Inside Sydney's innovative learning spaces with The 3 Rs site tours

Published: Wednesday 27 June 2018

Chapter Chairs Dani Martin and Murray Robertson share their experience visiting some of Sydney's innovative learning spaces during The 3 Rs in the Exponential Age

The site visits are really what sets the LEA Conference apart from other conferences. We rarely get the chance to visit so many different spaces and see first-hand how they get used and how they work within their constraints of site, building and pedagogy. It is one thing to see photos of buildings and spaces, but another one entirely to walk through them and see the changing light and hear the student interaction and feel the energy of learning. That's what learning about architecture is all about.

Harbord Public School
Procured through the Government Architect, we started our tour in a new double-height library space interestingly configured around a large tiered forum, which unfortunately struggled to fit our non-primary-student-sized legs. There were a number of different furniture options for small group and individual reading/learning spaces and a lovely feeling of light through the large screened windows. Although there didn't seem to be many of them, the books were located in numerous different areas adding to the choice offered by the setting.

The upstairs learning area layout was really interesting. Although there were traditional-style class spaces, each of these linked directly to an oversized corridor/break-out space with a variety of furniture and pod spaces for group activity. Students were encouraged to use all of their environment and move from space to space, to find where they learned best. This showed limited concentration on formalised instruction, and more opportunity for students to explore and discover their creativity. When speaking to the students about their favourite spaces, they seemed to enjoy this potential for using the space that worked for them today, knowing it could be somewhere else tomorrow. I enjoyed seeing students having this agency over their learning journey, and crafting the skills to realise the impact between space and learning.


Harbord Public School; Stella Maris College

Stella Maris College
Designed by Fulton Trotter, this library / science / staff building was a neat insertion into a tight space on the site, and reflected the coastal environment through the use of different shades of blue and natural tones both internally and externally to create a cohesive light filled space on all three levels. The ground floor design of the staff zone was a sophisticated response to current needs for collegiality and transparency within the working environment. The design of the furniture and fittings created a space where staff wanted to spend more time and share ideas and resources.

The library space, with the most beautiful polished concrete floor I've ever seen, again managed to pack a punch in furniture and space choice for students to create their own learning experience. There were options for students to learn individually in single-person isolated LOTE booths, a mixture of comfortable chairs, stools and bench seats amongst the bookshelves, and large glass enclosed rooms for small and large groups. Again, I appreciated that students had the choice to work where they felt most comfortable and inspired, dependent on their current activity.

The third floor science rooms also shared facilities, with larger theory spaces sharing experimental zones and thus efficiently resourcing space on a tight site. I liked the glass viewing panels through to the building's services as an additional teaching tool, utilising the whole of the building as a learning resource.

Bellevue Hill Public School
Another Government Architect building, the Bellevue Hill Public School expanded on the concept of open plan learning in a more extreme way than the previous day's visits, with whole floors of open space. Areas were partitioned off with furniture (loose and fixed), acoustic panels and large glazed sliding doors. This gave a unique variety of space where classes could flow and ebb as required.

However, in this instance it appeared the actual use of space was led by staff - when they needed a presentation area they would bring their class to that zone, when they needed an area for small group work they would bring their students to that zone etc. So a different way of modelling the flexibility of learning settings, which seemed to work well for this school. The classes were still under-utilised as the building has only recently commenced, so it will be interesting to see how it works at full capacity. But the teachers we spoke to were on board with the new modes of learning, which is always an encouraging start.


Bellevue Hill Public School; St Francis of Assisi Catholic Primary School

St Francis of Assisi Catholic Primary School
This renovation of an existing small classroom block by Leaf Architecture was simply delightful. Admittedly the architects had a beauty of a building to start with (those windows! that brickwork! that ceiling height!) but the clever material choices inside created an exciting and reverent space for learning.

Again, a semi-open-plan concept created class spaces opening onto a large break-out verandah space with comfortable seating and working areas. In between 'classes' were a set of smaller glass enclosed work areas, for students or teachers. There was a great flow and transparency through the building which I think encouraged a growth mindset amongst the learners, as evidenced by the literature on the walls.

Additionally utilising a rooftop area for a STEM/Multipurpose Room enhanced the learning opportunities on a very small site. I'm sure the students don't notice how lucky they are to have these incredible views! I liked that the design of this renovation utilised every part of the existing building, while complementing the unique existing architecture.

As a Perthite, the site planning of the schools I visited in Sydney was really interesting. From my perspective, the sites are small and tucked into tight residential areas. ( I can't even imagine the builders access issues!) Therefore each building had to make the most efficient use of space, with creative play ground spaces around, under and over the buildings. But what I enjoyed most was how the heritage at each site was celebrated, telling the long term story of the evolution of both the physical and pedagogical journey of each unique school.

Article and photos: Dani Martin, WA Chapter Chair - read Dani's conference blog

Ravenswood School for Girls
My first site tour of the conference was out over Sydney Harbour Bridge to see the Mabel Fidler Building at Ravenswood School for Girls. It is a striking building that most of the Australians on the bus seemed to know. It had been published widely and won awards.

There is sometimes been a tendency in New Zealand to look at some Australian educational buildings, throw up our hands and mutter "well that's great for them but this is a long way from what we can do in New Zealand, what's the point in looking at that". At first glance this seemed like the perfect example with its angular form (I have been told off for trying to do angles) and 13m cantilevers. But, as walking around with my hands in the air did not seemed appropriate (and doesn't work with crutches), I continued the tour.

I was interested to visit the school as this building seeks provide both a new entrance and central hub. Having kept my hands down the whole tour, I believe that real strength of the project by BVN is its genesis in a first stage master plan on a site with many changes in level. The building operates less as an object in space and more a way to link different parts of the campus together, at each point responding to its site context.

The building literally forms the entrance, as you move up a series of steps underneath one of the forms operating as a canopy. It is broken down into a series of forms linked together with of bridging elements. This bridging continues beyond the building, seeking to link in all the surrounding buildings into its network of circulation.

From the top of the steps we moved into the library/school reception with my favourite space, a double height reading space foyer in front of large glazed screen looking over a green playing field. The inviting reading chairs covered in a greenthat matched the grass of the field. Rather than being a very centred Grand Central Station library space it felt like a lattice-like network of separate intimate internal spaces warm with intricate plywood detailing bridged together.

It seems the central hub might be the spaces it creates between the buildings.

There was much discussion in the group about the merits of the building's construction, an innovative form of climate façade using two skins of multi cellar polycarbonate cladding. Would it last? Would it overheat? It did light up like a lantern and provide too much glare to some spaces.

Wahroonga Adventist School
Earlier in the day, Rob Stokes, the NSW Minister of Education had outlined the states task ahead, dealing with a significant projected growth over the next few decades. This included, I think, 134 new schools.

Wahroonga Adventist School is an example of the issues this growth brings and how to deal with density. Currently being rebuilt on its current site with the first building already finished, it will eventually be a series of tightly packed vertical medium rise buildings, built over a basement car park that covers the entire site.

St Ignatius' College, Riverview
The school's original heritage building in a majestic setting overlooking Lane Cove River was an apt starting point for a school that has a future focus based so strongly on a deep understanding of its own past and the Jesuit educational tradition.

"Education of youth is the transformation of the world"
A stunning old Jesuit saying quoted by the Principal