Making Sense of ILEs at St Monica's Primary

Published: Tuesday 27 February 2018

The Victorian Chapter's first 2018 event was a tour of St Monica's Primary School Senior Centre, last year's Chapter Award winner for best refurbishment over $2 million.

It demonstrated the overarching theme across the Victorian Chapter's events this year: “Making Sense of Innovative Learning Environments (ILE’s)”.

As St Monica’s Principal Peter Moore pointed out, there is a great deal of misapprehension about ‘open’ learning environments in the press and community. The key misunderstanding about ILEs is that they are loud, open environments. These types of education spaces do exist. Whether built in the 1960’s or more recently, they can be ineffective. The St Monica’s tour dealt with these skewed perceptions and showed first-hand how teachers and students have made sense of their ILEs.

Doorless learning spaces

Peter Moore and architect Ben Percy from Baldasso Cortese presented the learning and design aspirations of the project. St Monica’s 100 year old building formed a U-shape around an underutilised central courtyard. This courtyard has been infilled to create a central learning environment that unifies six learning areas and a presentation space catering for over 150 students. From the School’s last refurbishment, Peter found that the classrooms’ large sliding glass doors remained closed 90% of the time. The School did not want a traditional environment with doors separating classrooms and breakout areas. Therefore, there are no doors on the classrooms.

Ben explained how the design uses standard materials and finishes in a unique way. Though the addition infills the courtyard, it still maintains a symbolic connection to the external environment. A perforated plasterboard ceiling gently drapes over the space. Oval penetrations in this ceiling mimic a reverse relationship between blue clouds and a white sky. These openings allow in diffuse natural light, provide acoustic attenuation, and highlight learning settings on the ground plain. Mirrored surfaces dissolve the line where the walls meet the artificial horizon of the ‘sky’. Similarly, the design of the Interface carpet tiles simulate a natural pattern of rocks and stones.

Student performances elevated by the space

 “Learners have been transformed by the space”, according to Peter Moore. Though the central space is open and connected, it is broken down into a series of bespoke learning settings, providing different modes of learning. Peter’s brief called for a series of spaces based on Dr David Thornburg’s concept of the ‘cave’, ‘campfire’ and ‘watering hole’. These archetypal settings have been realised in a series of joinery pieces that subdivide the larger space. One of the original classrooms has been converted into a tiered performance space. The intimate size of the space provides each parent with the opportunity to film their child’s performance. Most notably, Peter said that the quality of the space has elevated the quality of student performances.

Witnessing the ILEs in action

The highlight of the event was watching the ILE in action as teachers and students stayed after school to demonstrate the use of the space. Deputy Principal Michael DiNuzzo led a maths lesson at a large communal table. While Michael had a lesson up on a large screen, students participated on their individual iPads. In other zones, a group of students were 3D printing while a larger group gathered with a teacher around the ‘campfire’ for a lesson. Many students’ favourite location though is the booth. It was indicated that when they breakout into the open environment, there is a rush to be the first one to it.

At the beginning of the event, Lauren (a grade six student) prepared and served food from Senior Centre’s open kitchen. These hors d'oeuvres included mini-Caesar salads and a selection of dips. During the presentations, Lauren described the Senior Centre as feeling like a modern museum or art gallery. It is open, free, and peaceful. She expressed particular pride in the chainsaw carvings that adorn the space. These carvings were painted by Lauren and the other students. They also represent the gospels and a tangible link to the Catholic Faith.

Uniting tradition and progression

Without doors on the individual learning spaces, the Senior Centre is more open than a traditional classroom. Teacher Sam Crowe spoke about how during the first term teachers and students discuss how to use the space. Together with the kids, they make sense of how to work efficiently within the environment. The students adjust and learn how to act respectfully within the space. Prior to the refurbishment, Peter Moore indicated that doors prevented movement and supervision beyond the classroom. To avoid this, doors have not been installed between the individual classrooms and open learning environment. One way that Peter avoided conflict about this decision was not to tell the teachers during the design process. While the refurbishment was under construction, he explained the benefits of not having doors and got the staff used to the idea. Judging by the attitudes of the teachers and students at our event, this has been a successful outcome.

The Senior Centre is part of the history of St Monica’s Primary School. Grandparents in the community are able to point out the classrooms that they studied in to their grandchildren. The Senior Centre effectively balances the new with the historic while also balancing fixed and flexible spaces. This innovative learning environment shows that good design combined with passionate teachers and students can provide exciting learning opportunities. It just requires students and educators to make sense of their learning environments in order to take advantage of the innovations they afford.

Article: Wayne Hay

Photos: Sherman Tan and Peter Clarke