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Building for creativity and innovation in a digital world

This article was originally published in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of Architecture Australia.

Terry Byers
Director of Innovation in Learning
Anglican Church Grammar School
Dr Wesley Imms
Senior lecturer
Melbourne Graduate School of Education
The University of Melbourne
Lachlan Rothwell-Meehan
Director, Brand and Slater Architects
In this so-called 'knowledge generation', creating successful school buildings means more than fitting a design within an existing envelope and style genre. Educators expect classrooms, buildings, even whole campuses to perform pedagogically. No longer are students permanently confined to desks and lecture theatres and to learning didactically. More often they are engaging in the generation of technology-infused knowledge and collaborative enquiry that stretches beyond the school walls and, with the proliferation of mobile technologies, beyond the school day and in one-on-one learning. In this new era, teachers are both participants in the learning process and the originators of learning. As a consequence, learning environments are no longer just the places where people are taught; they are an active part of the teaching process, and digital technologies now bear the responsibility of enhancing buildings' educational performance.
At the Anglican Church Grammar School (Churchie) in the inner suburb of East Brisbane, a forward-thinking innovations team—key staff engaged in the task of exploring how spaces affect the learning process—has been driving change in the School. The team has worked on a number of learning environment research projects in partnership with Melbourne University's Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN). From 2012, the work with LEaRN had developed an evidence base to support the redesign of other learning spaces in the School, matched with an evaluation of the effect of this change on teaching practices and student learning. In 2013, the team turned its attention to the Creative Precinct, and Brisbane studio Brand and Slater Architects was charged with the task of retrofitting the existing film and media, design, drama, and visual art building.

The Creative Precinct brief was to bring connected buildings into one pedagogical space and to be a catalyst for creativity, collaboration, innovation and enterprise. Their problem-solving and project-based nature already made these subjects heavily dependent on technology-mediated learning, but they now needed a space in which they could be brought together appropriately. The subsequent design employs an "open studio" approach, which allows the students to occupy and transit between didactic teaching spaces, specialist technology-enabled workshop areas and highly flexible indoor and outdoor communal spaces. This dynamic cycle of occupation and transition is intended to support students' transit through the creative process of conceptualisation, design, experimentation, execution, evaluation and re-engagement with their work. In this design, it was conceived that students and teachers could enjoy easy access to all learning spaces at all times. The design acknowledges that technology mediated, creative learning occurs in a variety of settings, between a range of people (both staff and peers) and through a variety of modes.
The project required a significant rethink about the way information and communication technologies (ICT) and the design of learning spaces can work in synergy to support evolving pedagogy and curriculum. To the team at Churchie, these key elements had great potential to support better educational outcomes. The digital education revolution had seen significant investment in infrastructure Australia wide, but the promised educational gains of digital technologies have perhaps not been realised—especially when compared with their transformational impact on tertiary education, business, science and wider society.

The Creative Precinct concept addresses the integration of technology from curriculum-based, pedagogical and spatial perspectives. Empirical research demonstrated that the physical configuration of learning spaces had a significant and direct impact on how students used one-to-one technology as a learning tool: traditional classrooms restricted student use of technology, while polycentric layouts and flexible furniture allowed students and teachers to blend learning styles, leading to increased perceptions of the quality of teaching and student engagement, as well as more effective use of ICT. In addition, learning space evaluation tools developed by LEaRN were used to engage teachers and administrators in defining the educational brief for the space and the curriculum needs of the subjects it would house across the lifespan of the building. From this research, Brand and Slater Architects provided layouts that defy the traditional integration of technology in creative spaces in order to develop more dynamic and social learning environments. The studios and workshops are not tight, static, hierarchical containers of learning but social and inviting spaces that encourage a comprehensive use of equipment and expertise throughout the building. The design and configuration of these spaces now act as a conduit for the convergence of technology and contemporary pedagogy.
Thanks to the unique research partnership formed by Churchie, LEaRN and Brand and Slater Architects, it is our hope that Churchie's Creative Precinct project heralds new thinking in the design of secondary school environments intended to foster creativity and innovation. The Creative Precinct was opened in October 2014; however, the work of the research partnership is not yet completed. Supporting teachers and students to ensure they use the space effectively forms part of the LEaRN partnership, as does measuring its impact on learners in the space. While the success of the design and build is one significant outcome, it is our ambition that the Creative Precinct's groundbreaking achievement will be in pioneering the blend of research, pedagogy and design when reconceptualising new educational facilities.

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