Designing School for the Long Haul

[This post is an accompaniment my presentation at a recent conference]

If you’ve heard me speak in the last couple of years, you may recall the story of a school in Sweden that I visited with the architect and consulting team prior to the opening. This 0-15 years school was in a locality that was not without challenges. The local municipality sought out an architect with a reputation for future-focused design. On that initial visit we saw elements recognisable in many future-focused schools – gathering stairs, open-light-filled learning spaces and connected areas wrapping around a centralised atrium, the community heart.

About 18 months later, I returned with a group as part of a study tour I was leading. The school opened a year or so earlier. A very different scene confronted me. Where there was once light and openness, the spaces were closed off. The potential for connectedness, gave way to the desire for separateness. My over-riding thought was that this school had been designed with a clear intention about learning, so why hadn’t it been realised?

Yes, ‘Before’ and ‘After’ are the right way around.
© Anne Knock

How are your people progressing alongside your building progress?

I regularly work with school leadership teams engaged in developing new infrastructure. The timeframe of the project and the detailed decision-making regarding the building, seems to take all the precious time available. As a result the people-factor can take a back seat. Often the first time teachers see the new space is a ‘reveal’ at completion. This provides insufficient processing time on how the new space, the design and furniture might impact their teaching practice.

‘To Don’t’ List #1
No ‘Ta-Da’ Reveal!

Recently, I wrote a post that used the building process as a metaphor for the people-change.

How early do you need to start the human transformation process?

  1. As the cement is poured in the foundations – establish the foundational thinking about the ‘Why’.
  2. As the Walls go up – Strengthen and support staff for growth and change
  3. As the roof goes on – Articulate the over-arching pedagogy
  4. Once the project is near completion on the outside – start looking inside: How will you engage the hearts and minds of the community?

To Don’t List #2
Don’t think it will ever be neatly tied with a bow and completed?

A school that is really making a difference in rethinking student experience is St Luke’s Catholic College Marsden Park in south western Sydney. The Principal Leader, Greg Miller wrote in his blog (

I am constantly challenged and supported to collaboratively work with leaders, teachers, students and parents to co-design and establish a ‘new normal’ for preschool to post school learning.

Two words – ‘constantly’ and ‘co-created’ – tell the story. As the leader, Greg recognises that the role of leading and supporting change is never-ending. Growing change, toward what Greg calls ‘the new normal,’ is considered a collaborative and co-created endeavour.

St Lukes Marsden Park
Photo: Anne Knock

Don’t Forget ‘How’ – designing the ecosystem

I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why’ movement. Clarity on purpose is essential as the foundation. However, we often skip to the ‘What’, the bright and shiny new thing, without attending to the ‘How’. It’s the ‘How’ that sustains the design for the long haul.  

The student experience and teacher pedagogy can be supported be the ecosystem. In ‘designerly’ terms, each of these can be considered with a ‘how might we’ question:

  1. Teaching teams: How might we equip teachers to transform as professionals, from operating as separate technicians delivering curriculum, to becoming a collaborative design team?
  2. Climate of inclusivity and diversity: How might we create a learning community to ensure that each member is valued and belongs?
  3. Space and affordances: How might we strategically design and set up the learning environment that serves our strategic intent for learning?
  4. Systems thinking: How might we alleviate stress, confusion and the desire to retreat, by applying systems thinking in the learning environment?

(Read more here in an earlier post)

And finally, here is my talk (and this post) visually represented:

Download your own copy here

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