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Building Excellence: Exploring the implications of the Curriculum for Excellence for School Buildings



Dr Kenn Fisher
Educational Planner
Rubida Research

New curriculum directions, along with collaborative and team-based pedagogical approaches, now mean that many educators and policy makers are seeing the learning environment as a critical factor in schooling. School planning and design now has equal time at the school council table with ICT, curriculum and professional development.

Linking learning and learning environments

photoThere have been many attempts to establish a link between learning and the environments in which it takes place. 1 The results of quantitative studies suggest that test scores can improve by up to 14% depending on the condition of the learning environment. 2 However, these studies don't account for pedagogy, curriculum, technology, socio-economic status, good teaching, 3 the quality of the design of the learning environment and so on.

Attempts to establish a link between pedagogy and space have also been made through qualitative studies, 4 looking at the opinions of teachers, students and student councils. More recently, there have been general statements on the links between learning outcomes and design, 5 and further opportunities for empirical research on the importance of issues such as classroom layout. 6

The pursuit of such pragmatic results requires user-friendly data-gathering strategies. In this context, the OECD Programme on Educational Buildings is currently running a Facility Performance Evaluation pilot project. This international project will attempt to develop tools to evaluate the effectiveness of learning environments, identify best practice and improve quality standards of educational facilities worldwide. 7

In the Australian state of Victoria, the Department of Education has now taken a strong stand on this issue, requiring educational planners to develop instruments to measure the quality of the school designs within the most recent round of schools capital works projects. Two such instruments now exist. 8 The first is based on a suggested range of 18 possible pedagogies that imply spatial concepts to support themselves. The second is in development and is based on the Department's concept of ' POLT', or Principles of Learning and Teaching.



Figure 1 Source: Fisher, 2005, adapted from Scott Weber, 2004

photoFor the purpose of evaluation the POLT have been framed around the concepts of 'wellbeing', 'student engagement', 'learning for life' and 'global impact'. These elements are then assessed for spatial support structures in four key functional areas of these new schools - administration; learning commons; learning studios (technical and specialist spaces); and finally in non-formal learning spaces, such as play areas.

Three measures or 'tools' have been developed. The first is for information gathering at the outset or conceptual stage of a project; the second is for use during the design phase of a project, to provide a space for collaboration and communication between teachers and designers; and the third is for testing the school in operation, and is usually known as a Post Occupancy Evaluation.

The Phase 2 tool, for the design phase, is currently being piloted at a selection of schools in Broadmeadows, a suburb in Melbourne, Victoria, which is considered to be one of the most disadvantaged suburbs in Australia. Feedback suggests that the approach is proving successful in its ability to prompt meaningful discussion between members of the learning community and design team.

Pedagogy, space and designing for people

One of the key issues in the design of learning environments, and perhaps one of the key barriers to change, has been the difficulty of developing a common language, vocabulary or 'spatial literacy' in what is a very complex and intricate process and product interaction. There has been an enormous amount of research into pedagogy, curriculum, information and communication technology ( ICT), as well as other educational fields, 9 but very little rigorous academic research into the design and effectiveness of learning environments.

One study of significant relevance is InSync, 10 conducted by the chair of an interior design school in the USA who is also a behavioural psychologist. This study examined pedagogy and related learning settings - in effect linking pedagogy and space. The wide range of pedagogies was collapsed into five key approaches - delivering, applying, creating, communicating and decision-making. Each of these five approaches was then linked to spatial learning settings (Fig. 1).

These learning settings can be applied to the layouts of learning environments, in order to demonstrate the ways in which the space can be used. The provision of a multitude of possibilities is essential in promoting flexibility. This is particularly important given the need to personalise learning settings and respond to the increasing mobility of students, as advancements in technology allow for learning to occur 'anywhere, any time'.

ICT is now virtually ubiquitous. We no longer need 'computer labs' and fixed items of equipment.

Fig. 2 Piaget's Stages of Intellectual Development





2-7 years

  • Basic language acquisition
  • Symbolic understanding
  • Decision-making not yet logical
  • Awareness of space & time ( e.g. big, small, past, present, future)
  • Egocentric behaviour


7-12 years

  • Logical thinking
  • Ability to organise & classify sequentially
  • Ability to problem-solve using concrete information



  • Ability to think abstractly & scientifically
  • Problem solving through propositional thinking
  • Ability to reason based on assumptions; to test, hypothesise & question

McInerney M. & McInerney V., Educational Psychology: Constructing Learning, Pearson Education Australia Pty Ltd, 2002

Wireless connectivity means that projectors, computers, printers and so-on can be relatively easily moved. This means that we can design for pedagogy and people and not be restricted by equipment requirements (with the exception of some specific subject areas such as chemistry, food technology and others requiring materials with health and safety requirements).

We also now know that people learn in different ways. Neuro-linguistic programming and brain-related research have identified a range of ways that people learn - auditory, visual and kinesthetic. 11 The Department of Education in Victoria suggests that the key frameworks for learning in the 21st Century include enquiry and project-based learning and, most importantly, personalised learning. This last approach means that pedagogies must be differentiated and it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain such an approach within the traditional classroom environment.

The teacher-centred classroom, originally intended to house rows of desks facing the front, can no longer satisfy this differentiated model completely. Some studies are now showing that there needs to be an increase of some 30% in the space allowance for learning environments, so that specialised personalised activities such as remedial reading can be carried out. 12

Furthermore, one of the key developments in recent years has been the concept of collaborative learning, in particular peer-to-peer learning. This can be accompanied by team teaching, an approach which allows teachers to specialise in particular subject areas and to learn from each other's teaching practices. It also has the benefit of exposing students to different teaching methods, giving them a greater chance of experiencing the teaching approach that suits their individual learning style. 13

Another factor that must be considered is the idea of age-related learning environments. Increasingly in Victoria we are seeing a further separation between nursery, primary, middle years and secondary-aged students. For example, in the primary years there is a further subdivision of P1 and P2; P3 and P4; and P5 and P6. 14 These subdivisions particularly suggest specific age and, progressively, stage-related environments. Connections between the various stages of learning become important in order to strengthen relationships between teachers and a broader range of students, facilitate effective transitions from one stage of learning to the next, and provide personalised learning experiences for students operating at a level above or below their present stage (Fig. 2).

Encouraging more fluid connectivity between different learning stages also impacts upon the spatial requirements of school buildings. We need to create learning environments that respond to the needs of the individual cohorts whilst reflecting the spatial elements of the surrounding spaces. This is demonstrated in Figs. 3-5 where it is possible to identify the individual characteristics designated to that year level, but there is also an attempt to represent features from year levels above and below. This may occur, for example, through architectural expression or the types of learning settings provided, the intention being to create an educational journey that supports and empowers students through the use of the familiar, whilst gradually introducing them to other new concepts.

Figs. 3-5 also demonstrate a progressive approach to flexibility in the learning space where the level of flexibility and the amount of 'open' space increases as the child develops. Preoperational students require structure and a sense of security that must be spatially represented, whereas concrete-operational and formal-operational students require spaces that will facilitate and promote their pursuit of exploration and shared knowledge. In response to this initial understanding of space allocation, a type of zoning occurs involving a ratio of spaces where students can 'belong', 'share', 'retreat' and 'explore'.

In the preoperational stages of learning there is an emphasis on belonging and sharing, as this is when students begin experimenting with their independence. At this stage, there is still strong parental involvement and the interaction between school and family is essential to providing students with a positive introduction to school life.

Fig. 3 Primary years 1 & 2

Fig. 3 Primary years 1 & 2

Fig. 4 Primary years 3 & 4

Fig. 4 Primary years 3 & 4

Fig. 5 Primary years 5 & 6

Fig. 5 Primary years 5 & 6

Fisher & McBride Charles Ryan Architects, 2007

The design response is to provide spaces that promote feelings of safety and security. Most often, this comes in the form of 'home rooms' - sometimes called pods, club rooms, or whatever title the school feels responds to the interests of its learners - where a regular routine is established in a familiar environment. It is at this stage that the learning space most closely resembles the traditional 'classroom' spaces of old, but new designs offer increased flexibility, for example using movable walls to facilitate collaboration and team teaching as well as connections to larger shared spaces, often designed to welcome families as well as students.

The need for a sense of belonging gradually decreases in the formal operational stages, along with the amount of space shared with parents. In the later stages of schooling, 'exploring' and 'retreating' are more heavily weighted. Having gradually experienced exposure to larger shared spaces, students become more comfortable in their interactions with others and also require spaces for more independent thinking and reflection. The flexibility of the space increases as the students develop, until in the final stages of learning the environment provides a range of spaces and facilities that respond to the individual needs of students pursuing future pathways.

For the purpose of communicating these concepts to members of the learning community, a visual representation is provided to demonstrate the allocation of spaces through the various learning stages. When these ratios are applied, a type of 'space map' can be developed that begins to resemble a functional space.

Shown here is an example of spaces for 'belonging' (shown in blue) in one of the primary schools for the Broadmeadows Regeneration Project in Melbourne, Victoria (Figs.3-5). The concept is also applied to senior schools, but with more emphasis on the location of collaborative spaces. In the earliest years of schooling, the spaces for belonging are large enough to house a class of 25 students for most of the day doing a range of activities (Fig. 3). In Years 3 and 4, these rooms become smaller and are used for specific activities that require some acoustic separation, such as intensive numeracy and literacy activities (Fig. 4).

The final stage of primary learning has no spaces for belonging, inspired by the notion that at this stage students should 'belong' to the entire space and be able to use it confidently and with behaviours learned through their gradual exposure to flexible learning spaces. Intimate spaces can be created through the use of flexible screening or movable furniture, of which more and more innovative designs are becoming available (Fig. 5).

Once space has been allocated according to the needs of learners in their various stages, a second zonal concept is applied, this time one that demonstrates the pedagogical activities occurring in the space. It is this wider range of pedagogical activities that is now suggesting a new learning environments model. The five pedagogical approaches (see Fig. 1) need carefully designed spaces with acoustic and visual privacy in some instances, and also they must be related to group sizes.

An intimate gathering space
Wooranna Park Primary School, Victoria, Australia (Mary Featherstone Design)

At the Broadmeadows Schools Project, 15 a framework is emerging which suggests that three or more such pedagogical zones - reflective, creative and interactive - might be applied across the learning environment. (Fig. 6)

Fig. 6 Activity Zones for Acoustic and Visual Control

Fig. 6 Activity Zones for Acoustic and Visual Control

Rubida Research

Applying these zones across the five pedagogical spatial types, the traditional classroom and laboratory begin to show up some serious deficiencies. Of course, we need to avoid going 'back to the future' in designing such environments as failed in the 1970s - the much demonised 'open plan' approach. These failed partly because of the lack of zoning but also because of the almost non-existent ICTs and professional development programmes. These zones can be seen in the middle school plan (Fig. 7).

The senior secondary Australian Science and Mathematics School 16 (Years 10, 11 & 12) used the idea of office landscaping as a metaphor with which to create learning 'commons' (a.k.a. classrooms) and collaborative research laboratory approaches to create 'learning studios' (a.k.a. laboratories). Both of these types of spaces allowed maximum flexibility in terms of group size and pedagogical activity, whilst still offering acoustic separation and/or controlled visual privacy if necessary. It should be noted that this school is predicated on a problem-based learning model which eliminates the idea of all students in a cohort doing the same tasks at the same time.

In the learning studios it was necessary to provide maximum visibility for duty of care, and so glazed partitions above bench-top height were the norm - it is possible to see right through the whole learning environment complex in some places. The concept of CDIO17 - conceive, design, implement and operate - is a more recent educational planning development in Australian senior secondary schools, used to authenticate learning and to create specialist spaces that more closely resemble post secondary and professional environments.

The laboratories have been designed as 'implement' spaces for experiments and other practical work, and there are also 'conceive' and 'design' spaces where quieter, yet potentially collaborative activities can occur. Links to the outdoors are also evident for extended pedagogical opportunities, as well as large scale 'operate' spaces for the testing of designs. The main aim behind the CDIO concept is to create spaces that respond directly to the pedagogical activities being conducted.

Fig. 7 Middle School Zoning

Fig. 7 Middle School Zoning

Rubida Research & Patrick Architects

Fig. 8 Factors Impacting on Learning Environments

Fig. 8 Factors Impacting on Learning Environments

Rubida Research

Wireless connectivity means that we can design for pedagogy and people and not be restricted by equipment requirements

In summary, there is a wide range of factors (Fig. 8) impacting on the so-called Ne(x)t Generation Learning Environment. Space and place have tended to take the back seat and only really come to the fore when school facilities become so run down or dysfunctional that action has to be taken. In the state schools in Victoria, the decay of facilities has required urgent action and also the drop in student numbers has necessitated serious action partly due to the drift to private schools but also to the inefficiency of operating assets which in some cases are only 50% or less utilised.

The concepts and philosophies behind Ne(x)t Generation Learning Environments are changing, so we continually sift through the seemingly endless documentation and exemplars, searching for ways to make schools more fun, more relevant and more capable of responding to social need. Clichés about the Holy Grail and the reinvention of the wheel aside, the pursuit of developing a thorough understanding of the linkages between learning and learning environments is truly a work in progress and the practice of improving the learning experiences of students becomes a lesson in itself.

Dr Kenn Fisher
Rubida Research

Dr Fisher is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Building at the University of Melbourne and a Senior Research Scholar in the Faculty of Education at the University of South Australia. With his two Rubida Research associates, Kenn consults internationally as an Educational Planner. He is currently working on school, TAFE and University projects in Malaysia, New Zealand and Thailand, as well as in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane within Australia. Rubida is currently engaged on five new school planning and design projects in Broadmeadows, Victoria. Dr Fisher is also a Chief Investigator in a $350k ARC research project examining the relationship between learning and environmentally-designed schools.


City of Edinburgh Council - a seminar with Kenn Fisher

Keith Thomson, Asset Planning, City of Edinburgh Council

On 24 May, Dr Fisher ran a seminar with the theme 'Linking Pedagogy and Space' for PPP2 school colleagues in the City of Edinburgh, to help them consider new ways of learning and teaching, as Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) will be at implementation stage by the time their new school environments are available.

Our objectives for the day were to consider how learning and teaching can become more collaborative by better understanding our use of space and deployment of ICT. We identified challenges and opportunities at a national and local level, e.g.:

  • Primary schools already seem engaged in working collaboratively and in developing CfE, while secondaries have more constraints to overcome - such as timetable structures, exam pressures and subject department 'territoriality'.
  • CPD will have a vital role, where required, in changing staff attitudes to teaching practices and increasing confidence and skills in the use of ICT.
  • Access to ICT must be universal - all staff, all pupils, all spaces - and available with support 24/7. Wireless technology and hand-held devices will make a major contribution to this and there is huge potential to develop links between home and school.

It is of central importance that we seriously consider the range, frequency and location of learning activities before proposing configurations of space for our new school buildings.