Learning Environments Australasia: LEA re:Activate ‘generating a city of learning’ conference highlights

By Diana Wilkes

Some of our Tārai Kura Ringa Whao had the privilege of attending the Learning Environments Australasia re:Activate Conference in Ōtautahi | Christchurch. Here we share some highlights from the keynote speakers.

The 2023 Learning Environments Australasia re:Activate conference in Ōtautahi | Christchurch was a truly inspiring event held from May 17-19th. The conference embraced the powerful whakataukī, “Tūngia te ururoa, kia tupu whakaritorito te tupu o te harakeke” which urges us to clear away the old and redundant plants, allowing the good to flourish. We were treated to enlightening keynotes by speakers hailing from Japan, Samoa, Australia, and Aotearoa. Drawing on international experiences they delved into the conference themes of connecting, developing, and designing. The conference provided a platform for exchanging key ideas that emphasized growth, innovation, and the importance of creating transformative learning environments. 

Image by: Te Pae

Liz Brown from the University of Canterbury, kicked things off with her presentation: ‘Te Ao Hurihuri: The indigenising power of meta and mini narratives’. Her talk emphasized the profound connection between language, history, and colonization. She focused on the importance for all ākonga to be able to see and feel their own identity within their school. Key values such as whanaungatanga, manaakitanga, and tiakitanga were highlighted as essential in creating a culturally inclusive environment. Liz offered several design ideas that can enrich the cultural narrative such as: 

  • incorporating the school’s physical shape to reflect the significance of the whenua and ahikā
  • using colours inspired by the local environment
  • adopting learning space names that align with local history and whakataukī
  • ensuring a seamless indoor-outdoor flow with landscaping that favours native plants
  • using bilingual signage, art, artifacts, and displays
  • dedicating a central whare space that includes a kitchen for communal cooking (while keeping food preparation separate from the wharepaku!). 

She encouraged us to explore the Te Aranga Māori Design Principles. These principles serve as a guide for us to be culturally responsive – creating inclusive spaces where every student feels a deep sense of belonging and pride in their educational journey.

The next keynote, Takaharu Tezuka from Tokyo City University and Tezuka Architects, is famous for his TEDTalk ‘The best kindergarten you’ve ever seen’. Takaharu raised thought-provoking questions and shared his insights with us. He asked us to consider:

‘How can building design capture the human story?’ and ‘How/why does architecture bring happiness to people?’ 

While the choice of materials can enhance the impact of architecture, the longevity of a building is not solely determined by the durability of those materials. Takaharu noted the example of world heritage sites that have undergone restoration to meet modern needs in order to maintain structural integrity and functionality which highlights that most ‘old’ architecture is fragile and requires careful maintenance. Ultimately, Takaharu acknowledged that no architect can predict exactly how long their architecture will endure; only Kronos, the god of time, holds that knowledge. His ideas invite us to consider the intricate relationship between design, longevity, and the human experience within our learning environments.

To start the second day Derek Wenmoth delivered a thought-provoking keynote address that shed light on crucial aspects of our educational landscape. Derek is one of New Zealand education’s foremost future focused thinkers. He co-founded Core Education in 2003 and established Futuremakers.nzin 2018. Derek has a strong belief in the public good of education. The profound impact of disruption was the crux of his talk. 

Disruption can either highlight weaknesses and create barriers or exploit strengths and prompt introspection. This can be a real challenge for educators and leaders. 

The Covid-19 pandemic pulled back the curtain on what happens in our schools exposing weakness and the philosophical understandings that guide our work – it was a case of ‘education exposed’. Derek suggested that constant disruption can result in ‘future shock’ – the shattering stress and disorientation that people experience when subjected to too much change! To navigate this challenge, he suggests: 

  • change must originate from our beliefs, values, and behaviours – ultimately shaping our environments and giving rise to emergent practices, and
  • learning from the past is essential for future-proofing our educational approaches – enabling us to respond effectively to the ever-changing landscape. 

Derek highlighted the interconnectedness of everything, from physical spaces to internet platforms, to teaching and learning. He called for a new set of guiding principles—Clarity, Conviction, Courage, and Commitment—to steer us towards designing for the future. This requires:

  • inclusive thinking 
  • recognizing that all learning is culturally situated, and 
  • planning for resilience, as disruption is an ongoing reality. 

Derek’s wisdom encourages us to embrace change with a deep understanding and a commitment to fostering inclusive, culturally responsive, and resilient learning environments that will shape the future of education.

Kaila Colbinis the founder and CEO of Boma. She challenged the delegates with a fundamental question: What is the purpose of a learning environment? Learning environments are not neutral – they can be either repressive or uplifting. She emphasized the importance of creating emotional connections within these environments as our ability to feel is closely linked to our ability to learn. Kaila queried, How do we scale an ‘emotional’ environment?How can we bring in the personalisation and ‘rockstar’ factor into an online, ubiquitous learning environment? She provided three examples:

  • www.synthesis.is which is an online platform for ākonga ‘to win or you learn, you never really lose!’ It has two options: Synthesis Teams (which challenge ākonga to solve problems together) and Synthesis Tutor (which gives ākonga their own superhuman tutor. 

  • www.sectionschool.com which has a tagline, ‘Learn about business. Use it immediately.’ This online platform provides business education built for real work that is not an MBA. Not an endless video library. Just the courses people need to do better work right now.

  • Crusaders: powered by Boma which is a coaching leadership program and online bootcamp experience where the asynchronous and virtual is designed to foster intimacy and safety for participants through asynchronous and virtual interactions.

Kaila prompted us to consider ‘how do learning environments make ākonga feel?’ She posed several key questions to guide our reflections: Does the walk theory align with the talk theory? Does the culture foster a sense of belonging and inclusivity? Do the community members share beliefs and values? How can the human element be maximized? How can storytelling contribute to the overall experience? She finished by encouraging us to reflect on our own personal experiences with learning environments and how those environments made us feel seen, heard, understood, and cared for. 

Josiah Tualamali’i is an advocate for empowering Pacific young people, and is actively engaged in mental health governance and film-making. He delivered an uplifting talk that emphasized the importance of inclusive design. Drawing from his own unique perspective and the insights shared by his young nephew. Josiah conveyed five key messages to foster inclusive environments:

  1. Design must be conducted in partnership with mana whenua and recognise the critical role of indigenous voices in shaping physical learning spaces.

  2. Prioritize the wellbeing of support staff and ensure their needs are met in order to foster a healthy and inclusive environment.

  3. Design for the full participation of whānau right from the outset and embrace their input and involvement in the design process.

  4. Seek and value the voice of ākonga and acknowledge that their perspectives are valuable and must be considered. “We are not too young to tell you what we think and what will help.”

  5. Illuminate inequities and actively work to address them. Consciously strive to create an environment that promotes equality and inclusivity.

By incorporating these principles into our design practices, Josiah believes that we can create empowering and inclusive environments that will uplift and support all.

Throughout the three-day conference, we had the opportunity to forge deeper connections, expand our ideas, exchange insights and I certainly left feeling invigorated, with transformative ideas from which to consider how we might design for the future.