Spaces for learning: why traditional classrooms are so old-school

Hands up if you remember sitting in the classroom at desks all in rows, with the teacher up front, writing on a blackboard? Well, that was old-school.

In recent years there’s been a huge shift in the way teaching and learning happens in schools and in the community. If you have children at school today, you’ve probably noticed a much more open and relaxed approach in the classroom.

But did you know that a great deal of thought and collaboration goes into designing a modern school building. Whether it’s a new gymnasium or an entire school, or remodelling an existing facility, the design process starts with the big picture and asking: what does this community need now, and in the future?

Good design helps build a sense of identity for a school and is essential for creating cohesive and safe learning environments.

Select Architects’ Senior Associate Dierijk Drent describes schools and educational facilities as small communities. They often become a focus for families of a suburb or entire town. In many cases, school facilities are also used for broader community activities.

“Designing these environments requires broad spatial planning and incorporation of a multitude of requirements, for students of varying ages and capabilities,” Dierijk explains.

As an architect, he has had to learn to be “humble” in his design approach. “There is not just one way of learning or teaching…nor one way of designing an educational facility. Designing for schools can be more complex than it looks!”

New-school design

Modern school buildings are flexible, open and adaptable. Rows of desks have (thankfully) been replaced by multi-use areas where students can collaborate and share ideas in smaller groups. Halls and gyms are multi-purpose centres, libraries are learning centres and classrooms can be both indoors and outdoors.

School buildings today are energy efficient with better connections to outdoor spaces. Those with the luxury of space are exploring the natural word with garden beds and landscaping, and green areas instead of concrete. Schools with less space have to be more innovative and look up – think green walls and roofs.

The shift has been driven by a combination of improved technology, changing community expectations, desire for greater transparency and changes in learning models.

The future of learning looks bright

Dierijk believes the COVID-19 lockdowns that led to learning from home have accelerated the integration of ICT in self-directed learning, and an even greater emphasis on creating adaptable and flexible spaces.

“Flexibility of study spaces is one of the big changes in designing buildings for the education sector over the past decade, and post-pandemic, schools will continue that trend,” he says.

Other trends emerging from the pandemic include a greater focus on the health and wellbeing of staff and students. This will continue to influence design in areas such as the incorporation of natural light, ventilation, good acoustics and the connection to outdoor spaces.

Dierijk is proud of the many school design projects he’s been involved in with Select Architects, including the recent St Helena gymnasium. The project has provided a fantastic multi-use facility for the school and local community.

One of Dierijk’s early school design projects was a local high school at Ocean Grove. Ironically, 20 years later, his own children attend the same school. “I was really proud and have loved seeing how the school has grown, been adapted and utilised at that later date,” he says.

At Select Architects, we believe well-designed schools can help improve outcomes for students, teachers and communities. We work with schools to create successful and inspiring spaces for learning today, that will adapt to the needs of tomorrow.

New gymnasium at St Helena Secondary College

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