Reinventing senior education…just not too much

In line with the thinking of the Principal, the Head of the Senior School (HSS) was keen to have a space suited to young adult learning, one that provided the space for them to become more self-managing. The HSS saw Years 11 and 12 as a time of transition into tertiary studies, and coupled with the new timetable which provided “flex” lessons once a cycle, saw the new spaces as transformational. Students were expected to become more responsible for their use of time at school and the open collaborative space concept was integral to this. The HSS found students wanted to replicate what they had in the former senior school quarters – a precinct that was theirs, to which they had aspired since entering the school. Too much change would change what they were to inherit – an interesting concept! The HSS perceived their ideas to be on the whole, very conservative. As the principal had said, they only could reproduce what they knew, and they were fiercely possessive of the precinct.

Students who were consulted at the design stage were, according to all members of the design team to whom I spoke (a very common thread), extremely conservative, resistant to any innovative ideas such as glass walls, and wanted everything painted beige or white. When shown glass walls they wanted blinds. The principal and HSS were “underwhelmed” when attempting to get students involved in the aesthetic aspects of the build. A compromise was made with the glass walls of the classroom, with decals covering approximately one third of the wall. The teachers who were to have offices in the building were even more resistant, citing privacy issues. The Principal offered all departments the opportunity to move into the classrooms as home rooms, but only one took it up. That department wanted to move out of the current office space they had, and this was the perfect opportunity.

Teachers using the classrooms have been ambivalent. Pleasing aspects include the smart new furniture, the lovely social environment, the view and the majesty of the building itself. It has grandeur, said one English teacher. At the same time many members of the staff, the English staff particularly, felt they weren’t consulted enough and their opinion was not valued. Negatives included the lift being locked and the key accessible only from one person, the windows which don’t open as the heating and cooling are completely automatic, no matter how cold/ hot the actual people are, brilliant IT but limited access as the AV person is part-time, and there are no available devices as we are moving to a BYOD programme next year. The steps are too narrow to the first floor, it is too noisy as the sound carries through the void, and students are easily distracted in the learning commons.

 

 

Making the building sing

An interview with the former Principal of the school revealed that the construction of the new Senior School building coincided with the Building the Education Revolution (BER) funding of 2009. With the BER money taking care of the Junior School extensions that had been planned, the school leadership decided to rethink the Senior School renovation. We are a country school, said the principal, but we need to think like a city school.  In his opinion and that of the College Board, there was growing discomfort with the late 1980s style of classrooms which were no longer suitable for 21st Century learning. The contrast with the new modern and functional Junior School (built in 2008) with its light and airy learning spaces was considerable, thus providing the impetus for reconceiving the design of the Senior School. The principal wanted an industrial feel, a warehouse type barn, in a building that would have a light touch down the hill on which it was to be situated. He envisaged the Junior School (JS), a beacon of innovation on one side of the school, and the Senior School (SS) physically bookending the College. We had the cash, he said, and he intended to change the game a bit, to supercharge the the concept of senior school. He wanted the building to make a statement, high on the hill, looking outwards not inwards. It also was set on the highest point of the school, the last point before the students leave secondary schooling.

The Business Manager and the Principal visited shopping centres, Adelaide University’s Hub Central, UTS, UC, and the Microsoft offices in Sydney, as well as school and public libraries in Australia and New Zealand. Some were particularly informative for structural design, some for the fitout. The principal said he wanted the new SS to relate formal learning and study time, so the creation of a learning commons was central to the concept of the building. In his view, our city is a particularly inward-looking community (he used the term “to courtyard” in describing our cultural outlook), so this drove the thinking of an outward-looking construction, with mezzanines and open spaces. He wanted a redefinition of learning, a fundamental change in the metaphor for learning at the College, with open collaborative spaces. Students should learn to manage the transition from school to university style of learning, and he was aiming for a building and spaces that would help students to become more self-managing. He wanted to call the building “Viewpoint” for that reason, so that the learning that occurred within the building reflected the expression of ideas.

Changes in senior school leadership meant some of the more traditional offices in the building were designed with a different purpose in mind. Some of the school leaders at the beginning of the project were of the view that nothing needed changing, that you don’t change a successful model.The principal recognised there had to be compromises to get certain aspects of the design over the line and subsequent personnel changes were advantageous. The new Head of the senior school held similar views to the principal, and was able to drive the project with more enthusiasm than his predecessor. Their view was that the building made it necessary to have a different pedagogy, one that made the building sing, so the teaching and learning would do the same.

 

The Learning Commons

What I’ve found fascinating in the study of this course is the intersection between the physical spaces and learning. Does the space determine the culture or the culture the spaces? When students in the Learning Commons of the Senior School are accessing digital spaces such as online databases provided by the Library, are they using the Library? What does “using the Library” mean? If so, what input does the Library then have? If the conventional orthodoxy is that students come to the Library to access information, what does it mean when they access information from another space? Does it make information specialists redundant or just reimagined? Since the construction of the Senior School Learning Commons (SSLC) we have almost the same number of students coming to the Library as before. They tell me it’s because when they come, they know they are there to work. The open-plan design of the SSLC actually mitigates against the motivation to study. Students say it’s because the architects forgot to factor in the distracting smells of grilled cheese wafting from the kitchen downstairs through the void. Or the open-space distraction that occurs naturally when one student walks past another and begins a perfectly reasonable conversation about something entirely unrelated to study. This appears to require a high level of engagement with the work in order to remain focused.