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The future of education design


Above image: Loreto College Coorparoo by ThomsonAdsett

ThomsonAdsett’s director, Peter C. Lippman, is an educational facility planner, author, and researcher well regarded for his international expertise in education design. His extensive background in sociology, psychology and teaching, has led to a deep understanding of how learning occurs. Peter’s book Evidence-Based Design of Elementary and Secondary Schools: A Responsive Approach to Creating Learning Environments highlights the importance of research on great school design. He has previously served on the international Board of Association 4 Learning Environments, the American Institute of Architects National Advisory Group for the Committee on Architecture for Education and as chair for the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter Committee on Architecture for Education. Peter has worked with a range of schools in Europe, the US and now in Australia.

Why are you so passionate about education design?

Kids are the future. I’ve been working with children since I was 14, coaching and mentoring them. When I was studying architecture, I also undertook a ‘teaching architecture’ course, which I really enjoyed. This gave me unique insight from a teaching perspective and formed the basis of my research. I studied how children learn, and how spaces need to be crafted to support their interactions.

When I undertook my masters in environmental psychology, I looked at design in a very specific way. For me, it wasn’t just about architecture and purely aesthetics – I was understanding architecture in social, political and psychological contexts. I felt I could really contribute my understanding to the evolution of education design.

As a designer, it’s very hard to explain to people that when you craft a space, if it’s thoughtful and supports teachers and students in the right way – then you’ll see kids blossom – academically, socially. It’s very rewarding.

You’ve worked with an extensive range of schools in Australia, Europe and the US – how are Australian schools different?

I’ve observed Australian schools and what I see is the need for a clearer understanding of how learning occurs. My research into activity-based learning reveals that effective learning is less likely to occur in open plan spaces.

Another thing I’ve noticed about Australian schools is that there seem to be doors located at every corner. On the face it a small detail; however, it’s really a missed opportunity amongst many of the country’s schools. Corners are these wonderful places for students to gather in. They are great learning spaces that make students feel safe and allow them to focus on what they’re doing.

What are some of the top considerations when designing schools or learning spaces?

We need to understand the way students access different information. A student may not completely understand the teacher, however, a peer may be able to get through to them. Therefore, we need to design for the opportunity for peer-to-peer learning. It’s about supporting children’s learning needs and understanding that everyone is different.

It’s not just about writing a brief, but it’s about taking that brief, applying it and seeing how it works. Teaching in schools myself, has taught me to really listen and understand the concerns and issues of teachers and principals.


Loreto College Coorparoo by ThomsonAdsett

What are some of the benefits of well-considered and researched learning spaces?

When kids are excited about learning, attendance increases, as do their test score results!

Teachers also want to be in better designed learning environments. Their excitement for teaching increases, and it’s amazing how just a little bit of excitement extends to kids. 90 per cent of teaching isn’t about whether you know more than students – it’s about finding out what interests them and how to best support their learning. This is far easier to do in a well-considered teaching space.

I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve seen lightbulbs go off with kids – kids that weren’t interested in school. By learning in a supportive and well-designed environment, kids achieve both academically and socially. Once you have social achievement and confidence, the rest follows.

What are some of the trends you’re seeing in education design?

Cooperative learning

When kids sit together through the course of a project and are actively able to brainstorm, they can guide one another. This not only helps them academically but improves their social and emotional development.

Breakout spaces

It’s important to create settings for varying activities in classrooms, as well as defining breakout spaces outside of, but attached to, each teaching space. Connecting classrooms and breakout spaces by sliding walls, as opposed to folding walls, instantly makes a space flexible and easy to use. Varying learning spaces for different activities provides stimulation for students, while allowing teachers to actively keep track of their classes.

‘Cool schools’

One of the trends I’m seeing (which is a negative one) is the idea of ‘cool schools’ – schools that provide large open-plan areas, and no real defined spaces, or places for study. Everyone thinks these are great learning environments, but they aren’t – they’re impractical. For example, you end up losing days of teaching time just rearranging furniture. It’s about crafting spaces that have both fixed and flexible furniture and known places for children to study.


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