(adapted Byers, T. & Imms, W. (2017) Solution Evolution Or Revolution, Learning Spaces, 3(3), 50-58)
There is little doubt that the design of learning spaces is undergoing a fundamental change at the moment, but why should the evaluation of those spaces be a priority? These so called ‘twenty-first century’, ‘flexible’ or ‘Innovative Learning Environments’ (ILEs) are argued to be able to shape behaviour and experiences to affect a desired pedagogical change. Here there appears to be a rejection of the prevailing teacher-centred conventional or cellular classrooms in favour of flexible and learner-centred environments, which range from adaptive, purposeful spaces through to open-plan. The resulting allure of ILEs has seen them become a matter of policy and systemic investment, with OCED countries like the Australia and New Zealand directing more than AUS$16B of public funding in building projects since 2009, and currently allocating up to $7B per year in future infrastructure. This is a massive investment. On what grounds is it warranted? Where is the evidence?
There are a small number of examples where evaluation of different learning spaces has driven sustained and measured improvement in schools. One such example is a seven-year partnership between the Anglican Church Grammar School (Churchie) and the University of Melbourne’s Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN). The partnership started with the modest refurbishment of a single classroom space in 2011. The aim was to develop an evidence base and corporate understanding that would inform two building projects; the Hayward Midson Creative Precinct and The Centenary Library. The interactive and longitudinal process of evaluation not only identified the design, materials, and technologies that worked (and those that did not), the pedagogical return on improved student learning experiences and outcomes but also developed the knowledge and skills of its teachers. Furthermore, the evaluation process initiated the Churchie Learning Analytics programme (visualisation showing cohort, class and individual student performance and academic gain relative to the scaled cognitive ability, emotional intelligence and work ethic in all subjects) and linking pedagogy, technology and space observational metrics (real-time and visual student and teacher activity in any subject and classroom setting used for feedback during bi-annual teacher appraisal process).
The partnership between Churchie and the University of Melbourne’s LEaRN has been pivotal to two significant Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Projects. Churchie was a pivotal partner organisation in ‘Evaluating 21st Century Learning Environments’ (E21LE), a three-year, five-partner, cross disciplinary (architecture and education) project. E21LE forged new ground by creating new knowledge through empirical methods in a field previously considered too difficult to undertake – that is, the empirical evaluation of educational learning spaces. The significance of the E21LE project saw it underpin the much larger ARC Linkage Project ‘Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change’ (ILETC). This four-year Australasian project brings together researchers in education, architecture and design, along with 15 partner organisations, to examine what support is required to assist teachers to maximise space as a component of their pedagogic practice and to consider the impact of this ‘change’ on student learning. This project will bridge the gap between the educational potential of ILE design and their actual performance, and do so working with schools, government and industry.
Why evaluate classroom environments and how it benefits schools, students and teachers?