A team “designing from the inside out”: Mary Featherston and Esme Capp
21 Apr 2017
With a mutual vision of "doing better schooling", designer Mary Featherston and educator Esme Capp share their experiences in learning environment theory, design and implementation.
How long have you been active in your profession and what is the most significant change you have seen in learning space design over the course of your career?
Mary has practiced as a product and interior designer for 50 years, her passion for designing learning environments for young people has grown over the years into a personal research project. She has been commissioned to design pre-school, primary and secondary learning environments in a wide variety of schools.
Esme has been an educator for 36 years developing an early interest in children’s engagement with design and technologies and differentiating learning. This led in the mid 1990’s to exploring and redefining what the school experience could be. Academic studies exploring leading change in education and theorising a methodology for school reform, aligned simultaneously with the design of new learning spaces with Mary, and the possibilities of this new way of working were expanded.
In recent times the spatial organisation of many new and refurbished schools has radically changed from single cell classrooms, but pedagogy – and the young person’s experience of learning - remains largely unchanged.
Princes Hill Primary School
How did the two of you meet and what projects have you collaborated on?
We met about 15 years ago through our shared commitment to ‘doing schooling better’ and our strong interest in the educational project of Reggio Emilia. We also share a belief in the vital relationship between pedagogy and design of the physical learning environment. Our skills and interests are mutual - Esme has a keen understanding of design and Mary is vitally interested in children and learning.
Our collaboration started at Wooranna Park PS, Dandenong and continues at Princes Hill PS. Carlton. (Esme is a former Assistant Principal of Wooranna Park PS and current Principal of Princes Hill PS). Both schools have very diverse communities and the usual mix of traditional buildings. Each school community has moved from lesson plans in single teacher classrooms to inquiry-based and experiential learning in large Neighbourhoods.
Wooranna Park Primary School
At Princes Hill PS the school community is evolving an approach to learning referred to as ‘Collective Inquiry’, this process is highly interactive and responsive to the participant’s developing interests and capabilities - a co-created curriculum which enables young people to be protagonists in their own learning.
What have been the highlights of the projects you’ve worked on together?
In 2005 an Education Department Research Grant enabled us to investigate all aspects of an inquiry-based approach to learning: learning theory, pedagogical practice, organisation of people, time, curriculum and finally design of physical environment We see it as ‘designing from the Inside Out’. Esme subsequently completed a PhD to theorise the practice titled, ‘Collective Inquiry: using cultural-historical theory as a methodology for educational reform’ (Monash University).
What have been the challenges of the learning spaces project(s) you’ve worked on together?
Generally – in Australia and worldwide – there is an ad hoc approach to re-imagining/ re-creating school education. Every school principal or community ‘does their own thing’ with minimal time, resources and expertise.
The Victorian Education Department has recently developed comprehensive design briefs for new schools but as yet educational philosophy and pedagogical practice has not been similarly developed – the cart is in front of the horse.
What strategies did you use to address those challenges?
To transform schooling is a complex process and needs to evolve organically. In our experience this can happen when a school has a shared vision based on clearly articulated beliefs and values about learning. These learning principles then determine all aspects of development: pedagogical practice, organisation of people, time and curriculum and finally design of supportive physical environments.
What criteria do you use to assess if a new learning environment is working?
Creating effective environments for relationships and learning involves many decisions. In our experience, the effectiveness of an environment (or proposed environment) becomes obvious when it is evaluated against the school’s principles and purpose - as in a good design brief.
Wooranna Park Primary School
Esme, what advice would you give to educators about working in and using innovative learning spaces?
Decisions must begin with a clearly articulated design brief which outlines the schools innovative vision, purpose and values. Defined principles of learning need to inform all decisions in regards to organisation and pedagogical practices, which are then enabled by innovative learning spaces.
Mary, what advice would you give to designers about consulting on and designing innovative learniing spaces?
Allow generous time for ‘front-end’ thinking before launching into design and form strong relationships between educators, design professionals and young people – multiple perspectives are needed. Follow a logical ‘design process’. Be very clear about why you are making certain design decisions – they will affect children and teachers for a very long time!
Princes Hill Primary School
Esme, what advice would you give to designers about working with educators?
To build relationship foundations over time that provoke open dialogue. To define and articulate principles of the design process. To challenge educators to articulate in detail their design brief aligned to their vision, purpose, values and principles of learning.
Mary, what advice would you give to educators about working with designers?
Architects and design professionals have large ‘tool bags’ of design solutions and they can create practical, enduring and delightful environments when they collaborate with all the protagonists in an educational project.
Every child and young person has the right to be an active protagonist in their own learning, to experience the pleasure of learning with and from others, to be curious and creative, to form strong relationships of trust and respect, to develop skills for contemporary life and work . . . how do we create such schools?
Mary Featherston and Esme Capp are special guests of the Victorian Chapter's Re/designing Schooling forum for young professionals on Tuesday May 9.