For quite a while I worked with an educator who was passionate about the potential for educational spaces, and even better, was in a position to do something about it. Noel Thomas was Deputy-Principal of Toorak College and was instrumental in a couple of major building projects there; both of which were based around a profound understanding and respect for students, the physical environment and it’s impact on learning.
His first project was a Senior Student Centre, moving the Year 11 and 12 students out of an ancient old weather board common room into a state of the art student centre complete with student lounge, break-out rooms and a lecture theatre where every seat had an individual wireless network point (this was just before wireless became common and effective. It was a transformational space, pointing students towards a university style learning environment; microwaves, bean-bags, internet connections everywhere. I remember some older staff saying that the lecture theatre would be a ‘white elephant’ and under-used. Within six months it was so heavily used you had to book it weeks ahead.
His second project was a total rebuilding of the old ‘tuck-shop’ into an indoor-out cafe where students and teachers (yes both together) could sit for coffee or lunch. Open before school and after school as well as during the day, the new cafe signalled something other than the fact that smartie cookies taste good; it also said that students had the right and responsibility to join teachers and parents daily, and that the school took their comfort seriously.
I think Noel’s original vision was something more akin to the Borders shops; moving the cafe into the library and transforming that space, but that might have been a bit too radical!
I thought of all this tonight when I was reading the edutopia blog A Comfortable Truth (kids don’t have to squirm to learn’) It’s a great post, and one along the design lines I was thinking about earlier in the week. Their 8 ‘truths’ include: ‘comfort matters’, ‘cozy and cheerful wins hearts and minds’ and ‘cafes are not just for grown ups’.
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