How schools can ‘Emulate Museums’ for engaging learning? (and it’s not how you might think)


The spatial challenge is to use space dynamically as possible.”
Montgomery (2008)

Four strategies we can learn from museums:

  1. Define the entry and exit experience for students
  2. Create ‘stoppages’ and maintain ‘flow’
  3. Design ‘circulation patterns’
  4. Curate the narrative, deliberately shape the learning experience

file_000-1What are your experiences of a museum as a user? Sometimes we are  captivated, amazed and inspired to learn more after the visit. At other times, from the moment we walked in ‘we knew’, an underwhelming experience awaited.

The concept of space as the ‘third teacher’ came from the Reggio Emilia tradition, when designed deliberately, space can inspire young minds. In 2010 VS Furniture/Cannon Design/Bruce Mau Design/ compiled a collection of ideas, The Third Teacher, encouraging fresh thinking around the context of school and learning. This publication quickly became an inspiration for many educators, with ideas such as: everyone can be a designer, make peace with fidgeting, think hands-on and emulate museums.

#16 Emulate Museums:  An environment rich in evocative objects  – whether it’s a classroom or museum – trigger active learning by letting students pick what to engage with.

In his paper “Space Matters: Experiences of managing static formal learning spaces”, Tim Montgomery (2008) looks the museum as inspiration for places of formal learning, within in the context of universities, but the ideas can equally be relevant to schools. The paper begins with looking at the seminar room, “four walls, desk and chairs”. When thinking about the opportunities inherent in a space, Montgomery cites Chism (2006):

Because we habitually take space arrangements for granted, we often fail to notice the ways in which space constrains or enhances what we intend to accomplish.

What can we learn from museums? The focus here isn’t necessarily the consideration of the artefacts, students displaying museum-quality outputs of their learning, rather the foundational thinking around engaging learners in self-motivating, curated learning experience.

file_000-2On entering a museum, or even prior to the visit, we receive or seek preliminary information, where will we go, what will we see and how should we navigate our way through. “In the museum and the classroom, entering can be disorienting, and yet ignored as not a ‘real part’ of the exhibition/seminar proper” (Montgomery 2008). Consider how important our arrival experience is, at anything we attend, even the classroom space. Often this is the make or the break of a successful event.

The exit is also as a spatial and pedagogical moment, and needs to be planned to finish well. In between, the museum experience itself is carefully curated, deliberately creating the environment to bring the visitors in and engage them.

The strategies of engagement are created through the notions of ‘stoppages’ and ‘flow’. Stoppages as the decision-points, providing choice as their interest takes the visitor, ‘conceptual, unhurried, exhibition pieces’ that capture attention.  Deliberate circulation patterns reinforce the narrative of the curated learning experience, recognising that people people move and learn in different ways – there can be similar flow patterns curated in the classroom.

Space reinforces the narrative. Space management is a question of how the museum guide, or the teacher, through the spatial context enables the learning process by including: paths and subdivisions, enabling choice around the physical process and determining the focus – is it sequential or thematic.

The priority of the museum is the visitor, and at the school, the student.

In spatial terms, it is implied that the student/gallery visitor is primary in the relationship; the teacher/curator’s job is to enable learning”. Montgomery, p.129



The third teacher : 79 ways you can use design to transform teaching & learning. (2010). New York : Abrams

Montgomery (2008) Space Matters: experiences of managing static formal learning spaces. Active Learning in Higher Education, v9 n2 p122-138 2008

Nokia, Ikea & Pickled Herrings: Learning from Scandinavia #CEFPI #SCIL (Part 2)

I presented a talk at the CEFPI NSW seminar that reflected on what we can learn from Scandinavia. It is an amalgam of my trips there over the last couple of years, to see what ideas, philosophies, learning spaces and systems that are in use and are successfully engaging students in their learning.  (There is also a Swiss  contribution, which is not Scandinavia, but worthy of comment.)

This post is Part 2, based on that presentation.

The Third Teacher‘ as a guidebook

The Third Teacher is an education design consultancy within Cannon Design that helps learning communities better serve 21st century learners. It is based on the Reggio-Emilia idea: “The environment is the third teacher.”

They have developed 79 ideas for using design to transform teaching and learning. I have selected a handful of the ideas to illustrate the significance of some of the places we have visited.

#18 Unite the Disciplines

Art and science need each other. Discoveries – great and small – happen when the two come together; so give students places for cross-disciplinary work, and who knows what creative genius will flourish.

The Rolex Learning Centre, according to Patrick Aebischer, Presifident of Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL):

Exemplifies our university as a place where traditional boundaries between disciplines are broken down, where mathematicians and engineers  meet with neuroscientists and micro-technicians to envision new technologies that improve lives.

In the same way, the Design Factory at Aalto University is deliberately designed to provide a project space for the disciplines to connect. The centre is based on fun commitment and learning. It provides a place for a collaboration environment for students researchers and business practitioners.





The mission is:

To create a unique world class meeting places for research, development and education.















Project work varies and spaces need to be used for multiple purposes. Nooks and semi-enclosed areas create places where people can work together. I interrupted a couple of students collaborating on a project – one an engineering student, the other from the business faculty.

#32 Build for change

School buildings can be tools for social change

In 10 years schools won’t look like they do now. How can we think differently about how buildings are used?

The Kunskapsskolan model is a system of free schools in Sweden and now the UK and US> They have a well-defined structural model of personalised learning. The mission is:

To develop and operate outstanding schools where students, through personalised learning and clear goals, will stretch their boundaries and learn more than they thought possible.

The method is characterised by goals-setting – from short term (weekly) to long term (three years). Each student has a personalised learning plan and they know their learning style. Teachers are trained to be mentors and guides. 










The learning space needs to support the approach to learning. As this system grows the system leadership doesn’t look for regular school or greenfield sites, but for suitable older, unused buildings that can be fitted out. The one we visited was formerly a jewellery factory. The spaces need to accommodate the furniture design and configuration, where individual and group working spaces flow from instructional areas.










School leadership that models transparency. The first office and person anyone sees as they walk into the school is the principal in her ‘aquarium’, as she told us.










#Build a nest

Children need comfort just as much at school as they do at home. Give them a soft, quiet and cozy areas to play in by themselves or with a few friends

Maglegard is a  K- Year 9 school in the suburbs of Copenhagen.

Instead of arranging the students in three classes of the same grade, Maglegard have homebases of three classes in cross grade groupings, repeated on the different levels of the building. All students are grouped in this way. The first learning area we visited was 4, 5 and 6, about 60 children.

On each level, there were three instruction spaces allocated for each class, that were connected to an open central space, shared by all classes, where they could work in groups, pairs or alone.

School feels like home – The shared space felt like a living room in a home. There was a kitchen with a large table and stools, sofas on a rug around a coffee table, sectioned off communal table for small group instruction, and a nook with a small table and couple of stools. The ambience of home was also created with lamps and candles (yes, candles + children) in the true Scandinavian style.

It’s not unusual for the kitchen to be in the heart of the learning environment in Sweden and Denmark

Two of the class groups were in their instruction space with their teacher, the others were choosing where to work – in the nook, at the kitchen table or on the sofa, with their feet on the coffee table. The size and furnishing of the instructions spaces discourages classes from being in their too long, the round tables with stools are just for that particular type of work.

The cultural elements of Scandinavian school life add to the sense of home.

#Think hands-on

Children of all ages need places where they can learn by touching, manipulating and making things with their hands

At Danfoss, not just hands on, they go for body on!

The learning philosophy at Danfoss Universe (Science theme park) is based on providing everyday experiences, that lead to a basic knowledge and then an understanding of the principles, to being able to apply that knowledge and utilize both thinking and intuition. There are a few key themes that underpin the philosophy at Danfoss Universe:

The attraction model has three elements operating within narrative and themed framework

Nature – landscape and atmosphere
Technology – attraction and thrills
Mind – exhibits and interactions

You can even walk through a glacier.

#72Put theory into practice

Give students spaces – studios, workshops and laboratories – where they can test ideas

Vittra has a system of 30 schools and Preschools across Sweden. The school in Telephonplan opened just last August at the start of the school year, with a brand new teaching team working in a brand new way. Principal has thought through the design, its impact on learning and how teachers manage to engage learners in the spaces.

Like our school, Vittra uses the learning space metaphors of Cave, Watering Hole and Campfire. They also use the term Show off, instead of Mountaintop and add Laboratory, to explain hands on experimental learning. There are only two defined ‘classroom’ spaces. The remaining area has zones, defined by furniture and ways of working.




#70 Create a movement

Engage in meaningful conversations about changing the educational landscape. Parents, teachers, students, principals, community members and politicians are all important and powerful stakeholders in this movement

Many educators can see the need for change in the look and feel of school. We want to shift from segmented classrooms, subjects, classes to a learning environment that embodies the elements listed here.

The more we influence, lead, speak up and disrupt the more we will be able to model change. Join us!

One last thing – Ikea, Pickled Herrings and Nokia?

In reality, these were just a few words I put together as a catchy title for my presentation. However, as I was travelling I was thinking through their relevance.

Ikea –  We saw examples of replicable and scalable models of schools. One way to grow a new movement of school is to refine the ideas into a model that can be rolled out so that more schools and communities can be impacted, just like Kunskapsskolan and Vittra.

Pickled Herrings – When I travel I really enjoy the food of the area and am willing to try (almost) anything. When I am staying in hotels in Scandinavia my favourite breakfast consists of rye bread, cottage cheese, smoked salmon and pickled herrings. But I am very unlikely to go out and buy pickled herrings here in Australia. In the same way, some things work in some places, but not in others. Elements of an approach in one culture just can’t be uplifted and put straight into another.

Nokia – While in Finland we heard about the development of the well-known Finnish telecommunications company. About 15 years ago Nokia was ahead of the game. It was the company that put Finland on the map. But today its position in the industry is languishing. Why? Well, according to some locals it was a company that was innovative and agile. It developed an applied new technologies quickly and brought them to market. But was technology advanced, Nokia didn’t. Its size and lack of agility made it unable to respond to the changing markets. There was no longer a simple pathway from innovative to the user. Ideas were clogged in a bottleneck.

In some ways this could be a metaphor for educational innovation. Schools and systems need to be agile enough to respond to the changing educational landscape. If your school is spending large sums of money setting up computer labs in the era of the developing mobile technology environment, these labs will be expensive and difficult to dismantle. Stop now and take stock!

Think future, not present. Look at what technology the young people are using and see how it can be incorporated into the learning environment.


Nokia, Ikea & Pickled Herrings: Learning from Scandinavia #CEFPI #SCIL (Part 1)

I presented a talk at the CEFPI NSW seminar that reflected on what we can learn from Scandinavia. It is an amalgam of my trips there over the last couple of years, to see what ideas, philosophies, learning spaces and systems that are in use and are successfully engaging students in their learning. (There is also a Swiss contribution, which is not Scandinavia, but worthy of comment.)

This post is based on that presentation.

Over the last couple of years I have had several opportunities to travel to Scandinavia as part of the SCIL Study Tours.

Why Scandinavia?

  • Finland and their success with the PISA results.
  • Denmark has schools of outstanding school design
  • Sweden’s free school approach, with its voucher system has enabled unique systems of schools to emerge

In October 2011 I visited a couple of schools in Finland, a beautifully designed K-3 school in an immigrant community and a regional comprehensive high school.

While there are several unique elements that characterise the Finnish education system:

Highly competitive entry into teacher education courses

No national formal assessment

No school inspections

School autonomy for local decision-making

I believe that many of the factors for the PISA success are less tangible, and often relate to the unique cultural factors, that includes a commitment to hard work and academic aspiration.

From the Finnish National Board of Education:

The objective of Finnish Education and cultural policy is to guarantee all people – irrespective of their ethnic origin, background or wealth – equal opportunities and rights to culture, free quality education, and prerequisites for full citizenship. All people must have access to services of consistent quality.

Interestingly the curriculum guidelines for the Finnish Education K-9, for all curriculum areas are held in one book only about 1cm thick. The Finnish system does show that elements that are prescribed  – formal assessments, prescriptive outcomes and school inspections do not seem to lead to improved outcomes for students. Read more here.

K-9 curriculum guidelines for all subject

The Third Teacher‘ as a guidebook

The Third Teacher is an education design consultancy within Cannon Design that helps learning communities better serve 21st century learners. It is based on the Reggio-Emilia idea: “The environment is the third teacher.”

They have developed 79 ideas for using design to transform teaching and learning. I have selected a handful of the ideas to illustrate the significance of some of the places we have visited.

#9 – Let the sunshine in.

Increasing daylight in classrooms has been shown to cut down absenteeism and improve test scores.

Orested Gymnasium (Senior High School) is an example of innovative design and effective use of natural light. Using clear glass and coloured panels floods the outside light inside .

Within the vast space is an impressive staircase, with a combination of defined and undefined teaching spaces.

We made our way to the Rolex Learning Centre at Lausanne University on the shores of Lake Geneva. The building was designed by Japanese architectural company, SANAA. It operates as a laboratory for learning, open to students and the public.

Spread over one single fluid space it provides a seamless network of services, library, information gathering, social spaces, spaces to study, restaurants, cafes and beautiful outdoor spaces.

This highly innovative building has gentle slopes and terraces inside, undulating around a series of internal patios, with almost invisible supports for its sloping roof. 

#11 – Make it new.

Look at your learning space with 21stC eyes. Does it work for what we know about learning today, or just what we knew about learning in the past

In January this year it seemed that everyone was tweeting about the “school without walls” from the FastCoDesign article. We were grateful to the principal for welcoming us to the school. It is a place with fantastic furniture and a well-thought-through use of space.

Jannie, the principal is growing the school, she  recruited the staff and is responsible for ensuring that the spaces are used as they were intended.

“Traditional learning extracts meaning from the context and we need to put it back again.”

From the start she asked:

“What kind of world are our pre-schoolers going to be prepared for when they finish school in 2025?

The design incorporated spatial divisions in the learning space, that can promote different ways of learning, essential to the Vittra method, where there are no set classes.

Read more about Vittra in an earlier post.

#16 Emulate Museums

An environment rich in evocative objects  – whether it’s a classroom or museum – trigger active learning by letting students pick what to engage with.

Danfoss Universe is part science activity centre and part theme park. It is reached by a 30 minute flight from Copenhagen. The science-fun starts in the car park, before you even get inside.

An amazing learning environment has been developed that

combines the ‘wow factor’ of the theme park with the ‘aha’ of a science centre.

Danfoss uses the ‘Theory of Interest Development’ to inspire the young visitors to the park to pursue their passion and follow up an area that sparks interest. Visitors to Danfoss come across unusual sites. “Why can’t a tree grow upside-down?”

Read more about Danfoss here.

Nokia, Ikea & Pickled Herrings: Learning from Scandinavia – Part 2 coming up next.

The Third Teacher:

#18 Unite disciplines

#32 Build for change

#40 Build a nest

#54 Think hands on

#72 Put theory into practice

#70 Create amovement

…and yes, you’ll find out the significance of Nokia, Ikea and Pickled Herrings.

Lifting Vision | Leaders Learning – SCIL Study Tour 2011

Vision becoming reality
I am energized when a dream or vision for the future, one that I have been working on for some time, finally becomes reality. In less than two weeks we embark on the next big adventure

About 1 year ago I was traveling with my colleagues from SCIL/NBCS on the study tour, primarily looking at award-winning museums and libraries as places where the community choose to go to learn.

We were inspired by The Third Teacher quote:
Emulate Museums: An environment rich in evocative objects–whether it’s a classroom or a museum–triggers active learning by letting students pick what to engage with.

It was during this trip that we started to think about providing these opportunities for educational leaders from other schools to join us on a similar trip, to lift vision, sharpen each others thinking and engage in rich conversations.

This was how the SCIL Study Tour 2011 came into being.

Since that tour, just 12 months ago, I have been working on shaping a travel experience for other educational leaders that will lift vision, and get them thinking about change, transforming schools and making a difference for this generation and the generations to come.

10 people, 11days, 4 countries, 8 schools, 2 libraries, 2 museums (at least)

One of the scariest things about organising this was wondering if anyone would want to come. Well they did. There are 10 in the group – 8 Australians from NSW and Victoria and 2 Canadians.

The tour commences in Copenhagen on Sunday 9 October and we run (literally, I think) until the Friday of the next week.

We will start in Denmark, travel to Sweden, The Netherlands and spend the final week in the UK.

In Copenhagen, Gothenburg and England we will visit schools, each chosen for a particular reason – outstanding design, exceptional leadership and rethinking the school experience. One in particular is the Kunskapsskolan model of school. It started in Sweden, now with 30 schools and has rolled out a franchise-type model in London and New York. If you have watched Charles Leadbeater’s TED talk, you will recall he mentioned Kunskapsskolan as a model for innovation.

The two libraries are in the historic city of Delft in The Netherlands. One is the acclaimed design of the university library, the other DOK Library Concept Center, is reinventing the concept of the library in the community.


The museums are both science-based, Danfoss Universe in Nordborg Denmark and Universeum in Gothenburg, Sweden. When we visited each it was the mid-term vacation week and there were not only children, but adolescents actively engaged in their learning. Choosing to be there.

I will share our journey with you and maybe you can join SCIL Study Tour 2012. I will let you in on a little secret, I am planning to spend some time in Finland – visiting schools, talking with educators.