JimatNAB.jpegJames' reflections on the Melbourne research trip


When you get the opportunity to be involved in something like this you feel pretty privileged and honoured to be part of it. I felt very positive about the day beforehand and afterwards, but there were also a few niggles in the back of my mind. Reading about new learning spaces I was especially conscious of acoustic issues (having had the Junior School experience where we had to hastily build music classrooms rather than use those open spaces!).

There's also that reservation about taking yourself out of the traditional classroom. Sure, I can see rows of desks and me standing at the front barking out orders isn't the most engaging situation, but part of me feels safe because I've been doing it for a decade. Part of me also knows the students feel safe when the roles are so prescribed just by the space.

So it was incredibly reassuring to hear that each of the institutions we visited had faced those exact problems and overcome them. At the University of Melbourne, we were told that a common question for a teacher entering a circular classroom (designed such to encourage collaboration and to discorage "chalk and talk" style teaching) was "where do I stand?"!

When it came to sound and communication the architects seemed to have taken the first big steps, dampening sound but not making it entirely dead, and from there it had been a question of educating the teachers (yes, the leaders in this field do advocate professional development rather than just plunging teachers into new classroom spaces) and teaching the students a level of respect for space and sound. We didn't actually see a big open space being used to teach two subjects at once, but then I've witnessed that on level 3 of the Junior School already when I think about it.

Don Collins, principal of Coburg, has high expectations of his staff to use their spaces creatively and effectively, and to adopt all technologies used by the school. He expects best practice and he expects prompt results. But he also understands that this takes time, and allocates it to them accordingly. Somehow he comes across as the good cop (in fact inspiring cop) and the bad cop of new best practice education, all in one. Take the pepper spray off him if you ever have to negotiate. A great guy.

The other thing that really struck me about the institutions that we visited was a very open approach to technology (not counting two rooms at the University of Melbourne which were designated technology free). At Coburg, for example, they use Studywiz as their LMS (although Don thinks they might get rid of it soon and just use Google apps); they have a custom built database which all students, parents and teachers can access for data like attendance, results and feedback; and all work (of both staff and students) is published in wikis hosted on OSX server. But don't stop there - teachers, students and management employ any other technology available, including communicating with students via Facebook, making online groups with Nings, and so on. There is no restriction to use technology in a top-down way. Similarly, at Melbourne University I was surprised to see new rooms full of desktop PCs (in both standing and seated configurations). "Don't they mostly have laptops or netbooks?", I asked, because this is the way it is at UNSW where I'm currently studying. "Yes," came the answer "but to quickly check their email or Facebook it's quicker to walk up to the computer bar than open their bag, wait for their laptop to come out of hibernation, and then shut it down again. This is easier for them.".

Hearing such elements of space design makes you realise you're not just dealing with architects with fancy ideas. Those curvy rooms don't just look nice, they've been created after talking to teachers and students about how they want to be in each space. Sure, during this process we're probably going to find ourselves out of our comfort zones every now and then, but on this trip I got the distinct feeling we're in safe hands.