, and recommended starting with thinking of the whenua, and stories of the land, not the functional brief. Ask, how does this environment make you feel, because learning environment design is learning experience design. Thinking of Buddy – can you build in love?


This conference would not have been possible without the incredible commitment, talent and mahi of the LENZ Committee and, in particular, the Ōtautahi committee, and the generosity of mana whenua.
Ngā mihi nui kia koutou katoa.