On ‘Finished beginnings’

By Diana Wilkes

Chris Bradbeer is the foundation Associate Principal of Stonefields School and past chair of the Association for Learning Environments, Australasia. He shares his perspectives on the intersection between property and pedagogy in this article entitled On ‘Finished Beginnings’.

Peter Barrett and Yufan Zhang authored a paper in 2009 about design implications for primary schools in the UK. In it, they synthesised aspects such as lighting, colour, acoustics, air quality and flexibility which need to be considered during the design process. The paper formed a precursor to the significant ‘Clever Classrooms’ report detailing how such aspects can impact learning outcomes. One phrase, however, jumped off the page when I first read it – a ‘finished beginning’. The phrase is undoubtedly an oxymoron but in the context of innovative learning environments (ILEs) and the focus on pedagogical and spatial transformation, I believe it to be entirely relevant. It is less to do with design features, however, and more to do with the way we think of space, time and occupation in a school. To Barrett and Zhang: “When a new building is complete and is handed over to the teachers, the school can only be a ‘finished beginning’ in which adaptations will occur. Only when spaces are seen to support learning and create a positive experience, can we say it was designed successfully” (Barrett & Zhang, 2009, p. iv). 

Stonefields School entrance — Image by: Stonefields

I am interested in the thinking this idea might prompt, and how it can help us in the work we do as school leaders engaged in the context of ILEs, in particular the work that needs to be done before this ‘finished beginning’ in order to successfully transition teachers. It serves as a reminder that the inhabitation of a new building is as much a temporal and social phenomenon as a spatial one, the transformation of physical space into a complex learning environment, a transformation from space to place. 

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Stonefields School – Stage 3 — Image by: Dennis Radermacher, Lightforge Photography

Inherent in the idea of a ‘finished beginning’ is a sense that there is a definable point in time between completion of the designing and building process, and subsequent teacher (and student) occupation. We can think of the finish of the building project as the moment when the council consent is completed, contractors have left, and the air around school is no longer filled with the sounds of skill saws, hammers, and the beeping of reversing trucks. We are ready to move in. Almost certainly, is a time of community anticipation, especially for some schools who may have been waiting many years for their new building to be completed. Up until this point, however, teachers’ experience of the building may well be quite limited. If they are fortunate they may have actually visited the space. They may have walked around in hard hats and hi-vis jackets, shepherded by the site manager, but they will have had little time to really engage with the space, and only had fleeting insights into how they will work within it. So what do we need to have done and thought about before we reach this point, to ensure a successful transition? 

Stonefields School – Stage 2 — Image by: Stonefields

As the Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change (ILETC) research project found, teachers’ transition into ILEs has three stages: Early, Implementation, and Consolidation (Imms & Mahat, 2021). 

Firstly, there is the Early stage. We can view the Early stage as two interwoven strands. One strand relates to teachers’ engagement in the design process, and the other in pedagogical preparation. On the design strand, transition is more likely to be successful if teachers have had the opportunity to engage in the design process, had a voice in the educational brief, and explored how the design of the building will support and enable pedagogical approaches. Inevitably, much of this work will occur early in the project. The second strand, teacher preparation and professional learning, cannot be left to chance. It should take place in parallel with the design process. As ILETC research found, there are multiple characteristics of good pedagogical preparation in the Early stage. Amongst these is the time to prototype, experiment with approaches to teaching and learning, trial collaborative formats, and to formulate how things might operate. Also, the opportunity to learn about space and spatial affordances; how to utilise space to support teaching, and to understand how space might affect learners differently. It is vital to connect the two Early strands, to develop pedagogies and spatial practices that align with the school’s vision for teaching and learning, and that will be amplified by the opportunities presented in an ILE. 

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Stonefields School – Stage 3 — Image by: Dennis Radermacher, Lightforge Photography

The second stage of transition, the Implementation stage, starts on occupation. This equates to Barrett and Zhang’s ‘finished beginning’. Likely it will last several years. It is the period where people are learning to navigate spatial and professional relationships and negotiate ways of working. It is the time when people develop an understanding of the space and how it can support and enable teaching and learning, as well as getting to grips with the day-to-day realities of occupation. Moreover, as teachers become more comfortable in the space, and discover its opportunities and nuances, they start to make minor changes. For example, they might shift some furniture around, start designating areas for specific activities, change the placement of resource storage or create some norms about moving around the space. Adaptations like this are an important and expected part of the process and illustrate teachers’ comfort and agency in utilising the space to achieve specific outcomes. Adaptations may well be small, frequent, and ongoing, encouraged by a continuous cycle of inquiry, reflection, and improvement. 

Stonefields School — Image by: Stonefields

Thirdly, the Consolidation stage, refers to a time following longer-term inhabitation. This is when it becomes possible to evaluate the space in terms of learning and teaching outcomes. Evaluation conducted at this stage will also supply evidence of the extent to which the initial vision and intention for the new space has been achieved. 

Stonefields School — Image by: Stonefields

The notion of a ‘finished beginning’ provides us with a relevant lens through which to think about our own schools and transition into ILEs. Clearly, the key is that we need to consider what we will need to have completed by the time we arrive at this point, so that transition is successful. Conceptualising new spaces firmly as pedagogical projects, and engaging with the process and people accordingly, not simply thinking of them as building projects, is an important step. My belief is that in Aotearoa New Zealand we are getting better at this. It is strongly exemplified in the work of Grow Waitaha and Tārai Kura. 

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Stonefields School – Stage 3 — Image by: Dennis Radermacher, Lightforge Photography

If you are involved in a project now, I would ask you just to pause for a moment and consider your journey. Where are you right now? And, in your context, what mahi have you already completed, and what comes next once you reach your own ‘finished beginning’? 

Stonefields School — Image by: Stonefields


  1. Barrett, P. S., & Zhang, Y. (2009). Optimal learning spaces: Design implications for primary schools. University of Salford, UK: SCRI Research Report.
  2. Imms, W., & Mahat, M. (2021). Where to now? Fourteen characteristics of teachers’ transition into innovative learning environments. In W. Imms & T. Kvan (Eds.), Teacher transition into innovative learning environments: A global perspective (pp. 317-334). Rotterdam: Sense. 

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