Back Together Again: Reflections on the 2022 Annual Regional Conference

After the last two years of false starts, the LEA Regional Conference finally re-convened last week, with a delegation of around 500 people. It was wonderful to see everyone in person after so long, and also meeting friends and colleagues we had previously only met online. Once again the community spirit was strong, with the rooms buzzing with passion and excitement for furthering positive learning experiences for our future learners.

Day One

The conference started with our standard introductions and welcomes, and an air of celebration settled in the room as we were joined with new and old friends. That feeling continued with a beautiful Welcome to Country by Kuma Kaaru who generously shared with us their stories, songs and dance. Kuma Kaaru, meaning ‘One Blood’ in Kaurna, the local language of the Adelaide Plains, was established to empower young men, women and children with knowledge of their people, and teach the wider community about their life and culture. It was a heartfelt welcome and impactful smoking ceremony. Straight away we felt their connection to Country and it was so heartening to see this acknowledgement of First Nation Peoples as custodians of land continue through the whole conference.

Our first speaker was the extraordinary Helen Connolly, the Commissioner for Children and Young People in SA. What a fantastic advocate for young people. Helen discussed her experiences engaging with children in the design process and ensuring the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child values of allowing children the opportunity to express their views and their rights to be respected, were upheld. As workers within the educational architecture industry, she urged us to do better in listening to young people, and considering them as Citizens, Contributors and Customers. Often engagement with children doesn’t work due to a mindset that age equals competency. But if we stop to listen, children have so much to share with us. If we take the time to engage in a purposeful, inclusive, timely, transparent and respectful manner, we can begin to understand what we are really trying to find out, not just “what the answer is”.

Following Helen was Dr Kristin Alford, the Director of the MOD. Museum, a place for provoking new ideas in science, art and innovation. Kristin gave a fascinating insight into the background of studying science and innovation, and how it has changed our society over time. Originally, we studied science so we could understand (and potentially create) the building blocks of everything. Then we needed to consider ethics as we delved into why, and where we should, create everything. Now we are surrounded by thousands of opinions, ideas and perspectives and we need skills in distilling, connecting and distilling the information around us.    

There were so many takeaways from Kristin’s talk, but two really stuck out for me. The first was the idea of the 200-year present. Looking not just at now and the future, but also back to the past, and how we might live in a moment that considers multiple times and perspectives. This concept considers ‘back’ through the lifespan of our grandparents and parents, and ‘forward’ to our future generations. We are not living just for now, but with all the collected knowledge that comes before us, and an understanding of the impacts our decisions have on the future. The second concept that really inspired me is the ambition in science to stretch for the Preposterous. From this moonshot, you might step back through the Possible, to the Plausible, and to the Probable. But without first stretching for the Preposterous you will never know how far you could go.

After some fantastic workshops learning about how we can better integrate the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals into our schools and learning a new phrase, heuragogy via Jacque and Lori from Cognition Education (which will probably need a whole nother article of its own), I was lucky to head off to three site visits in the inner south of Adelaide. First up we visited Cabra Dominican College, where a new jewel-like Music Centre designed by Russell & Yelland provides a linkage point between a range of multi-leveled buildings on site, and reflects the College’s history with a mirrored wall positioned opposite their heritage-listed convent building. The new building cleverly linked across to the heritage building, near-kissing the traditional stone and brick façade. On the other side of the campus we discovered the College’s new arts and technology precinct currently under construction, which looks like it is going to be a wonderful additional to the learning opportunities on site.

Our second site visit to St Thomas School was incredibly impressive. Nestled perfectly within a small main-street shopfront conversion of an old sign printing shop and former mechanical workshop, Grieve Gillett Andersen have created a lovely senior learning precinct for their Year 5 and 6 students, featuring both general and specialist learning settings for a range of activities. Entering from the street front, the spaces were a surprise from the busy street, completely hidden behind their film-covered glazed windows. The finishes, retaining the existing red brick, steel beams and concrete floor, set off the modern spaces in a beautifully detailed fashion. Each general learning space was on the street front side with borrowed light from the busy road, and each contained a clear glazed studio pod. The remainder of the two workshop spaces contained a multipurpose room (affectionally called The Dance Hall, based on a previous use), and an incredible workshop space with wet areas, kitchen spaces, flexible furniture and very neat moveable storage solutions. This large workshop lead out onto a beautifully landscaped garden space, which our student guides appreciatively led us through, telling us about their worms and their plan for chickens coming soon.  

Our final site visit for day one was to Pulteney Grammar where we explored JPE Design Studio’s new Middle School featuring a large flexible transparent space linking the numerous disparate buildings on site. Overlooking a vast landscaped quadrangle, the new space provides a flexible learning area on each floor between three pairs of classrooms, where students can relax and study. The dispersed lockers through the space help minimise unfavourable social behaviours and the high levels of visibility with glazed sliding doors ensure a safe overlooked environment.

Day Two

Our second day of inspiration started with Executive Principal Fred Heidt and the students of Youth Inc. This education concept currently housed in a shopfront in inner-city Adelaide looks at how we can provide diversity in the education offering for students who may require their learning to come a little differently. Youth Inc started in 2018, and encourages students to “bring who they are” to their real world learning environment where they develop transformative skills in real-life situations. To learn about Economics they operate a store, including creating and purchasing products. To learn about English they get involved in advertising and design. To learn about Physical Education they trek across Kangaroo Island. In all of these experiences students are getting enriched experiential learning, while also getting registered qualifications (if that is what they are in to). There was a small group of students in the session who discussed the practicalities of this experience for them and how both the students and the staff support and encourage each other to learn.

We continued to hear from the most important stakeholders, the students, with a panel of Christies Beach High School students, staff and executive telling us about their experiences of changing learning and culture following changing physical spaces. It’s the theory we propose and hope for, so it was great to hear it played out in real life. It was interesting to hear students articulate the changes they noticed in the students and staff, after more collaborative team teaching learning spaces were introduced. It obviously had a big impact, with students noting the staff seemed happier, and therefore the learning environments were calmer, safer and less judgemental. The students appreciated that the design endeavoured to seek out what actually matters to students, and addressed issues like trauma and mental health through dispersed support staff and spaces like their Safe Space Café, where students can safely discuss issues with wellbeing staff or other students.

After that bout of energising discussion, it was back to the buses.  I headed first to the Australian Science and Maths School, which I always hold a soft spot for, having visited during my very first LEA Conference in 2006. The space is still being used for those dedicated self-directed students working across different subjects and benefitting from their university location. After more than a decade in use the building is now needing a little bit of an upgrade, which is due to commence shortly. It is interesting to see the educational model still running successfully after such a long time, and although this type of education is arguably not for everyone, the fact that there is this diversity available within the public school system is so heartening. In all areas, for all ages, I hope all students get the opportunity, like the ASMS students do, to find their own place and learn the way that works best for them.  

I have never seen anything like what we discovered at Hamilton Secondary School. Set unassumedly amongst what we thought were standard classroom buildings we suddenly found ourselves plunged into a journey from Earth to Mars. Our first room was set up as a briefing room, before we headed to Mission Control where students were working together with their teammates on ‘Mars’ as they searched for life on the Red Planet. Large screens monitored their biometrics and gave feedback about the atmospheric conditions on the planet. Next we journeyed to the planet ourselves via a short corridor rather than a months long spaceship-trip. The room set up as Mars was quite extraordinary, with curved walls lit in red and a stone floor requiring the agility of a goat. Students were moving around the room taking rock samples, directed by their partners in the Mission Control room, for further diagnosis back in the lab. In terms of real world learning experience it was certainly unique, and we could see how excited the students would be in such a space, even, as we were, after school hours. Also at HSS we visited a new STEAM Centre which contained a really interesting variety of learning settings, from tiered steps, open spaces, a laser printer zone, a wet area with gas science tables and smaller kitchenettes and smaller studios. In these connected spaces up to three classes can work at their own pace exploring, researching and prototyping in any of the zones which as little or as much teacher support as required. I really liked the different methods of connections between the space, from glass sliding doors to curtains to changes of height and finishes. You could see the creativity that could result from within the spaces.

After these two adventures we still had one more other-worldly encounter to experience before heading back to the bus. On the way to the new Performing Arts theatrette, we found ourselves in a planetarium. Lying back in very student-sized chairs under the large dome, we were led through the night sky, identifying constellations and tracking the movement of the planets. It is incredible that this school has these facilities on site – what an amazing space for students to learn.

Following our big day of exploring and inspiration we headed back to the Conference Dinner for the annual Awards night, which as always was a fantastic night of celebrating the best of Australasian learning environments. You can read more about the Award winners here.

Day Three

It was a slightly quieter and more bleary-eyed crowd that attended the conference on the morning of the third day. But within minutes of hearing from the Vice-Chancellor of Swinburne University, Prof Pascale Quester, the whole crowd was energised. It amazes me when a speaker can capture the attention of every person in the room, especially architects, with an hour-long talk with maybe five visuals. It was an impressive presentation, where Pascale shared her student-centred philosophy through the development of a new student hub at Adelaide University during her previous tenure. Dealing with issues of developing a ‘sticky’ campus, especially now after years of students working remotely, Pascale showed the culture of respect and responsibility she fostered in the students at Adelaide University, and I am sure she continues to do at Swinburne University. It was interesting to hear about the culture and high level goal-setting for Swinburne Online, especially their environmental aims of the University to become carbon neutral, not least of which is through the appropriate reuse of existing buildings.

Our final major speaker event was a recorded interview and Q & A session by Julia Gillard, unfortunately obliged at the last minute to record her discussion rather than attend in person. Now working with the Wellcome Trust, Beyond Blue and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, amongst others, Julia is committed to developing the best from people, whether they be early childhood learners or senior managers in business. Recognising that foundational skills for students are no longer ‘just’ reading and writing, but resilience, adaptability and critical thinking skills, Julia is working to reduce inequality of access to resources for learners, and developing resources and skills to address, as she called it, the mental health pandemic. She realised that our society will be reshaped by this time, so its important to properly prepare us for the changes ahead. I also liked her observation of the evolving nature of management to be more like coaching or mentorship, and this is what our learners will be more likely to experience in their future workplaces.

We finished the conference with a panel of local education experts including Martin Westwell, Daniel Smith and Pascale Quester, moderated by our energetic MC Louka Parry. The panel attempted to bring together all of the diverse topics we had discussed over the three days and pull the threads together. The main overriding theme was around putting the student at the forefront of our thinking and decision making. We need to understand different measures of success, and that one solution isn’t necessarily suitable for every learner. If we want to encourage adolescents while they are at the stage where their brain is actually filtering and removing content for the first time in their lives, then we need to give them the skills and agency to secure their own future – whatever form that future might take. I really liked Martin’s quote “no lesson plan survives its first contact with children.” I would say the same is true for learning spaces. All of the ideals and dreams and hopes we have for learners and how we think they might learn their spaces, don’t mean anything unless we put them firmly at the centre of our thinking and collaborate with them before, during and after any project.

In conclusion

As much as architects might not want to talk about it, we couldn’t stop the constant discussions on toilets throughout the three days. Amongst the tense debates and discussions, are some very real issues for our young learners – fear, bullying, students not drinking water through the day so they don’t have to use them, and, for some students, the toilets being their one and only respite and safe space within their school. Its something we all need to consider in a better way to ensure students are respected, safe and supported to learn.

But the conference wasn’t just about better toilet design. It was about collaboration, putting students first and giving them agency, and the benefits of individualised and/or decentralised learning. All of the site visits I encountered celebrated the impacts of real world problem solving through experiential learning opportunities. And with a firm eye on the potential impacts of climate change, most of our presenters were looking hopefully to the possibilities of the future – how we help tomorrow’s young (and not-so-young) people work together to solve some big, gnarly, Ungoogleable problems.

Finally, on a personal note, it was so inspiring to be back in rooms full of enthusiastic and passionate designers and educators learning and sharing together. We really do have a great community of people committed to making a difference. I’m looking forward to the continuation of these discussions and strong collaboration at next year’s conference in Christchurch and hope you are able to join us.

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