eXperience Asia Day 1 Highlights

Published: Monday 31 July 2017

Learning Environments Australasia's 17th Regional Conference kicked off in Singapore on July 12th with a bang – as well as dancing, drums and an enchanting lion dance.

This dramatic commencement of the conference was a sign of things to come, as the unique set of speakers and workshops over the following two and a half days was extraordinary. As delegates, we were continually tested with dramatic new theories (and practices!) of technology, artificial intelligence, the role of education and thoughtful, inclusive design principles.

Each of the sessions I attended built on the preceding concepts of in-depth research into the role of learning and the spaces in which it can occur. For those who missed out this year, this is a brief run-down of my experience.

The conference opened with an impassioned speech by Permanent Secretary for Education Chan Lai Fung, explaining the evolution of the Singaporean education system, which was particularly enlightening for those of us who were international delegates.

As Australia starts to create more vertical and inner-city schools, there were some interesting lessons to be learned on the efficient use of land through vertical schooling and sharing resources with the wider community. Ms Chan explained the evolution of Singaporean learning spaces from the 1960s and 70s when a new school was being built every month, through the years of renovations in the 1990s to increase flexibility of space, to a current understanding of the individualised requirements of schools to allow for diversity and collaboration.

This presentation on swift growth and using the school community as a collaborative and physical resource illuminated the need for agility in renovation and reuse of learning spaces.

The first keynote of the conference was a presentation on The Barefoot College by Meagan Fallone and Bunker Roy. Working with poor communities initially in India, and now reaching communities in more than 75 countries in the world, the Barefoot College aims to invest in the human potential currently limited by opportunities and access to learning spaces and programmes.

One of their most influential programmes is the solar engineering programme. Each year, 40 illiterate or semi-literate women between the ages of 35 and 50, come together from ten different countries and learn how to be solar engineers. Returning to their remote regional villages with the skills to bring power and electricity to places that have neither of these conveniences, is not only a practical improvement to village life, but the empowerment of mothers and grandmothers within their societies with the dignity of fair work, is an immeasurable success.

Working within communities with no access to printed news or radios, no light for studying and understanding that students cannot start their learning day until ‘after work’, the Barefoot College are certainly moving forward to redesign the meaning of education. It is always an uplifting experience when you are challenged with understanding systems outside your comfort zone, and the stories related from both Ms Fallone and Mr Roy, certainly did that for me.

Peter Kenny from Reach Education followed up with an insightful take on his experience with Syrian refugees through various UNICEF programmes. Sharing his research on early childhood education he brokered the links between community and early years education with the statement ‘A Society’s well-being can be attributed to their collective experience in early childhood’, basically ‘Happy Childhood, Happy Adulthood’. It was interesting to discover that the brain is the only organ not fully developed at birth, and 90% of critical development happens within the first five years.

Working with numerous communities to develop schools that provide the education of everyday life, Mr Kenny works within the digital learning sphere for those that do not have access to physical learning spaces, believing that only through linking communities, can education innovate and improve.

Our final speaker for the first day of the conference was Professor Arnoud De Meyer, President of the Singapore Management University. This fairly new university has recently gone through a learning and space transformation as it adapts to the changing nature of 24-7 availability in higher education. Moving the learning journey from teacher-centred to student-centred and experience-based and virtual learning was encouraged to recognise how workplaces are evolving in a technological age.

To prepare SMU’s students for an ecosystem of risk-taking within a safe environment, students are required to expand their learning outside the classroom, through compulsory community service and internships, an expectation that students will have overseas exposure, and participation in an active student community. Learning is tracked electronically through analytics, so not only are achievements and successes known and celebrated, but also space usage patterns and relationships, so facility managers can better economise and utilise their existing spaces.

Following the morning sessions of inspirational speakers, I was fortunate to attend two fantastic site visits – Enabling Village and the Lifelong Learning Institute. Enabling Village, sensitively reworked by WOHA Architects, is part renovation of an existing school, and two new buildings, on a very tight budget. The impetus behind the design of the learning spaces, which caters for students from Kindergarten to adult, is a philosophy of inclusivity where people with differing physical, mental and emotional learning requirements can work and learn together.

The fortuitously lush landscape of Singapore provided a wealth of calming, reflective and engaging spaces externally, and the levels of the site were celebrated with accessible ramps and stairs utilising otherwise unusable areas. Existing spaces were inventively renovated and new buildings include shipping containers and recycled materials, with universal access provided as a right of dignity, not an inconvenience to ‘difference’.

The centre has become a community hub with a publicly accessible supermarket, job training facilities, a café and art gallery/shop featuring amazing artistic works by the students. Our second visit was to the Lifelong Learning Institute, a veritable assembly of different workplace and employment training outlets, teaching students from early childhood to mature-age industry changers.

Shared spaces for resources, recreation and instruction allow for a confluence of learners and the busyness of the building showed the different options available to continue on the learning journey, at whatever stage you may be.

The first day of the conference was a very big, engaging, thought-provoking day pushing me to think outside my current education experience, and consider the wider ideas of re-imagining education and its purpose within society. The depth of speakers and site visits was amazing and has continued to influence my practice since returning to Perth.

Check out Day 2 and Day 3 highlights.

Dani Martin, WA Chapter Chair

Photos by Dani Martin, Bella Bower, Troy Glover, Lauren Constanzo, Gavin Rick, Anne Knock, Simon Le Nepveu