Designing listening in learning environments

The design speaks The Virtual Old School/New School Conference 2022 hosted Australasian architects, researchers and designers over three sessions. Short presentations by the speakers were followed by lively live dissections, including questions from the audience that sparked speculation about the future of design in education. A common theme in the work presented was the emphasis on listening to the design – not How? ‘Or’ What design but who should have a say in the process.

Session 1 was titled “Thinking Ahead: Designing the Evolving Campus”. With a growing focus across the country on designing with the country, designers, institutions and communities are navigating a landscape of engagement, agency, design and delivery. Accountability, including tangible ways to measure results, remains a challenge for those involved and, perhaps more relevant, for those not involved. The University of Queensland recently established Campus on Country Design Framework defines a series of evaluation checkpoints for stakeholder engagement that align with typical design stages. Evaluation generates responsibility; responsibility creates action; action creates change. The framework was aptly described by session moderator, Hassell Principal Adam Davies, as “setting an appropriately bold direction” on the design process with the country.

Music school in rural Burma by MLKK Studio.

Image: MLKK Studio

In Session 2, “Beyond the Classroom: Designing a Neighborhood Asset”, Kian Yam and Kwan Ho Li of Hong Kong-based studio MLKK described their investigation of the regional conditions of tribal communities in Myanmar and shared their process for a new school project with a strong social program. Consultation with the community informed their strategy for developing an economy-focused case to address the particular issues facing the region. Key considerations were whether the design could accommodate school functions as well as spaces for the community, and whether the project would generate local employment opportunities. The duo highlighted the importance of asking the right questions and recognizing the wider impacts of design – a common conference theme throughout the conference.

Trends in real-world, hands-on learning in education, coupled with community-focused programs, influence the “advertisement” of education campuses. High density neighborhoods demand better use of space, encouraging schools, councils, communities and industry to work together to share space and facilities. The value of these relationships has been central to the research and policy development of Ben Cleveland, associate director of the Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN) at the University of Melbourne). He described how shared facilities benefit all parties by spreading the financial and spatial burden while enabling “community hubs” before, during and after school hours.

Green Square Primary School by BVN.

Green Square Primary School by BVN.

Image: BVN

BVN Principal Ali Bounds described (Session 1) how partnerships and communities have influenced recent designs of practice for Green Square Primary School in Sydney and Brisbane South State Secondary College. The traditional boundaries of school/workplace, secondary/tertiary, private/community are blurred by community relations and in these projects this flexibility is supported by the architecture. Community spaces, such as auditoriums and sports fields, benefit from a privileged position on the ground plane, while transparent edges and permeable pedestrian pathways invite shared use of the campus.

Wangaratta District Special School by Sibling Architecture

Wangaratta District Special School by Sibling Architecture

The third session, “Get smart: Designing spaces for all learning abilities,” focusing on inclusion in education, explored the design of school environments for children with special needs, the agency of students in the design process and post-occupancy evaluation of inclusion. in education reforms. During the dissection, moderator Kellee Frith (consultant at Architectus) raised the importance of risk-taking for student learning, in the context of students’ right to positive outcomes in life. In his research, Peter Walker (Australian Association for Special Education) found that safe practices in some cases prioritize care over education. The net impact of these practices is that in some environments, opportunities for risk-taking have been engineered in, significantly reducing students’ learning opportunities. This question will undoubtedly remain a challenge for designers, educators and students today and in the future.

The conference amplified the conversation around integrated design thinking and stakeholder agency in education projects. The campus is no longer a place of schooling only; rather, it is a valuable community asset. To achieve good results for all stakeholders, it is necessary to consult a wide range of groups. The challenge posed by the speakers was not how to design for education, but how to integrate the design thinking of so many voices. To do this, an architect needs humility and a real ability to listen.

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