“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” (Churchill) Rethinking spaces to learn & work

Churchill was well-known for his classic quotes at a time of crisis:

“We shall fight them on the beaches”

“Never Give In”

His humorous retorts:

Lady Astor: “If I were married to you, I’d put poison in your coffee.”

Churchill: “If I were married to you, I’d drink it.”

On the rebuilding of the House of Commons after the war he said:

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

The traditional school building was originally shaped to meet the employment expectations of the first half of the 20st century. These buildings still seem to shape schools today, despite changes in the way we work.

So from time to time we must look up, look around and decide if this ‘shape’ still fits us and fulfils our purpose. The traditional construct of the school has shaped how we teach. Even when there is the opportunity to build a new school, the notional ‘shape of our buildings’, continues to define the activity that takes place within a school. We replicate the old shape.

Many workplaces, especially those with the means to resource best practice models, are providing places and opportunities for collaboration and connection. School education needs respond to this prevailing trend. Both at school and work, traditional spaces, for working and learning are the enemy of collaboration – encouraging people keep to themselves.

Collaborative workplaces are characterised by openness, deliberately providing opportunities for sharing information and generating ideas, in a context where staff feel engaged, included and motivated. In designing these spaces the open floor area is an expanse to be designed with traffic flow systems considered. There are spaces developed for different working styles and activities along with colour and design to create individuality and character.

A number of corporate workplaces are now designing their spaces their new spaces around the concept of ‘Activity Based Work’ (ABW). Emerging from the corporate sector in the Netherlands, it is an approach to work that has increased productivity and collaboration:

  • We work in parallel
  • We do things collaboratively
  • We can work anywhere

ABW environments are becoming ‘device agnostic’ and encourage and enable the traditional departmental silos to talk to each other. Staff are completely mobile, offices in use 24/7, there are no assigned spaces and personal belongings are kept in lockers. Collaboration and interactivity has been found to increase with ABW.

The tri-foci of ABW is:

  • human resources
  • technology
  • physical space

It is no different for schools. Tri-foci of reshaping schools

1. Human resources (staff and students):

  • How do we support staff to work in new ways?
  • When building new spaces, what work is undertaken prior to occupancy to help change mindsets?
  • How does the activity of learning need to change?

2. Technology:

  • Who is making technology decisions in your school?
  • Does the infrastructure enable movement, flexibility and productivity?
  • Is ICT seamlessly and almost invisible, or is it still about ‘whistles and bells’?

3. Physical space

  • What do the learning spaces say about your culture and values?
  • Are there walls and structures that can be eliminated?
  • Does the furniture and the spaces cater for different working styles and activities, for collaboration and for physically appealing environment?

We need a commitment to continually shape and reshape spaces for working and learning. In our work at  SCIL, we are regularly contacted by architects who want to inspire educators to change, or educators who want their architects to think differently about what a school looks like today.


Inspiration for this post came from:
Indesign: The future of the Workplace
Issue 50. 2012

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