Sunday, September 2, 2012

Valuing the voices: The design process begins

Right now it's just covered in grass, but there’s a tangible air of excitement at the moment as talk turns to our school’s second build and what new learning hubs might look like. A steadily climbing role has meant that there is a need for new learning spaces mid next year, somewhat ahead of schedule, and being a place that highly values the collaborative process, there is no lack of interest in being part of the process. This grass, over the next twelve months is set to be transformed!

But what does that collaborative process need to look like and who needs to be part of it. In essence, ‘whose voice are we valuing?’

It seems that there are a number of key stakeholders that need to be part of the consultation process- the teachers, the students, the parents and the leadership in the form of the Principal’s team and the Board of Trustees.

To date we’ve begun working with the teaching staff and the students. We’ve asked the teachers questions such as:

“How would you change the current hubs if you could?”
“If you could start from scratch, what might they look like?”
“How many break-out rooms, and what size should they be?”
“What types of learning settings do we have/ not have?”

And we’ve begun to engage with a student group, and have asked similar questions:

“What do you like/ dislike about the present learning hubs?”
“What would you design that would be an improvement?”

Next on the horizon is the first of a number of meetings with the community. It’s a crucially important group to bring with us on the journey and there’s certainly no shortage of parent interest.

In a sense this is the start of a knowledge building phase. It’s about understanding how teachers and students are utilizing the current spaces, hearing about the parts that work well or not as the case may be, appreciating where improvements might be made and what they might look like, and to give teachers time to reflect on the opportunities and challenges presented by open learning spaces. If, for example, we value collaboration, then how can we ensure that the spaces lend themselves to it?

The theme of participation in the design process is one that Woolner (2010), explores extensively. She argues that there is considerable evidence that engaging involvement from all stakeholders is a necessary part of the building or redesigning process, and one that should result in an environment that will fit the desired outcomes. The process itself she suggests is a complex one. There are issues of whose voice is being heard, of relative positions of power and exclusion, of contemporary knowledge of learning and teaching and of not simply defaulting to what we’ve always known, the issue of language, and of who, ultimately,  actually gets to make the decisions.

In my view the important consideration is that the process truly values the voices of all participants; that it’s not simply a case of ticking the boxes and just acknowledging that we have ‘consulted’. As Woolner puts it “…the key to real participation lies in an ongoing, respectful and genuine dialogue, involving a wide range of people and ideas” (p. 77).

We know we’re in for an exciting journey…watch this space.


Woolner, P. (2010). The design of learning spaces. London: Continuum.


  1. Consultation with all stakeholders is critical in any and all school developments. What impact does school vision have on the impending design Chris? As a leadership team you have managed to get a lot of traction in terms of the notion of Open Learning Spaces with those whom you are working with. How does this alignment, this shared vision shape the way you are progressing?
    What would happen if you had significant parent voice that wanted to close in learning spaces? I am not suggesting this would happen as you have your community on board. It is meant as a provocative question that hits at the heart of true consultation - when prevailing ignorance in the guise of common sense threatens to derail the vision. What impact does your vision, your community education around learning spaces, your shared pedagogy have on this process?

  2. Nice questions Stephen.
    As we move into the consultation process one of the frames we have started to use is the school vision. How well for example does the environment enhance children’s opportunities to build learning capacity, to collaborate, or to make meaning? When we look at our current buildings we realize that under this frame there are potential improvements that could be made. If for example we believe that to help build independence and learning capacity learners need easy access to a central organizational space/ display, where the day’s workshops, learning progressions etc. are visible, then having a sink area in that central space doesn’t help to facilitate that. Some things we need to rethink.

    The space as we know is just one portion of what makes a learning hub operate well- it’s as much about the pedagogy, the level of collaboration and the technology. We’ve worked hard to bring our parent community with us on all these strands- regularly eliciting feedback through parent survey, focus groups, evenings on ‘why we do what we do’, and we know that our community understands and values the approach and the outcomes. We’ve asked several questions in the community survey specifically about the environments as well as how they perceive that their children benefit (or not) from being in a hub rather than traditional classroom. So I see the building process as just another step on the way. In one respect I think it is simply an extension (if you’ll excuse the pun), of what we’ve been doing for two years.

    Woolner talks quite a bit about different interest groups as part of the consultation, and warns against the process simply being a ‘tick the boxes’ or manipulative ‘we’ve heard what your view is but are going to do it our way anyway approach’. She also recognizes that parents while being highly interested can also bring a valid but potentially dated view of education with them. They could too, as you suggest, be resistant to change. There can be conflict too. The ones that get involved, she adds, are often self-selected, and it’s important to consider whose voice is being heard and whose is not. It is crucial to value these voices too as well as to expand participant’s knowledge and appreciation of the experience of other participants. It’s an interesting notion though. What would you do if all the community was pushing to close up the spaces in spite of the evidence and international best practice? And it may not be resistance from the community, it may be the teachers.

    If a school wasn’t used to ‘valuing the voices’, tapping into the parent viewpoint on a regular basis, and bringing the community along with it then perhaps there is potential for derailment. So I think at the outset it’s about being clear about the purpose, the end in mind, and about the consultation process. It’s unlikely that everyone will agree on everything but hopefully we can aim to be able to appreciate the reasons for any disagreements and to begin to resolve them.

    Exciting times ahead!

  3. Hi Chris and Steve
    I am enjoying the dialogue. As a well established school with a long tradition, about to rebuild 19 new learning spaces and retain 12 single cell spaces, we are considering what consultation looks like in this context. I have started with the Board and the staff and realise how important is is for key players, led by me, to have a clear vision about the learning conditions and the student outcomes we are wanting to achieve so that we are hoping the criteria (albeit high level) come out from these things we value. Chris , if you have any useful questions you could suggest I use with an established staff to help us build a criteria to give to the architects I would be really grateful!!! Carolyn , Westmere