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21st Century Schools

21st Century Schools

I recently visited a friend of mine who is an Assistant Principal at a primary school in Melbourne, Australia. Together with the School Principal, she has been overseeing the design and construction of a new building at her school for the past 3 years. I had heard a great deal about the project and was very excited to visit her school. Patrick Architects, a Melbourne based company, were chosen to design the new building due to the innovative thinking of the design tender and research the company had undertaken on 21st Century Schools to provide the vision to plan open and flexible learning spaces. The tender aligned with the existing school site and suggested cost-saving ideas to enable students to move into the new areas before demolition was completed.

When I arrived I was astonished by what I saw. A well-designed, aesthetically pleasing, inspirational 21st Century School. Commencing in 2012, the planning and design period took 2 years and the building project commenced February 2014. The Design Brief highlighted the school’s values, included natural elements from the geographical location, and offered technology amplification with data outlets in passageways, theaterette and learning areas. Large screen televisions with mini computers and wireless keyboards were included in every teaching space. Sustainable choices were made with north-south directionality of the building; and the installation of vents and louvre windows to capture the light while eliminating the need for air conditioning.  Water tanks were installed to recycle water and allow for irrigation of the site.


Creative design elements and colors inspired by the school’s environment and surrounding flora.

Most importantly the design embraced pedagogy to support learning for Generation Z and Generation Alpha students including moveable walls and wheels on furniture to rearrange learning spaces for flexible options.  Design features were also included in the existing buildings to create an overall flow and sense of oneness with the new building  creating the feel of a whole new 21st Century School. Garden and play areas were also designed to offer active and passive playgrounds while providing safe open viewing for supervising staff. New playground equipment will continue the color themes from the indoor spaces.

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The school has been in a state of constant disruption for the last year as bulldozers and builders worked alongside students learning in temporary spaces and portables. “It’s been a lot of hard work and shifting students around locations to keep the school functioning,” claimed my friend, “But it has been certainly worth it.” The smiles I saw on students’ faces, the focus on learning tasks and comments I heard from students, teachers, parents and grandparents were so positive and affirming. In fact, unknowingly the school had used what Clay Christensen terms  ‘disruptive innovation’ in his book, “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns”.



Disruptive innovation. Work on new buildings and landscape while students are learning each day.

Students, parents and teachers are thrilled with the new building and enrollments for the 2015 school year have increased by 33% compared to previous intake numbers. The project has inspired and motivated the whole school community and created a springboard into international education and further change to ensure students develop 21st Century Skills to thrive in our changing global and technological world. I take my hat off to the school leaders and teachers for the commitment they have made to take their school into the future.  International school leadership and other schools worldwide should be looking at similar flexible learning spaces to prepare students for global connectedness.

Coincidentally, last week I learned that Quattrocchi Kwok, Californian Architects, United States, have created an award winning new school design. When the school opened in August 2014, “it debuted as one of the most flexible, learning-centered, sustainable and cost- effective schools in the area,” said the District superintendent. According to Mark Quattrocchi many of today’s schools focus on learning environments that are highly adaptable to allow large and small group work, peer-to-peer learning, individual exploration and more. Instead of the traditional “factory” model of self-contained classrooms. Learning in a technology infused environment — with movable furniture and walls to allow easy change, and accommodations for outdoor learning environments — are the direction we see in educational design.”

An adaptable learning environment at Cove Elementary School with moveable furniture and walls. A sliding glass door (background) allows two classrooms to become one.

An adaptable learning environment at Cove Elementary School with moveable furniture and walls. A sliding glass door (background) allows two classrooms to become one.

An adaptable learning environment at Cove Elementary School with moveable furniture and walls. A sliding glass door (background) allows two classrooms to become one.

Mr. Quattrocchi is passionate about designing schools to enhance the connection between teaching and learning, and the role that school facilities can play in supporting the innovative work teachers are doing in 21st century learning. He states, “The 21st century workplace is dynamic and interactive, requiring critical thinking, collaboration and creativity of its inhabitants, who today, are our students. With an understanding of multiple intelligences and how teachers use varied modalities of learning, I recognize that our learning environments must reflect this change — this is not the classroom of our childhood. Rather we look to models outside of traditional schools. These eye-opening experiences reframed the conversation for this school’s design in a most profound way.”

According to Gary Quackenbush in the North Bay Business Journal, “The school provides “Learning Suites” instead of classrooms, where two teachers work collaboratively in highly adaptable and reconfigurable learning environments — double classroom-sized spaces shared by two teachers. Small group “breakout” spaces are provided within each Learning Suite, for individual, peer-to-peer and small group work. Multiple outdoor learning areas are provided. Each Learning Suite has a back yard “outdoor Learning Area” and there is also a school garden and natural play area. To easily reconfigure learning environments, each Learning Suite has moveable acoustic glass walls to quickly subdivide or provide open spaces. Breakout spaces are easy to supervise and access with large sliding glass doors.



Small group, peer-to-peer learning is the hallmark of the new library and classrooms.

The central “Performance CafÈ” serves as the campus heart and focus. It accommodates large and small groups for performances, presentations, school meetings, PE classes, and food service. Administration, library, performance studios, conference rooms and faculty areas intentionally surround this unique space so that it is constantly in use. The central CafÈ opens onto the central campus amphitheater and quad with a large glass roll up door. The Learning Suites complete the enclosure of the central quad. To provide infused access to technology, the campus has a high bandwidth wireless data network including outdoor learning areas. There is a prolific use of large format flat screen monitors including ability for student to display from their tablet on to large screens. CafÈ and Learning Suite presentation areas include access to technology and sound reinforcement.”

I salute the school administrators for their strategic thinking and the innovative architects who, as change agents, have designed 21st Century Primary, Secondary and K -12 schools.

What can you do to embrace 21st Century Learning at your school?

If you would like assistance with strategic thinking contact Maxine at Think Strategic.

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