The design themes reshaping schools

Matthew Greene and Jane Johnson spearhead the design expertise of Paynter Dixon’s education sector, working closely with schools to create innovative learning environments that support pedagogical practices.

The two architects recently attended the 20th Annual Learning Environments Australasia Conference in Adelaide, where a community of educators, designers, and decision-makers explored a range of themes connected to Building Learning Ecosystems.

Interestingly, Matthew is one of only 16 accredited Learning Environment Planners with the Association for Learning Environments based outside north America.

Reflecting on the Conference and their own work, we asked Matthew and Jane to discuss influential design themes: visual connection, student insights, and adaptive re-use.

More than a visual connection

The conference delved into visual connection within schools. What does this theme involve?

Jane: We can see a strong movement away from corridors which exist solely for circulation and classrooms which are limited to a pillbox window in the door. There is a move towards greater visual connection between areas, from classroom to classroom, and for the corridors to become more like ‘break out spaces’ for a multitude of activities.

There was overwhelming support at the Conference for this design approach, from both teachers and students. A principal from one Adelaide school who led a discussion panel emphasised the importance and success of ‘deprivatisation of teaching’ and ‘co-teaching’ where teachers are encouraged to engage more with each other than they may have in the past. We had the opportunity to visit schools in Adelaide to see good examples of buildings which promoted this pedagogical approach.

Matthew: One of the students who spoke at the conference voiced his support for this design approach. He felt a greater sense of the collective school community simply by line of sight. This was quite a considered comment from a senior student. He talked about the sense of belonging to a greater whole and feeling more connected to fellow students from all cohorts.

Has Paynter Dixon implemented this principle?

Matthew: Yes. Perhaps the best example is the Atrium Building at Norwest Christian College, which embraces the College’s Building Purposeful Lives framework. This is about students growing as learners and becoming ‘pilots of their learning’. This led to us creating a range of spaces from which students could choose, from open collaboration areas to private study niches. Hence, these spaces are breaking beyond the conventional, largely ‘private’ four-walled classroom to take on circulation spaces such as corridors. We created a wide learning stair within the two-storey atrium, providing another area for students to gather.

Students of Norwest Christian College gather informally on the learning stair, and within proximity of a class.

Are students within a classroom distracted by this level of transparency?

Matthew: There is an assumption that extending visibility outside the room creates a distraction for students. Where schools are adopting high levels of transparency, students may be initially distracted, but they soon settle down again. The altered environment becomes the new norm.

Jane: Transparency and full-height glass in classrooms can have peripheral benefits. For visually engaging subjects such as food technology or woodwork, classrooms facing onto courtyards allow outside students to observe and nurture an interest in those subjects.

Learning studios are visually connected to each other, adjoining circulation spaces, and natural light.

Learning from students

Paynter Dixon regularly conducts student workshops. What’s the purpose behind this?

Matthew: We conduct these workshops as part of the master planning service we provide. It’s an acknowledgement that students are a significant stakeholder group which can be overlooked in the design process. They are the ultimate client so to speak. It can be a process that goes into detail, but we are not expecting students to participate as designers. We are seeking to understand their lived experience. For example, the student who endures the dusty bus bay every day. This is what we tap into.

Are you surprised  by what you learn?

Jane: We recently hosted a student workshop in Western Sydney. It was fascinating to observe how the students’ primary focus was furniture. The students are keen to see chairs with adequate support, and tables that provide enough space for their items. They were not  interested so much in ‘fashion’, but more in good ergonomics.

Matthew: The feedback from that workshop was a forceful reinforcement of what we have picked up on every student workshop conducted over the last 10 years. Students are seeking practical and useful  furniture.

As adult architects and interior designers, we can be attracted to the variety of finishes, fittings, furniture and so on. The diversity is visually impressive and can introduce colour, but that comes at the risk of missing the mark. With the Atrium building at Norwest Christian College, we tested furniture ahead of completion. A number of furniture items were subsequently  rejected, allowing us to finalise selections with confidence.

The art of listening. St Brigid’s Catholic College engaged our Education team to develop a master plan to guide campus expansion. We began the process with a student workshop.

Matthew, Jane and the education team also convene for internal workshops to discuss emerging themes.

Adapt and prosper

The conference also looked at the adaptive re-use of school buildings. What’s the opportunity for schools?

Matthew: Even if you have aged building stock, there is scope for repurpose and give these buildings a ‘new lease of life’. This can include the conversion of warehouses or work sheds into multi-purpose spaces, such as general learning and dance studios, to STEM and kitchen facilities, and so on.

In many situations, the building itself can serve as a learning tool and part of student education. For example, being able to see the roof structure such as  original trusses can help students begin to grasp principles of engineering.

There is also a move towards linking indoor and outdoor environments. Either from a nature play concept, or from a sustainability perspective. Amongst a generation who are clearly focused on environmental sustainability, vegetable gardens, recycling and compost farms are examples of how outdoor education is becoming more  sought after and appreciated.

To learn more, contact Jane Johnson on