Authentic student agency + school design

It can be a lonely life, writing a PhD thesis. It involves ready some really interesting papers, the kind of thing you would share with a colleague. And as educators, we are sharers, aren’t we, so I’m sharing.

A research study I read this week painted a very interesting picture of engaging students in the design of the new school, and the benefits of doing so
“School design: opportunities through collaboration”
Parnell, R., Cave, V. & Torrington, J. (2008), CoDesign 4/4 December 2008, p.211-224

a tendency to focus on the product – the finished school – at the expense of process means that opportunities are not always being recognised or exploited

Parnell, Cave & Torrington (2008) p.213

We talk about the value of agency for students and teachers, that their voice is heard. An empathic culture provides avenues to gain deeper insight into their lived experiences. But how much is seeking genuine insight and how much is mere lip service. In this piece, I’m going to focus on the opportunities afforded by student voice from this paper.

Short version

Opportunities afforded by engaging students in the design process:

  • Truly authentic learning
  • More than a tick-box exercise

Success factors:

  • A school culture that encourages openness and collaboration
  • The right mix in the room
  • Appreciating what they bring
  • A skilled facilitator

Longer version

When it comes to consulting on school building/development programs, I advocate for student voice as part of the process.
Who knows the site like they do?
Who knows the ins and out, what’s working, what’s not?
However, in the resource allocation and expediency of the timeline, this can get lost.

What the researchers discovered about engaging students in the design consultation…

Creative development and learning – “mutual creative inspiration”
Truly authentic learning – Engaging students in consulting on a research project provides an opportunity to see change, where ideas develop. You might gain an insight into a student you’ve never seen before.

  • The students might gain insight, ‘I want to study architecture!’
  • Development of spatial skills
  • Meaningful linkages to the curriculum

Having a voice – “to be heard and taken seriously”
More than a tick-box exercise – Students know what is working in a school, how to get around and what to avoid. When student voice mattered, there were positive impacts on school life.

  • Students insight was resected
  • Develop a sense of ownership – ‘I chose that colour’
  • Taking responsibility – reduction in vandalism
  • Teachers saw students’ capacity in a new light

How do we do this?

It’s about creating the right tone for the workshop. The researchers identified several factors for the success of the consultation process.

  1. Who’s in the room? Ensuring the right mix of experience
  2. Does your school culture encourage openness and collaboration?
    (or are people to timid to say what they really think)
  3. What do they bring? Taking time to understand their knowledge and skills
  4. How do we allow the conversation to flow? Making sure it is meaningful and open (minimising unhelpful tangents)

As a facilitator, I see the benefit of providing a fresh pair of eyes in the process. When I have worked with student groups, they see me as relatively neutral. As a teacher by background, I know kids, I also notice who’s dominant in the discussion and who do we need to hear from (usually the quiet ones have the ‘gold’).

If we truly believe in ‘student agency’ what an amazing opportunity to hear from your students and in so doing provide authentic learning. In the pressure of budgets and deadlines this can fall away, but if it matters then include it as a priority.

Do you have stories of student engagement in building design consultation?

Love to hear them. The form below goes straight to my inbox


My PhD Journey: Back in the saddle

This is a big year for me. I have returned to my PhD and I’m carving out considerable time to get this thing done. The back story… In the second half of 2018 some significant family issues came out of the blue. While everyone was well, my siblings and I were faced with a matter we just didn’t see coming. It is amazing how these things become so all-encompassing, as you try and navigate your way through the quagmire.

That was coupled with the end of the second year of my PhD at the University of Melbourne. It’s probably a similar story, but I was lost. Self-doubt, my capacity to get this thing done and a personal sense of not understanding the ‘why’ was crippling me

Those who I spoke to around that time probably remember the shopping list of excuses that I gave to justify the way I was feeling. Work-wise, at the end of 2017 I decided to go-independent, complete the PhD and present myself to the world. Anyone who has done this can tell you it’s hard, how do you go from the security of a salary, to making your way in the world (I’m still learning).

Nevertheless, this perfect storm was brewing in my life. And with some wise council, I decided to take a year out. That was the best decision I made. I could concentrate on growing myself as a ‘consultant’. At the beginning of the 12 months, however, I had convinced myself I couldn’t go back to the PhD.

Do I throw away my student card?

Should I ditch all the journal articles and clean up my computer?

Should I just tell the university, ‘it’s over’?

Thankfully, I didn’t do any of those things, wisdom prevailed. 

As I worked with clients over the year, setting up new schools, helping teachers integrate space into thinking, working with architects on school projects, I began to see ‘the need’. About seven months into the year there was another intersection of events that changed my thinking – a journal article, the challenges facing a couple of principals I was working with and a seeming ‘bolt out of the blue’. Within a 24 hour period, I had decided to return to my study. Just like that.

So much of this is about knowing where you fit in the scheme of things, what’s your unique contribution to the world. I’m finding mine. To simplify, I love the ‘how’. Big vision is one thing (the why), innovative learning spaces (the what) are a result, but how do we create a path for people to take a journey. It  might challenge their thinking, it might shift their long-held practices, but ultimately the goal is to achieve better outcomes, experiences and opportunities for kids. 

It was through this lens that I took a fresh look at my PhD. I didn’t have much of a summer break, as I was knee-deep in looking afresh at my research data. Bringing my new mindset to solve important problems.

I’m not saying that doubts and insecurities don’t raise their ugly heads, but I am developing strategies to deal with things. I am working through a book “Your PhD Coach: How to get the experience you want” by Gill and Medd (2013). Early on they talk about our ‘gremlins’ 

“That voice in our heads, that internal narrator, the inner critic, which interrupts what we are doing. . . always throwing rocks before you.

So, name them, shame them and send them away.

There will always be challenges, obstacles and self-doubt, but finding my ‘why’ and having strategies to deal with self-doubt is a good place to start. 

Just keeping it real.


The empathic learning environment: Sit where they sit

We often say that empathy is like walking in another’s shoes or seeing the world through their eyes. But what about sitting in their seat?

Empathy is considering another’s perspective on a situation. We can view this from an emotional or cognitive perspective, but what if we thought about it from a physical space paradigm? I walked into a meeting with a couple of architects at their city offices this week. It was our second catch up about the project we are working on. As we sat, one said, “We are all sitting in the same spot”. It’s true, as humans we just seem to gravitate to sit in the same place, unless we consciously choose not to.

Scrolling through my Instagram stories, inspiring educator Matt @imanewteacher shared this pic. I thought about how simple, yet powerful it is. Whether a primary teacher, where you remain in the same space, or a secondary teacher who moves around:

What do your students see and experience in your classes? 

What is their physical perspective?

In Australia, and other parts of the Southern Hemisphere thousands of teachers are gearing up for the school year. Many are thinking about the learning space, the furniture configurations and even how students will move. Do you actually sit in the seats and look, listen and consider the perspective?

Sit in that seat, and that stool, and that sofa…

In a moment of quiet and calm, let’s face it, not so much of that once school starts, sit in their seats, see the space from their perspective. This is not just about ‘can they see the screen/whiteboard?’ but more about ‘Why do they choose to sit here?’

What can you see?

What’s the view from the window?

How many people are nearby?

Take time from the functionality perspective of classroom/learning space layout, to seeing from an empathic perspective. Imagining what a student might be learning, seeing, thinking and doing from that particular place.

Empathy is as much about sitting in their seat, or standing at their stand up desk, or lounging on the sofa, as it is about the emotional and cognitive perspective. 

Take a moment, while you can.


A threshold moment: Stepping into the 2020s purposefully

A threshold moment presents an opportunity to rethink, refresh and renew. At this time of the year we are encouraged to proclaim our new year’s resolutions. Get fit, lose weight. But the ‘stickiness’ of our proclamation is dependent on how deep we go in thinking about our future. 

Is there a deeper purpose connected to get fit, lose weight that might actually drive us to get on with it? The critical junctures might be:

  • Do I exercise this morning?
  • Will I have that extra glass of wine?
  • But I love big, fat hot chips! 

But what if get fit, lose weight was more deeply connected to purpose? 

An opportunity to reframe the next 10 years

To be honest, we (significant other and myself) have not been as deliberate about this in the past. We want to make this decade count. If we only jot down a few ideas at 11pm on 31 December, they are not likely to resonate deeply and change thinking and behaviour.

Our process: Stepping into the 2020s purposefully

For the past week, we have been working through a process, starting broad, then narrowing our focus. 

1. Our guiding concept – #newwinenewwineskins
Some people embrace a word for the year, I prefer a guiding concept.

This comes from the teaching of Jesus, a metaphor for change – new wine needs new wineskins. If the winemaker puts new wine into an old wineskin, there is no potential to expand as the wine matures – “the new wine is always poured into a new wineskin so that both are preserved”. Our pastor encouraged us with these words. She saw potential we didn’t necessarily see in ourselves.

Who’s your person?

2. Our ‘gift’, another’s ‘need’
What do we bring that is uniquely our gift to humanity? How can this help others?

We have decided to keep our eyes open and our ears listening. Then to be ‘open-handed’, look to the interests of others. Our gift is our skill, our expertise, our time or our encouragement. 

3. Looking back over 2010 – 2019

Before we look forward, we need to look back. What have been the defining moments of the last decade?

This was both a joyous and painful exercise. Becoming grandparents was THE most joyous. There were many things to celebrate. Then we considered the consequences of decisions we had made that didn’t turn out as we hoped. We wanted to be authentic.

4. Leaving behind the old wineskin – defining the new ones

After looking back we asked the question: What are the old wineskins (habits of thought and behaviour) we will leave behind?

Looking forward: What will be the habits of thought and behaviour we will take with us?

From the looking back exercise, we identified four old ‘wineskins’ that we have chosen not to take forward and redefined each of these for the new decade. This is now our compass.

5. Imagining 2020 – 2030 decade: It’s going to be amazing

In ten years time, as we looked back over the decade, what will we say about it?

From a practical perspective, we have translated the new habits of thought and behaviour (our new wineskins) into proclamations – things we want to see happen. We need to make this decade count. I am stepping into the next ‘zero’ birthday in 2020. That is daunting. Seatbelts on!

6. 2020: A new normal – Starting as we mean to go on

What are the decisions we will make, the opportunities to take and the things we will forsake to transition into our future?

We are now branding the new year as the foundation of our ‘new normal’. So far we have:

✓ Articulated our guiding concept 

✓ Identified those behaviours and mindsets that have been hindrances to progress and purposefully reframed them

✓ Defined priorities for the new decade

Now we are turning our attention to the year ahead. Making it count for the new normal. We are identifying specific goals, mindsets and milestones we hope to see as the year progresses.

As a teacher at heart, I love to see people grow, to make progress in their lives. That’s why I’m sharing this. I hope you have an amazing new year and new decade. 

If you would like to create your ‘new normal’ download the one-pager to get your started.



“Back to Basics” – Our education minister doesn’t disappoint. But what really matters?

We were all waiting for it. 

In the light of Australia’s PISA results, we knew that our politicians wouldn’t let us down and the headline confirmed it: Education Minister pushes for ‘back to basics’ approach in schools

Australian’s Minister for Education is quoted as saying “schools need to renew their focus on literacy and numeracy as the foundations for student success”.

What does this mean?

I honestly don’t know any educators in Australia, or anywhere in the world for that matter, who wouldn’t agree that strong foundations are essential for student success. Is the back-to-basics cry purely to reassure parents that the government is serious?

I have travelled to Finland a number of times since this small nation was hailed as an educational triumph. Eight years ago, in a session at the Finnish National Board of Education, they named the countries that were beating a path to their door. The same counties that have mostly overtaken Finland in PISA now. However, none of these countries make the top ten on the World Happiness Index.

We need to measure what matters. The results annual school leaving certificate, the Higher School Certificate, for my state will be out this week. A media report shows,

An analysis of almost two decades of Higher School Certificate data contradicts the declining results among NSW’s top students in global reading, maths and science tests, showing more students are achieving top results in similar HSC subjects.

Between 2001 and 2018, more students achieved band six – the highest result – in chemistry, mathematics and advanced English, according to an analysis of NSW Education Standards Authority data by Sydney University psychometrician James Tognolini.

When it comes to the crunch, for their final exams, not an international test for 14-15 year olds, our students appear to be doing well.

Basics matter. Great teachers dedicate their efforts to establishing essential foundations. The back-to-basics cry is not helpful.

Instead, as a nation, we need to invest in our teachers. We need more science and mathematics teachers, who are educated and passionate scientists and mathematicians. At present many teachers are required to teach these subjects, without the foundational knowledge, due to staffing shortages. 

How do we inspire our current school graduates, those who are passionate about their subjects to become teachers, to help them to see that this is a wonderful vocation.

I’d rather see Australia higher in the World Happiness Index. Asking why have we moved out of the top ten? What are those pesky Scandinavian countries, those small European nations, and our commonwealth siblings, Canada and New Zealand, doing that make their people so happy?

What are the ‘happiness basics’?


Evolution of learning culture: Why are we here?

“The evolution of learning culture is the most critical work educators need to do inside schools today”

Timeless Learning – How Imagination, Observation and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools by Ira Socol, Pam Moran and Chad Ratliff (p.24)

My work is around ‘culture’ and every school, organisation, business and family, has its own culture. Culture eats strategy for breakfast, as Peter Ducker famously wrote. Culture lives in people, is seen in behaviour, and is shaped by space, as my friend Steve Collis less famously said. 

How do we know what is the acceptable behaviour when we walk into a particular space – a museum, a pub,  a cathedral or a training room (head to the back of the room)? We have inbuilt conventions that instinctively directs our behaviour. That’s why an adult shouting in a cathedral just seems wrong to those of us familiar with the applicable convention. Culture is often instinctive.

The learning culture, then, has its own conventions, and I’m suggesting that it is different from a content-driven culture. The former, sees the learner and the particular needs of the individual as the focus, while the latter puts the requirements of the curriculum, standards and collective achievement ahead of the individual. One is an empathic approach, the other puts organisational considerations first. That is why, in my consulting workshops I begin with unpacking the human factors, particularly students and then the staff.

“The only way to change culture is to constantly create situations in which people respond to the question, ‘Why are we here?’”  

(p. 24).

The first chapter of Timeless Learning, is ‘All Means All: Cherishing Children”. When my friends outside education look at me with suspicion regarding the ‘hippy’ views about school, they ask ‘why change?’. To them, the prevailing educational culture seems sacrosanct. As a nation, our standing is declining on international benchmarks, so they ask don’t we just need more drills, more practice, more tests? 

I explain, that this common school experience may help a segment of students, gain success, those who are suited to that way of learning. But if all means all, can’t  all have the opportunity to succeed?

One of the case studies I present in workshops undertook at seven year transformation of the learning culture, and their starting point was people. They asked the staff, 

‘Why do you come to work everyday?’

They sought a genuine response, ‘for the kids’. In Timeless Learning, Socal, Moran and Ratliff believe that finding empathy for the learners, through ‘reaching deep’ within is essential.

“Educators must work to ensure every child knows their voice matters, they have agency in making choices and decisions and they can be responsible for their own learning” (p.26)


This is how the learning culture is transformed. Seeing the individual learner and giving them voice. 

But where do we begin? 

Observe: Pick a couple of learners you know who are struggling in your school. Observe them in class, hallways and the cafeteria or on the playground. Record what you notice about the learners.

Ask: Reach out to talk with each of them. What questions might get a sense of their struggle? How might you invite them to ask their own questions of you? How can you use this information to inform your own understanding of what it means for all learners to be cherished? (p.36)

This is empathy in action, it’s not assuming we know, but being curious.. It is where change and innovation, the evolution of a learning culture must begin. 

All means all.

From “masterpiece” to “chaos” in one year: What can we learn about designing for people-first?

This is the story of a library in Long Island, from its opening to a little over a year later. Landmark projects carry a lot of responsibility. Visually, aesthetically they make a mark, but still need to work for the people.

“I’m sure that they didn’t have kids, because as a parent, you know these things.”

This cautionary tale contrasts The New York Times article about a “$41.5 million masterpiece” in September 2018, to a later one describing the user experience as “chaos” in November 2019. A $41.5 million dollar project. You think they’d get it right?

Once upon a time…

The New York Times, September 18 2019

The descriptions were enchanting:

On dark days and evenings, its enormous, eccentric windows will act like inviting beacons of light, attracting eyes and feet. They carve whimsical jigsaw puzzle pieces out of a cool, silvered-concrete facade.

From the lobby I climbed the zigzagging stairs that trace the funny, lively, meandering incision cut into the library’s west wall by the huge central window overlooking Manhattan, the stairs ascending past stepped tiers of desks and upper floors that seem to float as if in midair. 

From: Why Can’t New York City Build More Gems Like This Queens Library?

The children’s wing is among the nicest and most artful spaces I have seen in any new library building. 

From: Why Can’t New York City Build More Gems Like This Queens Library?

Then this happened…

(The New York Times, November 5, 2019)

You remember the “the zigzagging stairs that trace the funny, lively, meandering incision cut into the library’s west wall”? They have become, “a circuitous route around the library, up and down flights of stairs.”

The terraces are “inaccessible to people who cannot climb to them”. The staff offered to retrieve the books for patrons with limited mobility, however,

“Part of what universal design is about is allowing everyone to independently enjoy spaces. Having to ask someone else to help you is, at worst, demeaning, and at best, a limiting experience.”

So then,

“The disputed shelves are now bare; the library, responding to the criticism, has moved the 2,900 adult fiction books to an accessible area on the second floor, and is now figuring out how to use the vacated space.”

From: New Library Is a $41.5 Million Masterpiece. But About Those Stairs.

And finally, what about the children’s wing, described as “among the nicest and most artful spaces I have seen in any new library building”?

“A staircase and bleacher seating in the children’s section, judged too risky for small children, has been closed off.”

“It’s crazy right now,” said… one of three children’s librarians, as she tried to navigate a crush of strollers around the second floor elevator last Wednesday, when dozens of strollers descended on the building… It’s chaos.”

From: New Library Is a $41.5 Million Masterpiece. But About Those Stairs.

People, people, people.
Who are the users and what are their needs?

Search “Hunters Point Community Library” and you’ll find it featured in the pages of Archdaily, Dezeen, DesignBoom, ArchitectMagazine. But, dear friends, this project isn’t about the architect, it’s for the people of Hunter’s Point.

What do the people of Hunter’s Point need?

  • A place to come and enjoy their community
  • A place to bring their kids
  • A place to find books
  • A place with universal access
  • A place to be proud of

This needs to be the starting place.


Leading change and innovation by design: Who’s on your mini-bus?

Last week someone asked me,
“How would you describe what you do?”

You might think professional traveller, designer, speaker, facilitator, and there probably is plenty of reason for thinking that, and I do those things. But I’m a ‘gut instinct’ kind of person and the first thought was…

transform culture

I think about, live, breathe and I’m motivated by creating positive culture. Culture is defined as a “set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterises an institution or organisation” (Merriam-Webster). We can create amazing spaces for work and learning, but unless we address the people-factor, the big vision will merely be a mist in time that quickly evaporates. 

So, if you say “We want a culture of collaboration”,
What are you doing to transform this from a nice idea to reality? 

Start with the right people on the mini-bus.

Created from: Sahin, I (2006), Detailed review of Rogers’ diffusion of innovations theory and educational technology-related studies based on Rogers’ theory,
Turkish Online Journal of Educational technology, Vol 5., Issue 2.

The theory of ‘diffusion of innovations’ was developed by Everitt Rogers in 1962. It is one of the oldest social science theories, explaining how people respond to change, and aiming to increase the rate of adoption, while reducing uncertainty. 

Cast vision as wide as possible, of course, but the actual work of transformation requires, as Collins wrote in Good to Great, the right people on the bus, in the right seats. But I believe it’s actually a minibus with key people on board to get the journey started, to ideate, prototype and test the ideas.

Diffusion of Innovation first developed by Rogers, 1962

Rogers outline five key people groups in any organisation, innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards.

To effectively increase the rate of adoption of an innovation, gather the ‘earlies’ – early adopters and some of the early majority. They possess the positive outlook to see possibilities and bring ideas to life. The innovators, the brave souls who champion change, need the early adopters who can see and realise possibilities. The late majority watch for confirmation for the early majority before taking the leap. The laggards, with white knuckles, hold tightly to the status quo, look to the past and gather a posse of like-minded people.

Laggards have the traditional view and they are more skeptical about innovations and change agents…their interpersonal networks mainly consist of other members of the social system from the same category.

(Sahin, 2006, p.20)

You may be tempted to bring the laggards in early, get them on working groups, steering committees, but don’t. In my experience, depending on how ‘laggardish’ they are, these people can use this as an opportunity to sabotage efforts for change. I learnt this the hard way. As I spoke to a whole staff, and then facilitated a workshop, a very vocal laggard (a mature teacher) behaved in a way that he would not accept from his own students and set back the school’s efforts to innovate.

An aspirational empathy map

Who is on your mini-bus, heading off on a reconnaissance mission to chart paths unknown? 

I use empathy mapping in design thinking workshops to gain insight into the user experience – staff, student or client. This kind of empathy mapping starts where we are, understanding who we are working with.

But what about who we seek to be? I’ve asked leadership teams to think about the ‘Aspirational Empathy Map’. Then we can identify those closest to the description, your ‘earlies’. Of course, you know them anyway. They are always the ones excited by new opportunities and suggesting crazy ideas.

Design for the long haul

When I think about design, I think about people. Getting the right people on board the minibus in the early stages is essential. In his research, developing the school climate model, Gislason (2010) writes, “School design should be viewed as part of the network of elements that shape together the learning environment”.

The physical environment alone cannot support transformation. It starts with people.

First things first.

Imagining the outside environment: For learning, social connection, health, wellbeing… and FUN!

What are your memories of the playground from school?

I remember dust bowls and knee-grazing asphalt (with the scars to prove it). I can speak from experience, as I went to three primary schools and two high schools. One school playground stood out above the others, Gymea North Public School in southern Sydney. 


I was only there a couple of years and the school was relatively new. It’s known as ‘the school among the trees’. The vast playground of tall gum trees extended widely and broadly to the boundary along a main road. We didn’t have pristine grass and paving, back then, it was quite rugged and rustic.

Every recess and lunch break we would race to ‘our tree’. Each group of friends would create a ‘cubbie’ – bark, leaves, sticks, whatever we could find. It was very hard to drag us back when the bell rang, as we undertook our construction projects. I can only imagine how dirty we must have been when we returned to class. I’m sure this play would have never passed the risk assessment today. I’m regularly in the area (my elderly father lives nearby) and when I drive past, I recall happy memories.

My high school experience created less positive memories. Recently watching a UK/Aus ‘dramedy’ Frayed, I was sure that I saw the playground at the high school from my youth – a desolate space, quadrangles dissected by covered walkways. Shade? This was not a consideration. As I recall, the grassed spaces were only domain of those who played football, you ventured there at your own risk (or during those semi-regular bomb scares of the 70s).

Outdoor spaces – More than just class breaks and sport

Creating fun, imaginative, calming and natural outside spaces is important in the school design revolution, becoming more than the place where students are tipped-out between classes.

As I travel to schools in Australia, New Zealand and across the world, the outdoor areas and ‘spaces between’ are considered part of the overall learning environment, providing for social connection, wellbeing, supporting both active and passive engagement, with shade, greenery, biophyllic design and the aesthetic seen as essential. 

In her book, Contextual Wellbeing, Dr Helen Street argues that ‘nature deficit disorder’ has an impact on wellbeing,

Spending time in nature, at any level of interaction, enhances our wellbeing, and great benefits occur when students have the opportunity to interact with the natural world around them as part of their educational journey.

Street, H. (2018) Contextual Wellbeing: Creating positive schools from the inside out (p.127)

And not just early learning and primary schools, “just being outdoors benefits all students” (p.127). This means high school as well.

What have I seen?

Take your class to an outdoor space, accessible for all students with power and data built in.
(the boat area is currently ‘under-construction’ and will be positioned in the ground)
Prince of Wales Primary School in Dorchester, UK
Beyond the classroom… just step outside.
Prince of Wales Primary School in Dorchester, UK

It’s wild, messy, productive, “We’ve worked out the best mud-mixture for the mud slide”
Bold Park Community School, Perth WA
Maker space with attitude!
Bold Park Community School, Perth WA
Diverse play options, including a dry creek bed, with rocks!
St Anthony of Padua, Austral, NSW
Farm animals – geese, sheep and a donkey
De Werkplaats, Utrecht, Netherlands
…But you need to be able to store the equipment for the farming.
De Werkplaats, Utrecht, Netherlands
Beautiful wild play with literary themes
Hartsholme Academy, UK
Active outdoor with an amazing waterplay area
Hartsholme Academy, UK
The vast and diverse play area is shared with the local community
Hyllievangs Skole, Malmo Sweden
Creating outdoor areas when space is a premium
Sydhavnen Skole, Copenhagen
On the canal, no fences, water play
Sydhavnen Skole, Copenhagen
Blend of concrete and green, indoors-outdoors
With shade and a cooling mist system
Northern Beaches Christian School, Sydney NSW
We have so much to learn from early childhood learning environments!
Tyneside Nursery, Edinburgh UK
As they say in Nordic countries: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes” Viherkallio Kuolo, Finland


Libraries: How might we describe them today? A living room, a bedroom, a study, a playground, an office, a friendly place.

I recently attended a GLEAM forum hosted by Hayball, short talks about galleries, libraries, education, the arts or museums, as the acronym suggests. This particular one was titled A Community Living Room: The evolving role of libraries. The speakers were Kim Sherwin from the City of Sydney Libraries and Joy Suliman, from the City of Canada Bay Libraries. The session was hosted by Andrew Fong from Hayball.

Andy, Joy and Kim
Photo: Hayball

As a young teacher, my first job was a primary school teacher librarian. Not actually what I was prepared for, but I can be methodical (cards, catalogues and borrowing procedures), I loved creating visual displays and I loved reading to kids, so I muddled my way through for a few years, before I acquired a class teaching role. This photo, which I have used before, shows me undertaking a critical role of the time, “Who hasn’t returned their library book?”

A recent report by the ABC, here in Australia, proclaimed the headline School libraries hit by the loss of a dying breed as teacher librarians enter ‘survival mode’. The piece refers to research from Edith Cowan University regarding the alarming loss of qualified teacher librarians (which I was not, by the way) and the insecurity many teacher-librarians now feel. Schools are more likely to look for more cost-efficient personnel, to manage systems and collections, “They said the library was often the first place principals looked when they needed to cut costs”.

As we develop and disrupt as a society, we often need to ask the overarching question, ‘Why?’

  • Why do libraries need to exist?
  • What purpose do they fulfil?
  • Who are they serving?

These questions don’t seek to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but realign purpose to ensure that we aren’t just doing the same things the same way, because that what we’ve always done. I think schools can learn from the ‘other’ libraries.
In her talk, Kim identified the four key roles of libraries, to provide:

  • Place
  • Space
  • Community
  • Connection 
  • Experience

She also made the point that libraries exist in a wide range of places, not just educational institutions and local communities, but they play an important role in corporate and civic organisations.

Kim had previously worked at Arup, a global multi-disciplinary engineering and design consultancy, setting up the library in the corporate space, a winner of an ALIA award.

Arup Library (Australasia), is part of Arup University, an internal university, whose aim is to promote and achieve technical excellence through the development of its staff. The Library team comprises of 6 highly skilled librarians, capable of carrying out in-depth research that supports the business with winning work, complete project work and help keeps
the region up-to-date with clients, technology, industry and more. 

This text from the award submission recognises the importance of the role of the librarians to the commercial success of the business.


Next, Joy spoke about The Learning Space, a place for people to come, belong, connect and learn. Actually, there are no books, but there is a lot of tech and places for human connection. Joy reinforced the human factor, that staff greet each person with a smile and this culture was evident in community feedback. The space is owned and loved by the local, and managing its popularity and success is its greatest challenge.

As I travelled home that evening and reflected, the resounding message, was that libraries are about people. Libraries exist for the community they serve, their needs and expectations. The expertise of the staff matches this need, whether it is for research, physical/material elements (including wifi, power and furniture), a place to be, or even books.

When I take study tours, we often visit libraries as learning spaces. Here are some libraries in Denmark, Finland and Netherlands…

Anyone interested in a library study tour?