Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Effective use of learning spaces

college interior

Many ASCL members around the country are having to make do with crumbling buildings and learning spaces that aren't fit for purpose. However, argues Marcus Orlovsky, even with the Building Schools for the Future programme, we are in danger of creating a newer version of the same problems unless we change our thinking about learning spaces.

The reality facing children today is significantly different than when most of us were in school.

There are fewer children walking or cycling to school; there is more pollution and associated health problems; child obesity is growing exponentially; we have a greying population but also the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe; kids are getting older younger; and the vast majority have instant access to data and information via mobile phones and the web.

Schools and colleges have to prepare their students to participate in this new world. And often those schools and colleges are based in buildings designed for a different world: sometimes using processes which have remained unchanged for 50 or more years.

Against that we now have the Building Schools for the Future programme, which seeks to transform secondary education by providing new learning spaces. However, the great fear is that the enormous sums of money being allocated will be spent in recreating newer versions of our current schools, rather than completely new learning environments, because our teaching profession has not had enough time to sit back and think about what will make the difference. There are some innovative, imaginative spaces being constructed in schools and colleges but these are, unfortunately, too few and far between.

The time has to be found to do that thinking. Ultimately the same conclusion may be reached, but at least it would be having considered all the options. At Bryanston Square, we believe that the best approach is to consider what activities will be taking place in a building and how these can be most effectively delivered, and then design spaces around them. And we speak from the experience of having worked with hundreds of schools.

What can you do now to make a difference?

  • Look at how you want to teach.

  • Think of the spaces you need to do it.

  • Examine the spaces you have and think how they could be used (without being constrained by an awareness of how they are used now).

  • Identify what you do not have and how could you create it.

  • Then reallocate your existing spaces and modify or create the ones you need.

Challenge the givens

Most schools and colleges are constrained by a number of givens, some government imposed, some internally driven: pupils should be moved in groups of 30 from one room to another every 45 minutes; whether a child is born before or after 1 September determines what year they go into; study should be divided into subjects (rather than topics) so that a student can excel in some and fail in others, and not know where they stand as an overall human being; written exams are the best measure of success.

Let's examine some of these givens.

Take the designation of spaces. In most secondary schools and colleges today, teaching rooms are designated by their subject: maths, history, modern foreign languages. A timetable is drawn up to allocate people to those rooms. Then, in those allocated rooms, at their allocated times, teachers and students try to be as creative as possible.

We wonder what would be the result if each teacher or group of teachers were asked to design the optimal programme for delivering learning to their students and then asked to describe the spaces that they would require in order to deliver that learning. It could lead to a very different set of room requirements. Sports halls (basically a large volume) might be used for English; drama studios for science enactments.

If teachers were able to spend sufficient time coordinating some of their teaching and learning, they could support each other's work and so consolidate the learning experience.

With this approach, one can start thinking about activity spaces rather than subject areas, and begin to move in a new direction. This could unlock existing spaces and breathe a new use into them.

Similarly one could take on the issue of the best time to deliver learning. We might want to think about opening schools for longer (even longer than 8am-6pm) and operating them in shifts, providing more flexibility for both teachers and students. This is turn would have an effect on the spaces needed, and crucially (if there are fewer students in a school at any one time) the number of spaces. Having fewer spaces, which are used for longer, enables us to channel funds to provide spaces of a much higher standard. It's really about making scarce assets work.

A discussion about givens is the starting point in re-engineering the school to deliver the best possible learning experiences for students, teachers and wider community. An important step along this path is rethinking learning spaces -not just where learning takes place, but also social and recreational spaces.

It may be over-used as a term, but schools really should be inspirational spaces. Many school environments bear no resemblance to the places children or teachers spend their free time or the places they aspire to spend their working lives.

New thinking in old buildings

This disconnect is absurd.

What we need is smart thinking. If it is properly thought through, an old building can provide a very productive learning space. There are some fantastic Victorian schools that can be very effective learning spaces if properly configured. Similarly there are some 1980s extensions or 2006 rebuilds that fail miserably. The key is not only in the architecture.

Successful schools often operate in dreadful buildings and failing schools sometimes operate in wonderful surroundings. We use various online  and other tools to help elicit real responses from teachers, leaders, students and the wider community. The results are often surprising.

We do not mean that schools should look like shopping complexes, leisure centres or office buildings, but they should certainly have the same quality standards. It is important to get the balance right.

Fitting for purpose

A lot of money is being poured into shiny new buildings, but these buildings are then filled with inadequate furniture and fittings. We frequently see what might otherwise be delightful teaching spaces filled with (and ruined by) polypropylene seats and laminated tables, all on tubular steel legs. Similarly, high quality, fit-for-purpose furnishings can transform an otherwise lacklustre classroom.

We have seldom witnessed a focus group of teachers dealing with the issue of furniture. If this were to happen, they might determine that more comfortable seats are needed if students will be sitting down for a long time, but less comfortable seats are required if students will be moving them out of the way for more physical activities.

Instead, there is often a general compromise, against a backdrop of the assumption that in classrooms there will be bog standard furniture. This seems all the more absurd when one compares the general furniture in schools with the quality of inexpensive furniture elsewhere in society (such as that available in shops, or in use in motorway service stations).

Buildings are important, but what goes on inside them is so much more important. It's about having a vision. And, yes, it is about design, but design in its wider sense. If we're going to design something, let's design what the experience is, what the process is we're going to put people through. What are we trying to achieve? Then let's think about the buildings or the organisational structure. Throw away the givens for a moment. Think beyond the constraints and think what it would be like if we were successful. Think what it means for the future.

Ask yourself, are we going to create new old or do we want to try to create new new? And are we creating new for new's sake? And does 'new' mean the building, or the process it houses? The answer has to be the latter. We should worry less about school buildings and whether or not to rebuild them, and more about what goes on inside them. It is this that counts, and if we get this right, whether a building is modern, Victorian or Medieval makes little difference.

Marcus Orlovsky is a director of Bryanston Square, a social enterprise founded six years ago to help make a difference in learning and the environment in which it is carried out. The company has worked on the design of over 400 schools throughout the UK and are now working with NCSL and other bodies to help teachers and leaders tackle the issue of what learning should take place, and then what buildings are needed.


Contrasting schools: in which would you prefer to be a student?

A traditional UK secondary school:

A tightly run, efficient machine, with data and statistics on performance. Students spend their days in classrooms where they are taught independent subjects. Students move around, at allotted times (possibly punctuated by a loud bell or softer buzzer) from one 56 square metre classroom to another almost identical room. Toilets are locked during lesson hours. Lunch is in two sittings, preceded by a long queue.

An alternative vision:

Students spend days on themes, possibly drawing, researching, writing, listening to music and doing experiments on their topics, and linking several traditional curriculum subjects together into a holistic learning experience. They move to different spaces based on the activity they are doing. They move to a lecture theatre to receive input from experts (who may not be on the school staff), to group rooms (with refreshments) for group work and discussions, to music suites for aural input, and to drama studios to express and record their outputs. Learning happens everywhere, and at different times.

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