My top 10 challenges to become an innovative school #revisited

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about my top 10 ideas for an innovative school, its been the most viewed post.  Although it’s not definitive, it’s helpful to have a guide that can shape strategy. This time I’ve added a few challenges.

Revisiting the ideas, and updating for 2014:

1. A vision for learning is incessantly and clearly communicatedOrestad Gymnasium

  • What is your vision? Make sure you know where you are going.
  • Find ingenious and relentless ways to communicate it.

Who are the keepers of the vision?How do you empower the carriers of the vision?

2. Learning is future-focused

  • Shape the learning context for change
  • Observe the students, see how they work and communicate

How can you have less fixed and more flexible features?
What is happening in the world of work that can directly relate to school?

3. Culture takes time and persistence to embed

  • Once you have the vision – prioritise your steps. Change will take time and strategy
  • If you believe it, be resolute. Help those who are struggling to change, but stick to your guns.

Do you have a shared language?
What are the non-negotiables of culture?

4. Engaged and motivated students are the goal 2011-03-03_0088

  • Put current practices through the ‘learning’ filter – do they still belong?
  • Think about your own conditions for productivity and creativity, maybe it’s same for students

What strategies will make learning relevant and authentic?
What practices
disengage and de-motivate students?

5. Equipped and supported staff are essentialIMG_1218

  • Vision + ‘Learning’ Filter = Regular PD to support through change
  • We can’t change the way teachers teach until we change the way teachers learn

How much teacher-talk is OK?
What is the baseline expectation for IT proficiency?

6. Technology is an environment for learning, not the driver

  • This is not about who has the most bright shiny toys
  • Students live in a world of technology – the school-world needs be relevant

Is technology almost invisible?
Are you embracing the opportunities that the cloud opens?

7. Relationships matter

  • In the midst of all the learning, technology and activity nothing matters more than quality relationships
  • Students need to belong, be known, valued and accepted. This is only achieved through relationship

What activities deliberately get your teachers working (and playing) together?
Is relational learning seen to be important in your culture?

8. Learning is authenticNEMO

  • Set in a real-world context, skills will be learnt readily when there is purpose
  • Provide opportunities for students to be world-changers

Are your teachers passionate and infectious about their subject matter?
Does school feel like the real world or school-world?

9. Spaces for learning are welcoming and comfortable2012-10-03 13.27.20

  • This is not about bright shiny spaces and colourful furniture, it is about aesthetically pleasing environments where students (and teachers) will want to come to learn
  • Not all spaces (AKA classrooms) or furniture need to look the same


Have you visited a workplace that shows new ways of work?
Have you looked beyond the school furniture catalogue?

10. Creativity and innovation have expressionThe Zone

  • There will always be barriers to innovation, find ways to break or go around them.
  • Make this your culture, give it voice, take risks, embrace failure




What’s blocking innovation in your school?
What’s your next step?


What’s in the ‘secret sauce’ of an innovative school? The SCIL story

The ZoneNorthern Beaches Christian School (NBCS), on the suburban fringe of Sydney has gained a reputation for innovation. There are many components that make this so, including, engaging learning programs, the physical spaces and places around the school, passionate and engaged students, and motivated and inspiring teachers.

For the many hundreds of educational visitors who come to the school each year these things are clearly evident. They visit NBCS hoping to learn from their experience, keen to implement ideas into their own teaching practice in their own school.

TofflerYet, what they are experiencing on any given day is the result of years of dedication to the vision to reinvent ‘school’ accompanied by a dogged determination to grow the capacity of educators with, as Toffler described the it, the ability to “learn, unlearn and relearn”.

In 2005 the principal at NBCS, Stephen Harris, began to think deeply about the impact of technology on the future of school and learning. The journey of innovation started in a couple of key ways. Firstly, he put the building blocks in place to enable online learning, and secondly,  established Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning (SCIL), a ‘place’ where teacher innovation and professional learning could have expression. Each of these weren’t just good ideas, but seen as essential parts of the vision of education for the future.

As the vision and culture of NBCS was embedded and the learning spaces transformed, the school started to attract attention from across Australia and around the world. It started with educators who wanted a tour of the school, then the SCIL team shaped the innovation as professional learning packages for other educators. From 2010, SCIL began to broaden its reach, PD programs for teachers and school leaders, international study tours and executive consultations began to be developed.

Innovative teachers often feel the constraints of those who fear change, they may have great ideas but are regularly told, “No, we don’t do that here.” or “No, the government won’t let us”. The original iteration of SCIL provided a place for innovative educators at NBCS to bypass potential discouraging responses and play with their great ideas.

Professional learning can even be fun!The culture at NBCS gives permission for innovation to flourish. This is accompanied by professional learning that empowers teachers to embrace change. It is one thing to cast a big vision, and another to maintain it. On a weekly basis, all staff at NBCS participate in PD, with content and delivery sourced from the wealth of internal capacity. An important part of growing a great staff is their ability to share with and to equip colleagues. The beginning of each new school year time is set aside for whole staff PD – to cast vision and set priorities for the year.

This experience has had the added benefit of enabling the teachers to lift professionally. When visiting groups spend time talking to teachers, it is fascinating to hear them articulate and re-articulate their approaches to learning, how they use the spaces and engage with students. It is second nature for the teachers to use the language of innovation, as they are surrounded by it on a daily basis.

The secret sauce? When educators come to NBCS they often make the comment, “I thought I was coming to see buildings, and now I know it is so much more.


That “much more” is the seemingly intangible element, how the vision for an innovative school is continually cast by the principal and then lived and breathed across the school. Essential to this, however, is continual professional development that is focussed on current and future learning needs of the educators, addressing the identified priorities. The educators at NBCS have the responsibility to equip a generation of young people who are independent, engaged and passionate about making a difference to their world.

A responsibility they do not take lightly.


Internet of Things: 4 challenges for school leaders in 2014

We live in a world that is fact-paced and technology-driven, the Internet of Things is all around, gathering data, sensing trends and improving services, yet  school can still be like entering your grandmother’s living room. It’s comfortable and predictable, it hasn’t changed much in the last few decades. In 2014 Granny might even have an iPad because she likes to watch catch-up TV, play scrabble and email the grand kiddies.

The comfortable and predictable at school exists:

  • We can manage students in lots of about 30
  • We all have our designated place/desk to work at – student, teacher, principal
  • It’s simpler to just teach discrete subjects
  • The day starts at 9am-ish and finishes at 3.30pm-ish
  • The principal/headteacher knows everything and tells us what to do.
  • Our behaviour management system keeps the students in line
  • We upload websites and Youtube videos to the portal to control the content
  • We have a one-to-one laptop/iPad program
  • The IT team manage our technology

Just like granny’s living room, we know what to expect everyday, every week, every year, whether we like it or not.

Is 2014 your year for change?Internet_of_Things_Infographic
It is time to think differently about technology – we are in the era of the ‘Internet of Things’. Check out the Cisco Infographic.

  • The world is not 1:1 technology, in fact, during  2008 the number of things connected to the internet exceeded the number of people on earth.
  • Technology ‘things’ can mean a myriad of devices – not just laptops, tablets and smartphones
  • Data collection enables more effective use of time and resources
  • Sensors provide analytics and improve health and life outcomes
  • User activity is tracked for improved experiences

This video from IBM explains the Internet of Things

Link to video

Link to video

These ‘things’ collect data and connect meaning, providing the relevant information to improves services, connecting aspects of life, to make human activity more efficient and providing the basis of innovation. New insights and activity can be generated.

Most importantly, we need to know where we fit in. The IBM video explains the DIKW-Pyramid. Data, information and even some knowledge can be gathered by technology, we need people who can make sense of it, bring their wisdom, be ethical and innovate. Ultimately to find solutions to big problems and improve lives.

DIKW Pyramid IBM

Four Challenges

There are new skills and expertise required, to ensure that  students are well-prepared for the present and an unfolding future. So where does that take our learning focus? Some thoughts to ponder:

  1. Is technology viewed narrowly as a subject or a 1:1 device program? Otherwise the scope of the possibilities open to students is limited.
  2. Do your teachers only use devices as an input and output repository for content? The potential enables them to solve problems, be entrepreneurial.
  3. Will school administrators invest in a robust wifi network? Without it you are limiting the possibilities of learning, innovative ideas and expression
  4. Is your IT Team/Department  separated, rather than integrated in making the decisions about technology in your school? If separated they are more likely to confine the breadth of their own knowledge and expertise.

So as you think about the 2014 school year – it’s probably time to move out of granny’s living room and rethink what it means to provide a meaningful education for 2014 and beyond. Where  students are equipped with the skills, values and attributes that will help them make sense of their world and then prepare for the generation to follow them.


Resources: Cisco, IBM

Silence is golden? Perhaps it’s measure of good-old-fashioned teaching. But is it the measure of great learning?

This headline caught my eye: “Australia’s classrooms among world’s noisiest”

As I talk to educators and school leaders about rethinking the way we contextualise education the question of noise regularly rears its head. There is a generation of educators and parents who are under the impression that a good education (teacher-centred) can only occur in an environment of silence. I believe that great learning (student centred) requires noise.

An international study* has found 43 per cent of Australian students reported ”noise and disorder” as factors in their classrooms. One-third said they had to ”wait a long time for the students to quiet down” and 38 per cent said students ”don’t listen to what their teacher has to say”. (SMH: 8 December 2013) *Study not cited.

I believe that these are factors of teacher capacity and school culture, rather than a problem of noise. However, later in the article, the voice of reason:

But Michael Anderson, associate professor in education and social work at the University of Sydney said it was important for teachers to distinguish between productive noise and distracting noise. ”Noise can be productive when it comes out of collaborative learning opportunities that the kids are involved in,” he said.

oldschoolThe idea of working in silence, and by inference, individually, is an industrial-era paradigm of productivity. During my own teaching career, I would relish those moments when I looked around the room to see and hear the buzz of productivity as students explored, you could almost hear the learning happening. I would joke with my colleagues that we would schedule a handwriting lesson for a little bit of structured quiet – no communication, heads down.

Great learning needs connection, conversation and ‘aha’ moments.

As we walk around the open learning spaces at NBCS we ‘see’ learning accompanied by noise and productivity – yet the question from visiting educators is almost always one who asks about noise levels. They tell me about teachers’ headaches and unruly students. We need to ask ourselves, is this fear and trepidation concerning noise a question of teaching or learning?

There are two important points to make:

  • Noise levels should be planned for and managed – From an acoustic management perspective, there are ways to  manage the sound in a room. The beauty of open spaces is that there are less walls for reverberation, yet lack of attention to this and low ceilings can exacerbate the problem. (In this short video I am talking about the importance of acoustic management.)

  • Educators need to become comfortable with noise as a condition for learning – When education was teacher-centric, there would be silence for the words of the oracle to heard and digested. But today, when students are exploring and challenging concepts, when they are developing passion projects noise is necessary

SCIL Building20 years ago I wanted a classroom that buzzed with learning and exploration, but it took time to reach this. As students and teachers take time to adapt to the new culture it can be tempting to give up before this goal is reached.

In the first two years of The Zone at NBCS there was a traffic light noise system, to remind the students when the voices were too loud. As the culture of respectful and productive noise became the norm, the traffic lights were no longer necessary.

Here are my conclusions:

  • Finding the right levels of noise for learning takes time and strategy for the right culture to take hold.
  • Teachers  need to become comfortable with the idea that deep learning happens in a noisy context of many-to-many, not one-to-many
  • Learning space design requires attention to the key factors that will make noise levels positive and productive.


On the road in CPH: The Hub, Maglegardskolan & Orestad Gymnasium #VisionTour13

After much planning our tour group gathered together for dinner last night at a restaurant in downtown Copenhagen (CPH) run by a young Australian guy. It was the first opportunity for us all to meet and start the getting-to-know-you process, as we travel together for the next two weeks.

The Hub CPHThe morning started with a good walk across town to the Hub CPH. There was plenty of time to chat along the way as we joined in the morning commute, trying to remember to stay out of the bike lanes. CPH is a beautiful city. 


The Hub movement – Where change goes to work – is a worldwide community of co-working and event spaces for entrepreneurs and change-makers. Laura, our host, showed us around explaining the use of the different areas and the aims of the Hub.


The Hub encourages innovation, creativity and sustainability. With different spaces designed for different ways of working – open, collaborative, engaged and quiet.

So why did you decide to join us for the Vision Tour? 

Unless you come along on this kind of trip you don’t know what you don’t know.

Our group is comprised of educational leaders – principals, a board chair, school systems leaders and facility planners, from NSW, Qld, SA and ACT – grappling with questions like:

How do we continue to engage students? They start off keen in the early years and then this deteriorates.

Can we help teachers not to revert to the industrial model in new spaces?

What is the resource centre for schools today?

What are the design challenges to incorporate into new schools?

How do we make collaboration the default, not the control model?

Can space lead to better pedagogy?

Can we invest in new ways of teaching and maintain academic standards?

So why did you decide to come?
This was the first framing session and Stephen Harris set the scene for change ahead, asking:

What common language do you need to create the culture you want?

What do you need to do for every student to have an equal user experience at school?

And challenging the group with: What do we really believe about change?

From there we started the educational adventure.

Two schools…


The interesting feature about Maglegard is the grouping of three grades in the one home space – 75 children, with 5 teachers. They start the morning altogether as a community, then use the entire space as a learning area. The ‘classroom’ spaces are small – instruction is limited to around 15 minutes, then
each child goes to a shared work area. Every student has their own plan, in their own portfolio.

This was my second visit to this school and I enjoyed the openness and friendliness of the students as they shared their work with me. Also, the communal area of the space, with the kitchen the sofas and the fish tank made it feel like home.

Orestad GymnasiumIMG_2535

Architecturally, Orestad Gymnasium is impressive. This school is now five years old and is renowned for its outstanding design. A central spiral staircase forms the heart of the vertically designed senior high school.

Everyone can see everyone.

It is located in the growing IT district of Orestad, full of interesting and quirky
Orestad Gymnasium
buildings. The senior high school is
preparation ground for students who seek university education.

We were hosted by two students, Christoffer and Nikita. Their honest and candid reflections were helpful. The school is open and spaces are bookable as needed. There are closed off classrooms where learning lectures are held, but these students prefer the collaborative approaches. Only 20% of their learning time is in lecture format.

And in between… Lunch at a most amazing building.

We stopped for lunch in the Orestad precinct at a uniquely designed housing and 8 Housebusiness development – 8 House.

The bowtie-shaped 61,000 sqm mixed-use building of three different types of residential housing and 10,000 sqm of retail and offices comprises Denmark’s largest private development ever undertaken…the 8 House stacks all ingredients of a lively urban neighbourhood into horizontal layers of typologies connected by a continuous promenade and cycling path up to the 10th floor creating a three-dimensional urban neighbourhood where suburban life merges with the energy of a city, where business and housing co-exist. 

8 House

8 House cafe


The culture of innovation is a necessity for change: Are you a culture crusher or culture creator?


As I look at this little guy at school in Rwanda I am reminded how much we need a culture of innovation – one that thinks differently about today’s (and yesterday’s) normality. We must bring solutions necessary to change lives that will improve the future. Solutions for today’s big problems exist, we have the capacity to make a difference, but wherever we work or serve. To do thiswe need to creat a culture of innovation.

‘Culture’ comes from a farming context, to ‘cultivate’ the soil, ‘cultivate’ to provide food for people and income for the farmer. Crops won’t grow on their own, they need to be surrounded by the activity and attitude that will make them grow and produce crops. Along with the factors to produce a bumper crop, there are also factors that will crush it – especially neglecting the key factors of cultivation.

In the same way a culture of innovation is a cultivated context and atmosphere. It can be created or crushed. By who? By you! …and me. A culture of innovation is everybody’s responsibility to ‘cultivate’, but it is the leader’s responsibility to establish, model and shape the culture.

So here is a pop-quiz: Are you an innovation culture crusher or an innovator culture creator?

Which statement do you relate to?

1. “I can’t innovate because I don’t have…” Or “I can innovate, even if I don’t have…”
2. “Failure is not an option” Or “Failure is a necessity”
3. “I’d like to, but…” Or “I have to, or else…”
4. “But the rule says…” Or “Break the rules”

Well, you can tell (I hope) that the right answer is the second statement. Innovation needs the right conditions:

Limitations breed innovation – big problems have limitations in funds, time, environmental factors and skills requires. Don’t complain about them, working within limitations is essential for innovation.

Failure is the pathway to the best ideas – it means we review, reflect and refine ideas. They just get better, the more we fail. Embrace it, don’t fear it.

Compelled to make a difference, to improve lives - if we are motivated by meeting a real need that will impove lives or even saves lives, then there is a sense of urgency.

Think differently – Rules may be real rules that are enforced or social mores that we unconsciously abide by.

What does this mean for the little guy in the photo?

Limitations: funds, resources and the physical environment are limitations to work within, but ideas aren’t.

Failure: some ideas may not work, but some eventually will be. Time is essential for the development of the best solutions.

Compelled: What is the future opportunity for this boy, his friends and his generation if we don’t innovate? The cost is too great.

Think differently: with more than 50% of the population of Rwanda under the age of 18 and significant rates of youth unemployment, the current approach isn’t working.

Choose to be an innovation culture creator.


How can schools be fit for purpose? High Tech High – passion, creativity, aesthetics #PBL

SMH 22 May 2013It’s one thing to say tech geniuses don’t need degrees. After all, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of college. But now we’ve got David Karp, who doesn’t even have a high school diploma. Karp, 26, founded Tumblr, the online blogging forum, and sold it to Yahoo for $US1.1 billion. (full article)

While not every student is a Bill, Steve, Mark or even a David, the message in the media, since the Yahoo! deal with Tumblr has been that the cream of entrepreneurs in the 21stC made their own way. Formal education constrained them and their intellect and creativity drove them.

Karp’s mother gave him the option of home-schooling when he was 14, after he completed his freshman year at the Bronx High School of Science, an elite New York City public school that only admits students who score well on a difficult entrance exam. Karp took Japanese classes and had a math tutor while continuing with an internship at an animation production company, but by age 16, he was working for a website and was on his way to become a tech entrepreneur. He never did get his diploma. Karp’s mother told the AP that she let him leave school because she realised “he needed the time in the day in order to create”(emphasis mine)

These were and are unique young people, and while this is not a model of learning for all, we can learn from their experiences. This is a quote from a mother who allowed her son to ‘drop out’ of 11th grade:

“I could see how much of the work he was doing at school wasn’t relevant to what he wanted to learn… He always wanted to learn more than what the schools wanted to teach him. At times it was very frustrating. I was fortunate to find people that were able to teach him more, but he has gone beyond what high school could ever give him.” (emphasis mine)

He wanted to learn… learn more…gone beyond

School wasn’t relevant… schools wanted to teach

Who was owning the learning?

I have just returned from a study tour to North America along with some colleagues from SCIL. The last couple of days of the tour was spent at HTH in Point Loma and Chula Vista. Around us were examples of deep thinking, rigour, visible learning, high quality relationships, freedom and trust. These were exemplified on the walls and in the amazing students who hosted us.

Green roof dog house project“How can you learn by sitting at a desk all day?”

This was the answer our host, Dominique, gave when we asked about the comparison between traditional learning and project-based-learning that occurs at HTH. Dominique, is in her final weeks of school at Chula Vista. She explained some of the challenging and engaging projects that shaped her learning.

I asked Dominique if she will take a year off before starting college and her answer was definite:

“No, getting straight back into it” (it = learning)

There was no sense that she needed a break from studying, because her school experience was relevant, engaging and student driven. 99% of students at HTH gain college entry and in the fall Dominique will commence her college (university) education, studying pharmacology at University of San Diego.


We asked “Do you have homework?” of the student hosts at HTH Point Loma.


“What do you do in the evening”

“I work on my project.” (It’s not homework)

The scaffolding for each of the projects is presented as the content, skills and learning required for completion, guided and led by the teachers, but the learning is owned by the students. The compelling questions to be solved are real and engaging, so the students are immersed in their activity.  At one school, the class was preparing their project about coral reefs for presentation at the local Marine Centre on the weekend – they had a real audience, beyond the school.

What were some of my take-aways from the last few weeks?

  • Kids want to learn – given the right conditions

  • Student-led/driven learning opportunities bring meaning and purpose

  • Engaging projects mix up the disciplines – break down silos
  • Educators must know their students and appeal to their interest, creativity and intellect

  • If we only pitch content at the ‘so-called’ middle we dampen spark and engagement

  • Present quality work in aesthetically pleasing ways

  • Great things can happen when we loosen constraints and trust the educators

  • School today doesn’t need to look like school of the past

  • Be real with kids – loving, showing empathy, but telling it like it is

  • Laughing, fun, connection and silliness as a community matter

  • We must help parents to embrace change

Homeschooling was once the domain of parents seeking to reinforce a particular faith, ethos or philosophy that they felt school would contradict. But more and more it is becoming the education of choice for young people whose gift, skill, interest, intellect and passion is not being served by conventional school.

So why not make school fit for purpose?

Finland “only country…students leave…innovation ready” a big call. Some thoughts from my own experiences

“…it is the only country where students leave high schools “innovation ready”

I have visited schools in Finland on numerous occasions now. I have found a hardworking nation – the community, its students and teachers – with a commitment to attaining high educational outcomes. Finland is definitely a nation the ‘punches above its weight’. But, with respect to my own relatives and professional friends, I have not found an education system that is particularly innovative, as I observed the day-to-day life of school.

So when I read the opinion piece by Thomas Friedman that is currently published in the newspapers in the world’s major cities, I am puzzled. I have incredible respect for Thomas Friedman and Tony Wagner. The premise of the piece is excellent:

More school leavers are going to have to invent a job rather than find one. Schools must equip them for the challenge.

Friedman picks Wagner’s brains on what needs to happen:

The goal of education today should not be to make every child “college ready” but “innovation ready” – ready to add value to whatever they do.

Every young person will continue to need basic knowledge, of course, but they will need skills and motivation even more… Young people who are intrinsically motivated – curious, persistent and willing to take risks will learn new knowledge and skills continuously.

I couldn’t agree more. The myth of the university/college degree as a ticket to the future career is now dispelled, as many young people are highly qualified, yet under-employed. We need to do all we can to teach, equip and engage them in order to follow passions and dreams and find innovative solutions to world problems. The way we repackage learning is crucial to that end.

Then Friedman asks: Who is doing it right?

Finland is one of the most innovative economies in the world and it is the only country where students leave high schools “innovation ready”.

This big statement is based on the following information:

They learn concepts and creativity more than facts, and have choice of many electives – with a shorter school day, little homework and almost no testing.

That is the case, as well as teacher autonomy and community respect, local school decision-making, high level of competitiveness to enter the profession and high PISA results. But do these elements actually translate into students leaving high school “innovation ready”? I have not observed repackaged learning.

Do high results in PISA testing equate to “innovation ready” students?

In my visits to ordinary, everyday school I observed little that showed me innovative methods and practices. The wifi test on my iphone found no wireless networks in the schools. Teaching was textbook and teacher-talk dependent. Technology was predominantly desktop computers and the only school I saw with ipads was an automotive vocational college, with the most innovative educators of all that I saw.

Observing secondary classes, students were taught in traditional methods by teachers, those ways that present knowledge to pass tests. At the end of the senior years students spend a huge amount of time cramming for 6 hour exams.

I also went to an educators conference, run by the OECD and universities, enduring long lectures and very dull and indiscernable powerpoints. These people were responsible for educating the future teachers.

Sometimes I wonder, what will happen when Finland is no longer top of the PISA tree. I think the national education marketers, who have done an outstanding job in promoting the qualities of the Finnish education system will need to move to Shanghai or Singapore.


There’s no *place* like *home* – why comfort and community matter when we work, learn, play & create

This post is my presentation at the Education Future Forum, 15 March 2013


There is no sense of ‘place’ that is greater than ‘home’.

Hugh Mackay, in What makes us tick? Ten desires that drive us  says

‘My place’ is partly an anchor, partly a refuge, partly a stable point in a world that seems kaleidoscopic in the complexity of shifting patterns…we need to know where we belong; we need to feel that some physical place stands as a symbol of our uniqueness and acceptance.

The places where we spend most time are home and work. The picture of the employee in isolation is changing, as we prefer to work in community with others. Yahoo recently banned working from how, because as CEO Melissa Mayer stated, “we are one Yahoo” and community and connection is essential to culture change.

The traditional office  isn’t  particularly inspiring either. People often like to just hang out, work in proximity with other like-minded people. This has led to  a happy medium between home and work.

Sometimes curing office doldrums is simply about a temporary change of scenery, whether that’s in a coffee shop, a co-working space or even a park bench. (Link)

Over the last couple of decades there has been a shift in the way people work and learn, breaking down barriers, enabling choice and recognising that ownership of time space and very work itself is a huge motivating factor. The term ‘third place’  was coined by Ray Oldenburg an urban sociologist. In his book The Great Good Place he writes about the importance of informal public gathering spaces. “Third places” are essential to community vitality.

The $8bn Green Square project in inner Sydney is an urban development will eventually be the home for more than 40,000 people by 2030.  A young architectural team came up with the winning plan for the library at Green Square:

Artist impression 1

Artist impression 2

The below-ground vision will include garden storytelling, rolling hills and a sunken garden for reading and relaxing. It features an amphitheatre, water play area and music rooms where residents can practise on their instruments without disturbing neighbours.

Did anyone mention books?

Today, the library is a third place where people come to meet, read, work and belong. The word ‘library’ was once only synonymous with the word ‘book’. Now it is a ‘place’. The architects described this library as the ‘community living room’, a third place where people can be comfortable and productive at the same time. The library that feels like home.

The Hub “Where change goes to work”  is a non-profit communal movement across the globe that is recreating the work environment.

The Hub

HUBs are uniquely designed spaces that provide a creative environment as well as a professional infrastructure to work, meet, learn and connect. Individuals rent spaces to work with other  entrepreneurs or project space with their team. The spaces are comfortable, with a variety of furnishings, a cafe and a kitchen.

We believe physical spaces are key to our impact  – for work, collaboration, inspiration, community, vibrant spaces, tools, connection, innovation. Why work from home when you can co-locate with other like-minded people at The Hub?


Another example of the third space is The Design Factory at Aalto University in Helsinki. This is a cross-disciplinary project space furnished in the same way as the hub, catering for different ways of working and placing shipping containers to create a variety of working areas – spaces within spaces.


Importantly, the kitchen provides a focal point and an opportunity for “planned coincidences”. It houses the only coffee machine in the building, so people must come to the kitchen to connect.

Design Factory

So what happens when school feels like home?

For generations, educationally, we’ve been polishing the chrome on the Holden Kingswood (or Edsel or Cortina), without seeing the need to reinvent in the hybrid-vehicle era. For generations the physical place of school has remained the same, when all around people are working and learning in markedly different ways. Think about the hospital/medical services, the way we communicate, how we access music and purchase goods – yet there is a constancy to the way schools look – for decades.


The physical environment does matter. This was identified by a pilot study by the University of Salford and architects, Nightingale Associates. This study  found that the classroom environment can affect a child’s academic progress over a year by as much as 25%.

 Slide26  GM23

Schools we have visited in Scandinavia, and in particular Denmark and Sweden,  the design definitely feels like home. There are communal living rooms with soft furnishings and kitchens within the learning space, especially for primary and middle years.

There are, of course, other spaces for instructional sessions, but there were no rigid rows, but coworking tables. These spaces are generally kept small, because they aren’t spaces to stay in all day.


I witnessed a ‘school feels like home’ moment last year.  

The teacher brought the young boy over to the kitchen, took a plate, put some crackers with cheese together for him and then sat at the ‘kitchen table’ to work with him on his maths problems.


Kunskapsskolan is a system of more than 30 free schools across Sweden. The schools have a specific replicable design that is evident at each site.



A new Kunskapsskolan school is not built on fresh greenfield site, but a disused factory, warehouse, shop or hospital that can accommodate the design and way of working – one characterised by light, visibility and flexibility.


Every space is a learning space.

The starting point for design is to think of the entire space available as a potential learning area, not defaulting to “dividing space into static classrooms with connecting corridors”

Most areas have multiple functions …the cafeteria doubles up as a space for collaboration.

Visitors to Kunskapsskolan often remark that our schools look more like the site of a modern, creative knowledge industry, rather than a traditional school.

How do we make school feel like home? 


Test every assumption about school – just because we have always have classrooms, desks, chairs and a teacher at the front, it doesn’t mean they are the necessary elements.

Identify what is actually necessary – begin with the end in mind.

Observe the times – how do your students connect, learn and communicate?

Ditch those things that don’t matter any more – how much of what we do is due to what has always been done?

Focus on relationships – at all levels, and at every nexus.

…And be brave.



Kicking off the new school year. Never “same old, same old” here at Northern Beaches Christian School

In Australia the end of January is the start of the new academic year. Within a few days of getting back into it I usually gaze out the window, trying to recall the vacation and thinking to myself that perhaps it was just a dream?

(No, I really did have Christmas in Paris with my family)

Like many schools, Northern Beaches Christian School started the new year with a couple of days for professional learning activities with the staff. I have been the Director of Development at SCIL* for a few years and for the staff, each start to the new school year is always different from the previous year. Professional learning experiences are shaped around the key elements of the vision, reflecting the priorities of the year ahead.

This year, the priorities are GLO – Growth, Leadership, Opportunities. When the principal, Stephen Harris starts each year he outlines the priorities that will be the focus of the year, each of these areas are the further advancement to the vision:

Exceed Expectations.

Stephen expressed this further as he articulated the SCIL Learning Model

At its simplest form the SCIL Learning Model is essentially about learning and opportunity. On the one hand, there is a recurrent focus on developing a strong culture of self-directed learning, with an emphasis on critical and applied deep thinking. Project-based learning supports this approach well. On the other hand, we wish all students to recognise, have access to and take up opportunities that will grow them as pro-active compassionate leaders with integrity and moral strength, as they journey through their learning.

Central to the priorities is embedding project-based learning as a consistent element across the learning culture of the school, in every faculty, at each grade level.

1Like many schools, the first few days before the students return provide a valuable opportunity for professional learning and growth. This year it started with a session by an external facilitator, outlining the Apple model of challenge-based learning.

After some initial input and guidance, teaching teams set about developing their own interest projects that were then shared with their peers at the conclusion of the day. Embedded into the project was the use of an app or other element that may have been new to them.

The following day was set aside for the teams to critically analyse and develop how PBL can become a normal part of the teaching and learning at a faculty level.

In previous years teams have embarked on an ‘amazing race’ stye adventure around the city, imagining spaces for learning in all sorts of non-school contexts, or working on Bloom/Gardner’s matrix with like-minded peers to create a project that would improve a learning space within the school.

Do you see a pattern here with the professional learning?

  • Directly linked to the school’s priorities.
  • Immerses the teachers in the learning environment that we want for the students.
  • Teachers need work in teams.
  • ‘Facilitator talk’ is capped to the necessary 
  • Opportunity to pursue a passion or interest area
  • Challenge of using new technology as part of the project
  • Learn new skills necessary to complete the project

The professional learning opportunities gives the teacher the first hand learning experiences that we seek for our students.

If we want to change the way teachers teach, we need to change the way teachers learn.

Happy 2013!


*SCIL is the innovation and professional services focus within Northern Beaches Christian School. The SCIL Learning Model is currently being developed as a resource and will be available this year.