Curating for inquiry learning...reflections on a learning space.

As many of the readers of this blog will know, I am in the final stages of completing a new book. For several reasons, it has had the longest ‘gestation’ period of any book I have ever written - so seeing it now at the design stage is EXCITING.   Still a few months off but we are nearly there!   It was with this book in mind, that I recently spent the morning at one of my partner schools here in Melbourne.  It was time for me to capture some images to support the text – and I wanted that to happen in a school really ‘walks the talk’ of contemporary learning. I knew that Mother Teresa primary school – in the far outer suburbs of Melbourne would not disappoint. As a relatively new, purpose-built school, it is light-filled, spacious and flexible and we could photograph the children in a relatively unobtrusive way. The images we came away with are beautiful and support the text just as I had hoped.

But what I came away with was more than a collection of lovely photos.

It is rare that I spend time in a school without either teaching, planning, meeting or presenting.   Being such a beautiful and rich learning space, my visits to Mother Teresa Primary usually include a quick wander around to see the visible learning -  but it is often hard to find the time to do this well. So it was an unexpected treat to find myself  simply 'in' the space – occasionally directing the photographer but, other than that, just being present and observing the morning unfold around me.  I know I have been banging on about environments that support inquiry quite a bit on this blog lately – but bear with me…I want to head back into that territory one more time.

I have been thinking a great deal about how physical and visual space impacts on learning. It is hard NOT to think about this issue when at this school. What always strikes me is the sense of CALM and an atmosphere of what Caine and Caine describe as ‘relaxed alertness’. There is a clear air of purpose and intention but it seems to come from ‘within’ rather than being staged and managed by the teaching staff.   As I work my way through the photos we took, I find myself wondering about the elements that combine to create this palpably rich learning atmosphere. When I think about this school, I see the teachers and children as ‘curators’ in the same way a gallery or a museum might be curated...


The space is simply beautiful. There is a great deal of care taken in the selection and placement of materials around the school.  The care exhibited in this aspect of the school is akin to what we might consider in our own homes. Many of the materials used are natural, the colours are muted and soft and there is deft placement of objects, images, quotes, throughout which makes the entire experience of being there feel special. While it is not ‘precious’ or forced, the environment is respectful and sophisticated. The aesthetics work. The children are proud of their school and seem to care for it with the respect it deserves. Deftly placed provocations … an eagle’s feather or tiny figurines atop a cabinet draw the eye in or invite some kind of sensory interaction.

The school’s identity, values and beliefs are clear and visible.  There is no doubt that this is an inquiry school that values thinking and holds strong, shared beliefs that guide practice. These values and principles are literally ‘spelt out’ on the walls or atop tables rather than being hidden in some policy document on an office shelf. I think has a subtle yet powerful impact on how the planning and teaching evolve – constant reminders to everyone of the shared beliefs underpinning this place of learning.

There is little demarcation between ‘teachers’ spaces and students’ spaces The kitchen area, lounge chairs, coffee tables of the ‘staff room’ are still there… but they are part of the large, central open learning space.   The wonderfully large planning/meeting room is glass fronted and there is never a sense of teachers hiding away to conduct ‘secret teacher’s business! I am sure this transparency and shared space would not be everyone’s cup of tea but I love the shared culture of equity and openness it creates here.

Children’s thinking is made visible throughout the school – every area tells a learning storyThese are learning walls. They tell learning stories and act as a resource for students. And there is plenty of space – no overcrowding or over stimulation here! Throughout the school, there are artifacts that celebrate students’ thinking: journals open for others to read, framed quotes and drawings and photographs with explanations about the learning (not the ‘activity’)

Teachers are rarely standing at the front (there is really no ‘front’) … they are working with small groups or individuals. Clear systems and routines have been developed to allow the staff to maximize their teaching time.   The space is a good mix of smaller, connected rooms and large open learning areas. These are well utilized. It means students can really spread out and work independently while small focus groups work in turn with the teachers across the day. This is a hugely important ingredient in why the space WORKS. There is a commitment to contemporary pedagogy …. It’s not about using old ways in a new space. The intimacy of teacher interactions with students seems to lead to a more focused ‘feel’ overall.

There are no bells or other unnecessary interruptions to the flow of learning. Entries and exits seem fluid and gentle. They just seem to know where to go and what to do! I am convinced that the absence of bells and line ups etc help the day flow and integrate.

Inside/outside connection Over the years, I have watched what was a very bare surrounding landscape gradually grow into inviting gardens. The students have been involved in the design of the outdoor spaces and were so proud to share them with us as we walked around the grounds. Research suggests that we benefit greatly from stronger connections between indoor and outdoor spaces. At one point in the day, I stood at a large window and saw a gorgeous view I had never noticed before. Not all schools are blessed with good positioning but we can all do something to connect buildings more closely with nature. And there is natural light – plenty of it.

Making and creating are ever-present. Whether it is the dedicated lego room, the robotics equipment, the calligraphy brushes and ink in the art studio or the availability of tablets and laptops for investigating and creating…this is an interactive environment with the needs and interests of young learners firmly at its heart. While visually beautiful, the learning remains active and hands on.

I know there are many, many teachers that share the same commitment to the aesthetic of their space - to carefully consider the link between the physical, emotional and intellectual environments for learning.   Taking time to think about and rethink the way we ‘curate’ the physical environment is time well spent. Much has been written about it over the years . If you are interested, you might find this recent infographic and related research write up from Teacher Magazine helpful:

As are the following posts by Craig Cantlie and Derek Pinchbeck

Perhaps the most telling moment of the morning came from the photographer working with me. It had been over 10 years since he had been inside a school.  What did he say?

"I wish I had been given the opportunity to learn in a place like this. This doesn't feel like 'school' - it feels like a place you would actually WANT want to come to in the morning..."

How do the physical/visual, emotional and intellectual elements of your learning spaces interact?

 Just wondering…..