Stephen Harris: “Redesigning Spaces Around Collaborative Teaching”

Access and Inclusion January 30, 2014

There is a clear movement occurring in education globally right now – a movement that is seeking to shift the epicentre of educational paradigms from an industrial-era experience to something more relevant to the ever changing and dynamic contexts of the 21st century. In the first decade of this new century, much great work has been done articulating what 21st century skills might be – is a great example of this. 

My focus is the key importance of spatial awareness in redesigning spaces for learning. I hope the second decade of this century will be marked by an awareness that redesigning spaces will be as important to change processes, as describing the new skills deemed necessary for learning and career creation in the last decade. I will focus on our journey of change as a case study for education redesign. 

Northern Beaches Christian School (NBCS) is a co-educational K-12 school of 1300 students in the northern region of Sydney, Australia. The school draws from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, is located within a site that was built to support an industrial-era education philosophy and like most other non-government schools in Australia, it is funded through a combination of Federal Government support and parent fees. In the Australian context, we would be regarded as an upper range, low fee school.   

In 2005 NBCS planted a research, development and innovation unit within the school – the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning (SCIL). It was a means by which to support educational innovation at the grassroots. Seven years on and SCIL ( is now the public interface of the school with the global education community.

As part of its focus on leading the change in learning, SCIL has deliberately grown its understanding of the interplay between spatial concepts as a means to accelerate change. Much work has been done in the last two decades revisiting pedagogic space. Many schools have created virtual spaces to support face-to-face learning, enabling transitions from the real world to virtual spaces and back again, seamlessly in diverse contexts. Likewise attention has been focused on the key role that relationships play in engaging students into learning – with the social and emotional spheres of school life being under focus. The area of least attention has arguably been the key to global change – the importance of physical space as the cohesive component that facilitates global change.  

What change has NBCS nurtured and why?

The industrial-era experience of education is centred around ‘separation’ as a key concept. Separate teachers working in separated classrooms on separate programs, created separately by individuals. Regrettably many tertiary institutions reinforce this in their education courses assessing the worth of teachers as potential separate deliverers of curriculum and engaging as behavior managers in solo contexts. It is a recipe for emotional meltdown. Why has it taken so long for the educational community to work this one out? Why do universities that offer MBA courses where students are expected to work in networked teams ignore this key element for pre-service teacher education? 

Our experience has been that change comes from these key elements:

  • Redesign spaces around collaborative teaching,
  • Retrain teachers to work collaboratively and
  • Empower and resource teachers to be the agents of change in any context


As a result the learning experience changes rapidly – leading to improved academic outcomes, greater alignment with the skills that will be valuable in post-school contexts and a far more obvious and positive culture of engaged learning will be evident.

We have learnt that space is both a fixed and fluid notion. It has an enormous impact on how we feel and think – the very core of our experiences of life. The challenge for schools is to identify the different spaces it inhabits – virtual, pedagogic and real, and to draw these together in meaningful ways so that learning can focus forward, enabled through technology. 

NBCS has created some new spaces for learning: 

  • The flowing ‘nooks and crannies’ of the SCIL building1,2,3,4
  • Design and Production suites of the Undercroft5
  • Multimodal agile spaces of the Marina Prior Centre for the Performing Arts6

We have renovated existing spaces: 

  • The Zone7,8,9 (an open learning environment for 180 students and 6 teachers)
  • Rhythm & Blues10 (a shared space for music learning) and the Hub11


We are now about to challenge school design thinking with a current sustainability project in the making – the Marketplace12, which seeks to combine social and learning space as one concept, breaking down any concept of ‘separate’ classrooms.  The Marketplace is an active glass canopy positioned over old spaces in order to radically transform the heart of the original school from industrial-era design to agile spaces suited to community life, engaged learning and enhanced through mobile technologies.

We have seen that if you place vision at the heart of school’s operation, and then share and grow that vision with high purpose, then innovation becomes a natural by-product. People are encouraged to take risks and condense any ideation and action phases of change into an accelerated journey that embraces failure, as much as it values success. We learn by doing – and if schools wish to transform, then they need to adopt this philosophy in tangible ways. 

At the heart of our transformation has been the shift to collaborative learning. This has necessitated a lot of unlearning by the teachers, in order to build their new skills as collaborative designers of curriculum delivery. The trade-off for them has been the rapid decline in the required role of behavior manager, as this becomes a minor component of their daily function. We have watched a new creative energy emerge as teachers across the campus have all embraced the change process. No longer is it 20th century ‘push’ for change, rather 21st century teachers are ‘pulling’ in the new paradigm. Our role as educational leaders becomes one of facilitating new ways of learning. It is a powerful and exciting process. We also believe it is highly replicable and scalable. It is innovation at its dynamic best. 

Examples of spaces for new learning 

The Zone: the Zone is simultaneously a space and a project. The Zone is represents the learning program for 180 Stage 3 students (10-12 year olds) with 6 teachers. It is one group, not six groups. Learning is differentiated to the needs of every learner, every day, in a personalized process that tracks individual development. A day in the Zone involves sustained focus on:

  • Literacy skill development
  • Numeracy skill development
  • Integrated studies (where students can create their own journey through a matrix of activities and select the spaces and teachers that will best support their learning) 
  • Specialized learning of foreign languages 
  • PDHPE and sport. 

The benefits are well captured in this equation: 

180 students + 6 teachers + one agile space + collaborative learning + BYOD (bring your own device) = engaged learners + zero behavior issues. 

Rhythm and Blues: At the end of 2011, secondary music teachers requested that a wall with an operable door be completed removed between their two larger teaching spaces. This would enable them to teach two music classes in the one space, regardless of the level of musicianship or age. The space became like a large loving room with immediate and obvious high engagement, across the age range of students. Again, a radical shift in thinking, led to a radical and highly effective shift in learning engagement.

Immersive gestural French: NBCS language teachers tackled the issue of gaining total student engagement in language learning who are undertaking the mandated 100 hour course in a foreign language in early secondary grades. The challenge of addressing student engagement in a mandated course was to adopt a Canadian approach where language is acquired in a fully immersive context, using signing gestures to reinforce vocabulary and the structure of the spoken sentence. The beauty of this approach is that it can be located anywhere13.  And it is. Visitors to the school will commonly come across a group of 26 students focused intently on second language acquisition through high kinaesthetic activity. 

The greatest challenge to change in learning is our reticence to simply take action: 

  • change the space
  • change the program
  • expect high outcomes. 

The formula – do, then think!