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Smart Green Schools: investigating the links between pedagogy, space and sustainability

Clare Newton

Clare Newton is Senior Lecturer in Architectural Design and Practice, Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, University of Melbourne. She is also co-editor with Kenn Fisher of Learning Spaces: The transformation of educational spaces for the 21st century.

Today there is a widespread desire to create more flexible and diverse settings for students' learning; to align school architecture with new opportunities for networking through ICT, with moves toward cross-disciplinary study and with the shift in the teacher's role from knowledge provider to learning facilitator.

The Smart Green Schools project is examining these issues in relation to the middle school environment. The project's researchers are investigating the links between pedagogy, space and sustainability, and considering how learning spaces can be redesigned to support student-centred practices at these year levels. The research team has been looking at ways in which middle school learning environments can be designed to facilitate student engagement and, more broadly, how flexibility in school design affects learning, environmental monitoring, spatial analysis and teacher professional development. The project has focused on a small number of Victorian schools offering innovative learning spaces and environmentally responsible and pedagogically sensitive design.

The project, conducted 2007–2010, has been funded by a $340,000 Australian Research Council Linkage Grant. The leaders of the research team (see Acknowledgements) cover the fields of architecture, sustainability, education, education planning and urban design.

The research is occurring against the backdrop of the Australian Government's Building the Education Revolution economic initiative, introduced in February 2009, and a commitment by the Victorian Government to spend $1.9bn on rebuilding and modernising schools. The Smart Green Schools project staff have endeavoured to keep abreast of these developments while maintaining focus on their research framework.

What follows is a summary of some of the background issues, research strategies and early outcomes relating to the project.

Traditional and alternative models of the school environment

Since the nineteenth century, schools have primarily been composed of classrooms around circulation corridors. Classrooms are sized to accommodate a group of children with one or sometimes two teachers. The classroom is recognisable by its size, its whiteboard, the students' tables and chairs in rows, groups or in a U-shape, and the teacher's desk. Normally there are windows only to the outside, and one entry door. This format is still the most common, with other models, such as the Reggio Emilia early learning centres and the 1939 Crow Island School, exceptions to the norm.  

In the 1970s there was a move toward open plan teaching environments, strongly influenced by research of the US based Educational Facilities Laboratories and the new experiential and student-centred learning advocated by John Dewey and Paolo Friere. However, the experiments of the period are remembered as a failure. Higgins et al. (2005) attribute this lack of success to two related factors. Firstly, while new forms of pedagogy were being explored, they were not integrated with the concurrent move to open plan learning spaces. Secondly, teachers, students and the community were not sufficiently involved in the school design process. School designs 'cannot be imposed nor bought off-the-shelf. Success lies in users being able to articulate a distinctive vision for their school and then working with designers and architects to create integrated solutions'. The open-plan classroom movement 'showed that purely physical design solutions that are not owned by their users or supported with effective systems and behaviour change will not work'. (Higgins et al. 2005 p3)

One of the aims of the current project is to find ways to support the alignment of architectural spaces in schools to current practices in teaching and learning.

Research method

The project initially examined a range of new and older schools within Australia and Britain before focusing on four middle schools' environments. These sites consisted of a large regional high school; a Year 5/6 space undergoing renovation in a an inner city heritage primary school; a new suburban high school, and a new outer suburban high school amalgamating three existing schools.

Two PhD students, a teacher and an architect have led the research, using methods including ethnographic observation, interviews, spatial mapping and participatory action. At each site these researchers have also held workshops with middle years' teachers and students, to explore how their learning spaces might best be furnished.

At each site teachers have explored ways to introduce inquiry based learning and apply constructivist learning principles. The students at these schools helped to collect environmental data while learning more about climate and energy and the use of a range of hand-held devices such as infra-red cameras and temperature monitors. Students at these year levels are well placed to contribute: they have the skills and interest to be involved with the research and their curriculum has the flexibility to accommodate projects on space, furniture and sustainability.

Preliminary findings

The research findings so far confirm the close relationship of pedagogy with organisational structures, timetable, furniture, space, acoustics and physically comfortable settings. The findings also bear out the need to involve staff and students in the implementation of change to a school's physical spaces.

The 'Hub' case study

One of our case study middle schools included an open plan area the size of four classrooms within a school which otherwise has a traditional classroom layout. It was a last minute decision during the design process to combine four classrooms into one. This case study school is innovative in its approach to sustainability and includes cutting-edge specialist content while being more conventionally organised around subject lessons. The open plan area, called the 'Hub' was used for teachers and students for inquiry based learning but teachers reported that it was not working effectively. Staff would take students whenever possible into the library or computer rooms rather than work in the open-plan Hub space.

A day-long workshop involving school staff and some members of the research team helped to clarify the problems further. They identified several factors holding back students' ability to adapt to an inquiry based mode of learning. One was the subject-based timetable, meaning that classes on IBL were short and distributed across the week. Other problems, however, concerned space and facilities. Large heavy tables and the out-of-date computers meant that students could not easily collaborate on their project topics. The space was not 'owned' by any group. Classes were interrupted by students using the space as a thoroughfare. The teachers told us that if the acoustics, ICT and furnishings were improved then the space would work.

An acoustic engineer invited to test the space confirmed the difficult acoustics and suggested rectification strategies. A design brief was developed during the workshop which resulted in the following schematic designs by the architecture firm. The design, while still open plan, allowed for a range of different scaled spaces. Staff and students are finding these spaces much easier to use.

Other case study schools

In the other case study schools, teachers are also scaffolding students to take charge of their learning. They describe how more varied spaces are allowing students to work in a range of self-directed modes. Co-location of teachers' workspaces to the edge of a learning space is helping teaching teams to collaborate.

In the primary school located in a heritage building, teachers using constructivist learning methodologies are making use of three rooms that have been opened and interconnected to allow 75 students to work with a team of three teachers. Learning spaces flow into the corridors and adjacent aftercare space. The principal is gradually extending the strategy into the lower years, again with new spaces and pedagogies aligned.


The aims of our research have been both practical and theoretical. Practically, there has been an urgent need for current and local data on school design to ensure government funds are being spent effectively and to ensure Australian children have access to facilities that support their learning. Theoretically, the research project has sought to advance thinking about how schools, as complex systems, engage with contemporary design, curriculum and environmental issues.

During the research the project team has observed that even thoughtfully designed and furnished spaces do not in themselves change teaching practices or learning experiences. Wide involvement in decision-making and design briefing supports co-ownership of the education vision, the education brief and the education design.  

Acknowledgements and further information

Smart Green Schools was funded by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council Linkage Grant Scheme. The Chief Investigators: Clare Newton, Dr Dominique Hes, Dr Sue Wilks, Dr Kenn Fisher and Professor Kim Dovey respectively come from the diverse fields of architecture, sustainability, education, education planning and urban design. The Industry Partners are the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, the Victorian Government Architects Office, Rubida, Mary Featherston Design, Hayball, H2o Architects, McGauran Giannini Soon Architects, McBride Charles Ryan Architects and SBE Melbourne. Educator, Ben Cleveland and architect, Ken Woodman received postgraduate scholarships to complete their PhDs as part of the project.

The project has just received a University of Melbourne Knowledge Partnership Award.

The Smart Green Schools research staff are also undertaking two related research projects. A second ARC Linkage Grant, Future Proofing Schools is looking at the potential to transform the temporary classrooms which are known around Australia by terms such as 'relocatables' or 'transportables'. The methodology includes an Ideas Competition to be run in the second year. A third small seeding grant, Template Schools is considering the research potential of the template spaces which are being built under the Federal Government BER initiative.


Higgins S; Hall E; Wall K; Woolner P; McCaughey C. The Impact of School Environments: A Literature Review 2005 London: Design Council, 2005


Subject Headings

School buildings
Educational evaluation
Educational planning
Teaching and learning