Schools go ABW

Schools go ABW. No, really.


I’m heading to Melbourne for Transitions19 a research conference organised around this question: What is involved in making the journey from traditional to innovative learning environments? I’m wondering does an academic research network understand what change management looks like on a building project?

You might be surprised to learn that an innovative learning environment is essentially activity-based teaching. No more traditional classrooms with one teacher up the front. Future focused schools are student-centered, project-based, shared, personalised and agile.

Over the last three years a network led by the University of Melbourne’s Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN), has come together under the banner of the Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change Project (ILETC). This Australian Research Council Linkage Project is a partnership between National, State, Territory and Education Departments, a regional Catholic educational authority, industry partners, school designers and research-focused schools.

They are getting to the end of their program, and expectations are almost as high for practical deliverables as they are for the billions of dollars being invested in new school infrastructure. Over the past three years ILETC researchers have connected with the teachers who have already made a shift to innovative learning environments. 25% of schools in Australia and New Zealand now have more open, flexible learning settings – but the ILETC project says that they’re not living up to their full potential. Is everyone just muddling their way through? This sample might not be the most useful cohort to identify best practice. What about best practice transitions from another sector?

Based on the ILETC’s video preview of the transition pathway I think there’s a body of practice that the academics have overlooked.  Alumni from global consultancy DEGW have four decades of experience in workplace helping organisations use their space to support more flexible people. There are typologies, strategies, toolkits and guidelines still in the public domain. There’s even a British standard code of practice for Smart Working.

The DEGW alumni also crossed over into education, providing research, strategy, briefing and change services for interventions in all types of learning settings, including universities, colleges, schools, libraries, laboratories, research centres, corporate learning centres, museums and community facilities.

What is involved in making the journey from traditional to innovative learning environments? A good change framework has three elements:

  1. A working hypothesis of a better future embedded in an organisational planning process or policy framework;

(There’s no need for an hypothesis about impact? Then just keep replacing old building stock.)

  1. A building project with enough time to engage with users before design;

(There’s no building project? Change is hard – you will need a charismatic education guru to lead staff to the promised land but with no new place to land in, can you sustain it when the guru has moved on?) 

  1. Change management to get users involved in the process and to understand and adapt to new way of learning.

(You don’t have change management? I hope you at least have brought in a strategist to lead the discussion with the project team on a new education model. You might want it to be different, but it will only be new. And you risk wasting dollars when people work to undermine the change.)

Clearly this network has hypotheses – even if there is constant debate about the right curriculum and pedagogy for the 21st century. I wasn’t joking about the charismatic gurus. There are wonderful education strategists – both home-grown and offshore – who show how schools need to be different. I will leave it to the policy analysts and academics to provide the structured evaluation needed to validate new propositions.

And obviously architects know how to deliver building projects. Good firms will work collaboratively with user groups during the design phase. Leading practices like Hayball- part of the ILETC network – also test their design research with post occupancy evaluations but going on my recent experience on the jury for a national awards program – they are almost the exception.

My question for the ILETC team is this – does an academic research network understand what change management looks like on a building project – for change by design?

The Soft Build’s toolkit for education projects is all about planning to start life in a new school, not planning to finish a project. It includes:

  • An approach that integrates organisational change into the building project’s milestones;
  • Design thinking that involves teachers to shape the new way of working and learning;
  • Engagement with every single person who will work and learn in the new space;
  • Communication that is based on a ‘need to share’ not a ‘need to know’.

If your new school needs to be different, then it’s not enough to let the project team just deliver on program and under budget. Your organisation needs to be one step ahead of the project, and your teachers and students need to be the ones making an impact over time.

The Soft Build is a strategy consultancy that helps people use buildings as a scaffold for organisational change.

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