Stacked up learning in Fortitude Valley

Last week I visited the first vertical school built in Brisbane in over 50 years, the Fortitude Valley Secondary State College. As our final Learning Environments Australasia Queensland Chapter event for this very strange year, it was intriguing to see this new model of education in practice.

The site is small, under 2ha. And unlike other small school sites I’ve visited recently like Adelaide Botanic or Richmond High, this site does not have the benefit of adjacent open public space. So it feels tight. But walking across the campus, this tightness is not restrictive, it’s more of a feeling of encouraging social closeness.

The planning is really interesting, with GLAs on one side of the main open atrium, and specialist spaces on the other. So each of the five floors has both specialised and general learning areas. But even the general learning areas bear little resemblance to standard classrooms we might have seen at more traditional government learning environments. The rooms were rarely square edged, with interstitial break-out rooms and large glass folding walls to link rooms together.

A technology rich environment, with all teachers and students using iPads to share information to the large screens in each room, was combined with writeable glass surfaces between rooms, and even on the external windows. It created an atmosphere of experimentation and prototyping and exploring, where students could explore what, how and why they learn in different ways.

The decision to engage the Principal 18 months before the opening of the first buildings is unusual, but has clearly paid off dividends in this environment. With a thorough re-examination of the curriculum, desired student capabilities and learning priorities, the school has re-imagined how students can learn. This has resulted in a unique inter-disciplinary curriculum where students challenge themselves with real-world problem solving. Bringing together this type of education in a government setting is not an easy process and I really admire the Principal and leadership team who have developed the learning at FVSSC to achieve the required Australian curriculum requirements, while also understanding how to best support students to learn, today.

We were given an impressive example of how this is working at each stop on our tour, as our student guides explained what they had learnt this year. The school had only been open a few weeks before changing to remote schooling and then back again a few months later, and these Year 7 students showed what they had learnt in six interdisciplinary learning areas – Agile Minds, Creative Lab, Future Fit, Global Venture, Making Meaning and Next Discovery. Sharing seamlessly from their iPads to the in-class screens, they showed the how and why of what they had learnt, and their favourite memories. They showed slides and photos and videos and animations, and revealed solutions and prototypes to big problems. It was inspiring. You had to remember that these were 12 and (just) 13 year olds. Faced with over 100 visitors and given less than a day to prepare, the students spoke incredibly well and really showed humility, enthusiasm, humour, grace and inquisitiveness. It was really fantastic to behold and shows the amazing efforts that have been made in this first foundation year. I see a lot of beautiful education buildings but to actually hear from enthusiastic and considerate students on our tours always puts a smile on my face – this is who we are designing for!

If you’re interested to know more about the inter-disciplinary curriculum, it’s really interesting. Check out the school’s website here.

Government schools face a lot of restrictions in how, where and what they can teach. It is a big responsibility to be tasked with providing the ‘right’ type of schooling in an equitable way for a city’s citizens, especially considering you are educating students for a future that is changing so incredibly rapidly. It was really satisfying to see the way this school has embraced a new pedagogical approach in line with current theory and best practice in education. It is a joy for architects to be able to interpret pedagogical trends into innovative architecture, and the architects of this school obviously enjoyed their engagement. There are a lot of nuanced details creating an innovative mix of learning spaces throughout the campus, and it’s so great to see such a successful connection between learning and space.

I’m glad we got to visit this school last week and I hope it provides a blueprint for the future of government-provided education in Queensland.

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