Linking pedagogy and space: Advice for school leaders in the design process.

By Judy Bruce

Planning learning spaces can be overwhelming and mistakes are common. Wondering where to begin? Afraid of ‘getting it wrong’? In this article experienced Education Consultant, Mary Anne Mills, shares her wisdom with us.

“Mā te whakaaro nui e hanga te whare; mā te mātauranga e whakaū”
“Big ideas create the house; knowledge maintains it”

For an educational leader, designing new learning spaces is both exciting and a huge responsibility. Exciting because few school leaders get the opportunity to work with professional designers to plan and build spaces that can provide the best possible learning environment for their tamariki. It’s a huge responsibility as leaders are not only designing for the tamariki of today but for future generations. It is the latter statement that often trips people up as spaces have to be adaptive so that they can embrace inevitable change long after the initial users have left. The goal should be to design spaces where tamariki feel safe, feel as if they belong in the space and are stimulated in their learning. A school is a community of learners and the physical environment for teaching and learning should support the values and culture of the school community. As the late Sir Ken Robinson said,  

We need to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” 

Research and data shows that changing the design of space and the technology within it does not necessarily lead to a change in pedagogy for all. The act of inhabiting new flexible spaces does not automatically translate to changed practice. The critical importance to moving successfully into a new flexible learning environment can mean challenging teachers’ often entrenched beliefs about the purpose of schooling, and the need to empower and harness the talents of all staff towards achieving a clearly articulated and understood vision for learning. The next challenge is for architects to be able to interpret what that vision might look like in reality. Architects need to understand how classrooms function for teaching and learning and how teachers and learners interact with spaces as end users. Correspondingly, teachers need to understand what it is that architects need to know as they interpret and blueprint the vision and culture of a school and the unseen teaching/learning processes within (see Talking spaces: Architects and educators). 

Education Briefs and why they matter

For a school leader (and Board) one of the first things you will be asked to do when starting a school redesign or new design is to write the Education Brief – a document that sets out the school’s vision for teaching and learning for the future and how that translates into physical spaces to enable and support the school pedagogy. This document is used by the architects to draw up a master plan for the new and/or redesign of existing buildings. Some key tips when writing this document are:

  • Decide who is on the school design brief writing team and who has input
  • Tailor it to the audience (architects). Therefore, keep education jargon to a minimum so there is no confusion about meaning.
  • Don’t try to design the space(s). You may have some ideas but leave it to the experts in design. 
  • As well as physical space, think about acoustics, airflow and lighting as they all impact on the learner’s experiences.
  • Be specific. Keep in mind all the way through the Brief these three key aspects: 
    • Social – the people in the environment and how they will interact.
    • Pedagogical – the teaching and learning practices you aspire to in the new spaces.
    • Physical – the property, technology and other resources to support the learning process. An example of specificity that architects often comment on is that Education Briefs regularly espouse the importance of spaces to support collaborative practice and collaborative learning. But what this looks like can vary enormously, depending on the interpretation the school has for “collaboration”. 

A cultural narrative, written or supported by mana whenua which describes what is unique about the place and the people your educational setting is part of, also helps architects to consider mātauranga Māori in the design of the learning spaces. The cultural narrative can influence both structural elements and internal design, so spaces support a learning environment that is conducive for all to succeed. Students should see themselves in their surroundings.

Pedagogy and Space

Curriculum and pedagogical approaches have changed considerably from when most schools were built (1950’s – 1980’s), but teachers’ predominant experience is to teach in a space with fixed walls. Today we need spaces that support collaboration, experiments, exhibitions, building things and a whole lot more. We also need those quiet spaces for reflection, individual work and downtime. The emphasis is on activity rather than passively learning. This has led to rethinking the size, variety and connected nature of learning spaces. Therefore, the clustering and location of spaces to cope with multidisciplinary and integrated programmes needs to be thought through by those who will be teaching and learning in these spaces. They need to be adaptable for day to day use as well as have the ability to change over time. The minute you put walls up, flexibility is restricted. The need will always exist for more specialized spaces that demand high levels of investment in equipment to deliver the curriculum and meet health and safety regulations. However, there is always scope to design these spaces alongside more general spaces. These spaces could cater for design, experimentation, and research for both disciplinary and multi-disciplinary approaches to learning.

The design process

Create the opportunity for teachers and students to prototype spaces as part of the design process, as this gives school leaders evidence of the reality of what works for the pedagogy the school is wanting to implement, from the point of view of both teachers and students. This needs to be based on the school vision for teaching and learning. It allows for mistakes to be made, and for time to modify courses and approaches to take full advantage of moving into new facilities. It might also lead to some tweaks to the design (if it’s not too late!).

Keep your eye out for research on the impact of physical spaces on pedagogy. The British research study, The Clever classrooms : Summary report of the HEAD project is the first time that clear evidence of the effect on users of the overall design of the physical learning space has been isolated in real life situations. The University of Melbourne has had a research project (The Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change Project) from which they have published a number of reports. The New Zealand chapter of the Association of Learning Environments has events where schools and architects share experiences of designing and using spaces.

School design is a team effort. Space and pedagogy go hand in hand. Learn from others. There are many school leaders willing to share how their school’s vision for teaching and learning influenced the design process and the shape of their learning spaces. 

About the author: Mary Anne Mills is a Ringa Whao with Tārai Kura. She is very experienced in supporting schools through change processes with a focus on school design and innovative learning environments. Mary Anne is a consultant with CORE Education. 

Mary Anne Mills, Consultant, CORE Education — Image by: Judy Bruce