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Rearranging the
way we learn

Designing a classroom to fit the needs of 21st century schoolkids

Moveable walls, beanbag drop zones and free-range layouts. Today’s classrooms would be barely recognisable to teachers from yesteryear, more used to rows of desks facing the front and ‘chalking and talking’.

But although contemporary classrooms appear to promise more engaging and inspiring learning opportunities for students, little is known about what constitutes the ideal classroom. This is despite millions of public dollars being spent on renovations and new builds since the 1970s.

To get more bang for the Government’s buck and, most importantly, help teachers make the most of modern classroom designs, more evidence is needed.

Now two University of Melbourne studies are building tools to assess the educative value of modern, innovative classrooms; and then to challenge teachers on how they might use these spaces to their full potential.

Marist College, Bendigo. Sliding doors, writable surfaces and adaptable furniture-flexible spaces enable collaborative group learning. Architect: Y2 Architecture. Picture: Bill Conroy.

It’s an overdue investment in evaluating what role the design of 21st century classrooms plays on student experiences – not least given concerns about Australia’s record of slow, steady decline across most educational standards. Indeed, the latest NAPLAN results reveal literacy and numeracy are stagnating and writing skills in years 7 and 9 have significantly decreased.

Inevitably the backlash over NAPLAN includes calls from some quarters to “sit the kids down and read and write and do sums”.

“I’ve got no argument with that except where it is tied only to a didactic teaching style,” says the two projects’ lead investigator, Associate Professor Wesley Imms.

“Students facing the front, the teacher lecturing, kids writing it down and memorising it and spilling it back – we need a component of that for sure.”

But it needs to be integrated into a flexible suite of teaching styles and contexts if students are also going to graduate with the skills demanded in the changing workplace.

The next generation of workers, he says, “have to be collaborative, have to access information very quickly, have to work in teams, have to be very lateral in the way they approach problems, so they require a learning environment that builds those skills”.

wooden cubes reading the words 'old school' on the side and 'new school' on the front

So what are we learning about what a 21st century “classroom” should look like? For a start, it’s not a classroom, says Associate Professor Imms, it’s a learning environment. “I’m still an advocate of lecture theatres and of didactic teaching spaces, because there are times where it is more efficient to teach big groups, where a teacher just has to say sit down, write this down, memorise it and give it back to me.

“But then you need to move quickly into getting five kids to go and nut it out together. Or for the walls to move to cut a space for 60 students down to groups of 20. Or for students to retreat into private cubby holes to research on their own. So the ideal space has that flexibility.”


Watch how by changing the way school classrooms are structured, researchers are improving the way children learn

One interesting snapshot result from the research so far is that kids learning in flexible spaces improved their mathematics grades when compared to a traditional classroom; and one teacher who had been a die-hard opponent became an evangelical advocate.

“It’s an example of the scenarios that underpin this project,” says Associate Professor Imms. “Teachers don’t always realise the power of potential they have to use in the physical space.”

The two Australian Research Council (ARC) linkage projects are running back to back, with the Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change Project (ILETC), a $2 million study, running for the next four years, and the Evaluation of 21st Century Learning Environments (E21LE) shortly coming to an end.

Teachers don’t always realise the power of potential they have to use in the physical space.

Associate Professor Wesley Imms

They are both cross-disciplinary, bringing together researchers from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, through the Learning Environments and Applied Research Network (LEaRN).

Stonefields School, Auckland, NZ. Shared spaces enable collaborative teaching and student directed learning. Architect: Jasmax. Picture: Alex de Freitas.

The ILETC project is a massive undertaking, potentially involving more than 6000 schools across Australia and New Zealand. Having dug into some of the environmental questions through the earlier ARC research, Associate Professor Imms says the project is moving into a much more contentious area – “challenging teachers to rethink what makes ‘good teaching’ in these spaces.”

The first step is to explore how teachers are using these fast-proliferating innovative environments. Arguably, many are teaching just as they always have, despite being in new spaces.

“So this is an intentionally provocative project, in that we are going out to teachers and saying ‘you might be able to teach even better if you make the most of the opportunities these spaces provide’,” says Associate Professor Imms.

“While the project is about space, it is really about our teachers adapting to change, about rethinking how they teach in light of innovative design and the future needs of their students.”

While rows of desks facing the blackboard are fast becoming a relic of the past, it is hard to predict what the classrooms of the future may look like. But one thing is certain – if they are to be truly effective, the teachers working within them must keep pace with change. And providing a roadmap to help them do so is a useful start.

Find out more about this research.

Our Lady of Assumption Primary School, Sydney. A single classroom with moveable furniture and different types of spaces encourages student choice, playfulness and independence. Architect: BVN. Picture: John Gollings.