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Design and learning: User-centred classrooms?

September 25, 2011

Yesterday, I had the good fortune (or foresight?) to attend a fascinating meeting. Some thirty-odd people gathered in Rush and Lusk Educate Together National School to share and hear views on the possible shape and form of second-level Educate Together schools.

Shape and form was the main focus, indeed, and not just figuratively speaking: The keynote address and one of the two plenary reports on current working groups focused on the physical  environment schoolchildren find themselves in.

Emma Creighton of TFE Research  started her explorations of the subject by working with current second-level students. In a week-long workshop, facilitated by Bridge21, kids from different secondary schools brainstormed what they like about their physical environment, what they don’t like, and what it would look like – given completely free rein.


Emma in action.

Emma will share her findings online soon, she says – I won’t try and do her fast-paced and detailed presentation justice here, but I’d like to just mention those aspects that jumped out at me most. Subjectivity guaranteed!

First of all, colours. Beige / yellow – way too much of it! Reminds students of prisons. Bah.

Yellow wall. One example.

And bah again – toilets. “I just don’t trust toilets any more” – thus one girl’s comment. Amazing how much these were mentioned! (In my experience, they are very important to primary-school kids, too – on two occasions, I was in schools which were moving to new, permanent buildings, and in both cases, the children’s first question was: Will the toilets be nice???)  We probably underestimate the importance of those places. Perhaps, apart from their functional aspect, they answer a need for retreat and solitude…

Which gets me to another aspect that was mentioned a surprisingly high number of times: Sensory rooms / quiet rooms / oratories / quiet outdoor places.  There is so much happening in schools that calm, peaceful spaces have become a big need.

Comfy. Calm. Lots of books...

And – here, my heart jumped with joy – libraries! Well-stocked libraries with comfortable reading areas and a library lady (yep, that’s what they said – but I’m sure a well-informed gentleman would do admirably, too) who could advise on what books to read next. Oh, and lest I forget —these libraries should have computers, too!

Communal spaces, where everyone could come together, were seen as crucial too, and corridors which were made for chatting, sharing, catching up with your friends, not just for rushing from one class to the next.

Making the most of outdoor spaces in Thornleigh, Swords Co. Dublin

Outdoor spaces, gardens, areas which allow for the mental transition between home and school – and spaces which allow learning to take place outside as much as possible. Wouldn’t I just love such a school for my son! (He’s starting Secondary in 2013, and an Educate Together school looks like a possibility for North County Dublin, be it in Balbriggan or Lusk — fingers crossed!)

And what about the classroom? A clean, well-lighted space is how the children’s comments could be summed up. Good-quality furniture, comfy (that first!), functional and aesthetic, flexible, and in good repair. A set-up that allows for individual, partner and group work. Technology to be available as a matter of course, but not at the cost of natural light, which was mentioned a lot. And furniture which should be made for the students and their needs! A “one-size-fits-all” approach should be avoided… children are not automatically a certain size just because they are a certain chronological age! This seems to be obvious, and yet, our primary classrooms are more often than not stocked with furniture of just the one size – which means hours and hours of very uncomfortable sitting for those children who are tall or small for their age. Not everywhere, though: Carlow Educate Together was mentioned as one example of putting furniture into classrooms according to children’s sizes, rather than age! 

A brilliant opportunity: Designing – and furnishing – the future!

There is an entire working group dedicated to second-level Educate Together schools and their architecture etc, called “Campus and Built Environment.” Patrick Flynn’s presentation at yesterday’s meeting mentioned a lot of issues that Emma had brought up as well, which was encouraging. On top of that, more great ideas, more food for thought, and great to see to which extent the purpose of the buildings and the interests of their main users (aka the students) is at the centre of this working group’s discussions. It’ll be great to see more of their current thinking online… maybe a good topic for a future #edchatie?

This German school was remodelled by Hundertwasser. Lovely entrance!

You can see a bit of the old facade in the right bottom corner.

One last question to you, the reader – any opinions on Hundertwasser-type architecture for schools? (I’m a bit of a fan, myself…) Looking forward to your comments!


From → School things

One Comment
  1. Hundertwasser all the way. Brilliantly written piece! Have experienced a beautiful sensory garden recently and a great little library. Different schools. Guess we can all just hope that they (Dept) can afford the very best facilities for our children despite the recession. I was home with my Mum at the weekend. The swallows were leaving, the roses were a – going and I thanked her for my most natural and beautiful upbringing. (We had a moment as she’d been living here for 43 years- wedding anniversary Sunday). It cost little! Accident of birth? Sometimes, I feel that upbringing is key. It may not be possible for many kids but mine cost nothing (grew up on small farm) and is worth so much even now as an old 37 year old lady. We can design and assist as teacher, but a natural upbringing means so much for so long! That’s why I have 6 swallows nests in the boot of my car for my kids this week! And the design of those was really cool!! How the birdies didn’t fall out of those creations is beyond me! Wish them well on their journey back. Thanks Sab for wonderful musings as usual xx

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