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Designing the classroom to match 21st century teaching

Designing the classroom to match 21st century teaching

Image credit: Bellevue Hill Primary School and NSW Department of Education

Educational researchers based at The University of Melbourne are using funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Projects scheme to study how innovations in school architecture affect student learning, and develop tools which are helping teachers to bridge the gap between the educational potential of classroom designs, and their actual performance.The design of a school classroom is intimately connected with the quality of education that students receive, but there is a limited amount of evidence to inform how new innovations in learning environments can be effectively used by teachers and students.

Image credit: Bellevue Hill Primary School and NSW Department of Education

Project leader, Associate Professor Wesley Imms, works at the Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN) group, a cross-disciplinary industry and academic collaboration founded by The University of Melbourne’s faculties of Education, Architecture and Medicine. He has extensive experience in working in primary and secondary schools both as a teacher and as a researcher. He has brought together a large research team and fifteen partner organisations spanning education, architecture, museum education, information technology, acoustical engineering and furniture design, to work on the complex problem of accommodating the new learning approaches required by 21st century schooling.

“Our current project is building on previous ARC Linkage Projects grants on this topic, which track the development of this field across a decade. In the first two grants, we were concerned with the quality of the design of buildings. A third grant was about the evaluation of learning spaces. Now we need to resolve how the design is impacting on teachers—how teachers use these spaces,” says Associate Professor Imms.

Ever since the 1970s open plan classrooms with innovative designs have been built in Australia and around the world, to encourage different ways of learning. Most recently, the Australian Government’s 2009 Building the Education Revolution program invested $16.9 billion in the refurbishment and building of new school environments; much of this went into so-called ‘innovative designs’.

“Innovative Learning Environments (ILEs) are a design of classroom environment where teachers get the maximum amount of choice in what they teach, and how they teach it. Seventy five per cent of classrooms in Australian schools are classrooms where all desks face the front, where teachers stand and talk at the students, and students write things down. In the 21st century these classrooms don’t work.“A lot of money is spent on school infrastructure. The problem is that the train has gone ahead, and designs are not always based on the best evidence,” says Associate Professor Imms.

“An ILE can be designed with good sightlines, or with retractable walls, so that teaching can make use of indoor and outdoor space. The best ILEs start with the teachers talking about what sort of teaching and learning they want to see, and building the space around that, as opposed to architects having to solve both pedagogic and design issues by themselves.”

In the first phase of the project, the research team conducted three systematic reviews, a large survey, multiple teacher workshops, and a large number of case studies across Australian and New Zealand schools. This was to collect baseline data and test the project’s assumptions about the efficacy of Innovative Learning Environments. Despite huge investments in school infrastructure, existing evidence is rare to show its impact. For example, a systematic review of educational literature found that of 5,521 articles retrieved (since 1960) regarding ILEs impact on student learning outcomes, only 21 studies met the projects criteria of ‘quality research’.

Having identified gaps in the knowledge base and learning experience in phase 1, in phase 2 the research team is building a multi-faceted resource ‘toolbox’ to build teachers' spatial competence in teaching and learning activities. This contains knowledge tools, strategy tools, evaluation tools, and professional development tools.

Image credit: Harbord Primary School and NSW Department of Education

This is being trialled with the three schools who are partner organisations on the project—The Anglican Church Grammar School (Churchie) in Queensland, The Woodleigh School in Victoria, and the Australian Science & Mathematics School in South Australia. This will then be rolled out to hundreds of schools across the jurisdictions of QLD, NSW and ACT Departments of Education, and the New Zealand Ministry of Education, who are also partner organisations on the project. 

Associate Professor Imms’ team has found through conducting surveys and case studies with school principals and teachers in Australia and New Zealand, that teachers are teaching well in ILEs, but, anecdotally, it can take five years for teachers to adapt to teaching in a new classroom environment. With the toolkit, they are hoping to cut that time down considerably, and extend this advantage to all schools regardless of geographical or socio-economic situations.

“At the end of the first phase we have got a great overview of the state of play at the moment, and by the end of the second phase we will be ready to implement the toolbox with intervention groups,” says Associate Professor Imms.

“The dependent variable—the one we can measure—is the student’s deep learning. This goes further than the superficial learning captured by ATAR, NAPLAN and the like, to include issues such as students’ connection of learned knowledge to a wider range of concepts, how they critically examine facts and look for meaning in what is presented to them. It’s the reification of what ‘21st century learning skills’ research tells us Australia’s new graduates need to exhibit. Good teachers are those that get kids to engage with deep learning.”

“Traditionally with research, you keep the data, then you publish a paper perhaps a year later,” says Associate Professor Imms. “However, we put out a fact sheet straight away, then we put out a technical report, and from that pursue more traditional (and time consuming) academic publications.  We have a goal of disseminating quickly and sharing widely.  This generates conversation—we get a lot of requests for invited addresses internationally and locally, or from PhDs and visiting scholars to work with us. People see the data and they say ‘we want to hear about that’.With an emphasis on sharing their findings with end users, the research team has taken an open approach to disseminating research data, and they have found that it generates interest and builds momentum for change.

“We do briefings with our major partners every year. The first year when we were at the New Zealand Ministry of Education, we had three people,” says Associate Professor Imms. “Then when we went back last year, there were 60 people, from right across the disciplines, because they could see how it overlapped into their work.”

These collaborations mean that an unusually high number of PhD students on the project have come from an industry background into academia, says Associate Professor Imms.

Image credit: Bellevue Hill Primary School and NSW Department of Education

“We have eight PhDs on the project, all of whom are from professional practice, the majority from architecture and education. They see it as value adding to the knowledge that they already have.”

PhD students are also invited to present papers in a ‘transitions’ event run by the project team, which tours internationally through Europe and the United States. The event is attached to a ‘think tank’ where ideas and research insights can be exchanged between international researchers.

“The Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE), ranked top five in the world, is an extraordinarily rich research environment. The scale of our research, our huge industry support and activity, our international recognition, our re-defining of how to make new knowledge ‘transferable’ to the community—these characteristics mean that we stand out in this highly effective research environment,” says Associate Professor Imms. His team has received the Research Leadership Excellence Award, and the Research Partnership Excellence Award in recent years from the MGSE.

With a broad array of research partners, the research team has fully embraced the opportunity afforded by the ARC’s Linkage Projects scheme.

“The Linkage Projects scheme is set up for the kind of thing we do. We have a full-time research manager and a full-time research project manager, to disseminate the research results and keep strong links with each of our fifteen research partners,” says Associate Professor Imms. “When we enlist people on the project we tell them ‘you’re not just riding along’—you have to produce outcomes with us’—and the Linkage Projects scheme provides the avenue for this to happen.”


Images credit: Bellevue Hill Primary School and NSW Department of Education (image 1 & 3), Harbord Primary School and NSW Department of Education (image 2).

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