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There is a disturbing conundrum about children and schooling. A wealth of research tells us that children have an innate curiosity to learn. Yet findings also show that 40% of Australian students are disengaged from schooling. What causes this dichotomy and what can we do about it? With the majority of the world’s learners currently out of school we have an opportunity to begin to address this issue.

Having been through it, most people know what schools look and feel like. This has perpetuated an educational typology in which traditional classrooms and teacher-directed instruction dominates. The prevailing industrial model of schooling has largely held as until now we didn’t know what we didn’t know. But now (as noted by leading British education expert Professor Stephen Heppell) the genie is out of the bottle.

Figure 1. Types of learning spaces (n=822) across Australian and New Zealand schools from Imms, W., Mahat, M., Byers, T. & Murphy, D. (2017). Type and Use of Innovative Learning Environments in Australasian Schools ILETC Survey No. 1. Melbourne: University of Melbourne, LEaRN.

Having only experienced a traditional schooling context before, after two weeks of remote schooling my 8 year old daughter had insights into learning that she’d never had access to before. Despite the initial pressures and difficulties in learning how to learn from home she now knows how to access class tasks via a Google drive, navigate the workload, and when done, upload it to get feedback from teachers. She also did a few supplementary courses via US-based Outschool, a bit like an Airbnb of learning where she chose courses on things such as cats, dolphins and being a detective.

After the first week, she realised she liked deciding what she wanted to learn and when and where she’d learn it. She took breaks during the day to read, play with the cat, or go rollerblading, and she happily and purposefully re-engaged with her learning well beyond the typical school day. After week two, she had come up with four points that would make her learning better:

  1. To get help in the morning to prioritise her work;
  2. To gauge when she was likely to need help during the day, and for someone to be there to help at that time;
  3. To ensure that the cat stayed off the keyboard; and
  4. For mum to work downstairs nearby when possible.

Figure 2: Learning from home – Aboriginal tool project (left) and galaxy and nebula class on Outschool (right).

On reflecting on her different virtual learning experiences she said: “in my ‘school learning’ I don’t learn a lot but there’s a lot there, whereas on Outschool I learn a lot about only one thing”. Recognising that one system was about covering a lot of content whilst in the other she only did a class here or there on one topic, she felt that neither was perfect and that perhaps a little bit of both would be better. Insights from other students in Australia and the USA about their COVID19 learning experiences reveal a wide range of new-found perspectives into school and learning. Some who really miss the framework of traditional schooling whilst others who thrive in their more autonomous ‘new’ world of learning. Not only are students seeing learning in a different light, but so too are parents, many who have never observed their children engage in formal learning before. As a parent, my daughter has certainly opened my eyes to how she approaches her learning, and the workings, benefits and challenges of the virtual classroom.

As well as the wide range of societal structures schools provide (many which have become much more evident over this period of forced home schooling) the physicality of a school environment is clearly important for fostering human connection around learning, socialisation and play. Currently, there are many conversations taking place with global experts in education and design around what the future of schooling could and should be in a post-COVID world.

Having now experienced “school beyond school”, in thinking about students who don’t enjoy school, my daughter noted “I don’t think they actually don’t like it – I think it’s they’re forced to learn those subjects. C’os even if they didn’t like art they would probably like painting, or even if they didn’t like maths they’d probably like coding. So it’s not those subjects they didn’t like, it’s the way they were forced to learn those subjects”.

How might schools look if students weren’t forced to learn in ways that don’t reflect their propensity to learn? As we explore questions around re-designing schools, what’s most important is that we engage and consult with the experts in learning – the millions of young people around the world who schools are designed for. We now have the perfect opportunity to move beyond a one-size-fits-all model of schooling, and to redesign schools with more informed students (and their parents) to better accommodate how all students can thrive.

Figure 3. ‘Hacking the classroom’ workshop with primary students at the Hayball architecture studio, 2018.

Figure 4. Primary students co-designing their school playground with Natalia from Hayball architects, 2018.

Fiona Young is an architect and researcher in the field of learning environments. She is a Studio Director of Hayball Architects in Sydney and a PhD candidate as part of the Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change (ILETC) project at the Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN), University of Melbourne.