(Pedagogy + Place) & (Rhetoric + Reality) in learning space design: A decade of dialogue

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 10.38.46 am“How to bring our schools out of the 20th Century” was the title of an article in TIME in December 2006. It featured a more recent take on the Rip Van Winkle fairy tale. After 100 years of slumber, Rip wakes in the first decade of the 21st century. As he walks the streets, observing the citizens of the day utilising technology he is bewildered. When Rip walks into a schoolroom, there is familiarity, “This is a school”,  he declares. “We used to have those back in 1906, only now the blackboards are green.”’ 

In this scenario it is the physical environment of the school that illustrates the lack of progress in a century of unprecedented social, cultural and technological change. What did Rip Van Winkle see as he walked into the schoolroom? A rectangular room, students seated desks in rows facing the front with a blackboard and the teacher positioned nearby?  The article went on to say,

“Kids spend much of their day as their great grandparents once did: sitting in rows, listening to the teacher lecture, scribbling notes by hand, reading from textbooks that are out of date by the time they are printed”.

In the decade since the article was published, Rip may still have had the same experience, but the ‘blackboards’ are probably white or ‘illuminated.’ 

Earlier this year an  Australian Financial Review headline proclaimed, “Australia’s school system is stuck in the industrial era and is not teaching students how to deal with complex environments and the multiple careers they will experience in the 21st century”. Link to article (Photo below credited to AFR article)


Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 2.32.03 pm.png

The Mitchell Institute report Preparing young people for the future of work outlined significant challenges, and goes on to question whether schools are “adequately preparing young people for the future”. The report argues that, “Growth is seen in the ‘non-routine’ industries, those requiring innovation, creativity, problem solving and to changing circumstances”. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD stated, “The dilemma for educators is that routine cognitive skills, the skills that are easiest to teach and easiest to test, are also the skills that are easiest to digitise, automate, and outsource.”

2008 Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young Australians states that this generation need to be successful learners;  confident and creative individuals; active and informed citizens” and commits the Australian and State governments to work with schools to strengthen “capabilities that underpin flexible and analytical thinking, a capacity to work with others and an ability to move across subject disciplines to develop new expertise” (emphasis added). 

Why does the physical learning environment matter?

If the priority of school education in the second decade of the 21st century is to provide the conditions for ‘successful learners’ to gain the skills and attributes listed, then this requires consideration of the design of the learning environment to support and enable these desired outcomes to occur. 

Maintaining classrooms that would be familiar to Rip van Winkle will continue to reinforce 20th Century practices of education.  Today, places for learning must support teaching and learning activities that shift the focus from teacher-centred to learner-centred.

“The traditional classroom is a product of a teacher-centred pedagogy, framing a hierarchical relationship between teacher and students whilst closing out other activities and distractions. . . It has long been clear that student-centred pedagogies are seriously constrained by traditional classrooms.” (Dovey & Fisher, 2015).

Dovey and Fisher (2014) analysed 59 middle school plans, “covering a broad range of attempts to engage with new pedagogies through innovative architecture”. They identified five typologies for learning environments,  from the traditional classroom to “dedicated commons”. They found that from these school buildings, constructed in the preceding decade, almost half remain “largely traditional in spatial structures”.

There is seemingly, an incongruence between what we say we want for our students, and the learning environments that are ultimately provided. In 2006 this article in TIME was a catalyst that helped me to readjust my thinking about future-focused learning and how the design of schools plays a part in this. I despair, however, that after a decade we are still engaged in the same debate. Interestingly, the community, parents and government want so-called ’21st Century skills’, yet there seems to be fear in messing with the formula for designing the place for these skills to fully develop.



Australian Financial Review,  Australian schools are stuck in the industrial era, says Mitchell Institute report March 26, 2017

Claudia Wallis and Sonja Steptoe How to bring our schools out of the 20th Century TIME, December 18, 2006

Dovey & Fisher (2014) Designing for adaptation: the school as socio-spatial assemblage, The Journal of Architecture, 19:1, 43-63

Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians

Schleicher, A (2015). Educating for the 21st Century.

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