Designing learning spaces for your meerkat

I remember when I first heard that Sean Coleman was running a workshop at New Generation Learning Spaces 2014, I was a little confused. Sean works for Monash University, nothing strange there… but he’s talking about applying design principles from a zoo!? I needed to know more.

Prior to starting his new role at Monash University, Sean worked for Melbourne Zoo as the Head of Education: “the easiest way to explain it was that I was looking after a team of ten educators, and as a group we were responsible for the 100,000 students that came through the gates every year and the educational content that was delivered to them” he explained.

Sean’s focus right from the start was clear: use spaces to build the connections between educators and students. As a result, the zoo reviewed all their facilities and ultimately upgraded, refurbished and built new learning spaces.

So how exactly do you build that connection? And perhaps more importantly – is it an area where we’re currently missing a trick?

There’s a huge focus on the physical things we put into our spaces at the moment; what technology, what chairs, should we even have chairs? But perhaps one of the most important elements is the natural environment you’re in.

We’re lucky here in Australia that we’re surrounded by beautiful views and fantastic weather (mostly) to show them off. Sean believes it’s this connection to the outside that can really create a strong learning platform:

“Providing that connection to the students is vital. It’s important that they feel connected with the world around them

Some would argue that’s the job of the academic or the educator, but we have to able to support and enable that connection, not detract from it when looking at learning strategies.”

There has been a lot of research around working outdoors; a recent study demonstrated

72% of outdoor learners scored higher on tests than students in traditional classrooms.

But of course, this isn’t always practical. Fear not, Sean shared a few key areas that he’ll be utilising for his next challenge: developing a framework around learning spaces in his new role, going from seven learning spaces at the zoo to 700 at Monash:

The framework

“In the zoo I kept a list of key considerations and qualities that had to be brought into the design of any refurbishment or new build. One of those qualities was to have key views to an ambassador animal.We were trying to have a learning space in each of the precincts around the zoo, and the ambassador animal was one that was used in a conservation campaign.

As an example, in the gorilla rainforest area we used our western lowland gorillas as ambassadors for  They’re Calling on You campaign, which is about recycling mobile phones. Our learning space there (named the Jungle Hut) was built so that it had big bi-fold opening windows and big double opening doors to a deck overlooking the gorilla enclosure, creating that connection.  With the newest learning space in the Growing Wild area, we actually put a glass wall in and had one of the meerkat enclosures abutting the learning space. We created a little indoor-outdoor den for the meerkats to come in and be as close as possible to the students.

Of course, you don’t generally see meerkats or gorillas in education facilities, the principle of using your outdoor social areas or focus viewpoints to engage your audience remains key.”

Natural light

“Natural light is hugely important to learning spaces; we’re seeing it more and more in tertiary educational spaces. We’re doing a huge refurbishment at one of our lecture theatres currently and the designs feature some huge windows that started to get smaller and smaller during the PCG. You have to push back and keep them as big as possible. If there’s too much light, you can always retrofit blinds or window treatments, but let’s just get as much light as we can and provide students with a connection to the outside world.

It aids in the connection and engagement of the teaching staff and the students, especially if you can see the changes in the season – letting light into what would normally be a dark room.”

Revitalise your teaching

“If students are turning around and getting engaged by what’s happening outside, go over and talk to them about what’s happening. If we go back to the meerkats, it’s a great opportunity to talk about their adaptations and individual personalities, have a chat about what they would be doing in the wild and why they’re behaving a certain way.

If you’re trying to draw their attention back to you as an educator, then you’re just teaching from an egotistical point of view and not from an educational point of view.”

Focus on your intent

“You can’t be innovative if you’re sitting in a darkened room lost in your own head; you need to be constantly engaging, talking with people, picking their brains, learning from them. That means speaking with a range of stakeholders, because light bulb moments don’t happen in a darkened room when you’re sitting there thinking by yourself.

One thing that you need to do when looking at any learning space is to be able to articulate the intent of that space.

For example, if the intent of a space is to be entirely flexible so that multiple faculties can share that particular space, then regardless of how far down you get in the planning process you always need to refer back to that intent. That’s often the bit that gets lost and watered down, the further you go down the process.  By the time you’re in construction phase, it’s too late.

Our spaces have to be flexible to support our more integrated learning experience. We’re seeing a lot of support for less lecture theatres and more collaborative learning spaces, and spaces that are flexible enough to be able to include collaboration in small groups, large groups, and roundtable discussions.  Blended learning is constantly pushing this envelope, asking questions such as ‘how can we make this more flexible without moving away from the intent that it’s still a learning space, not just a place where you’re shuffling furniture every five minutes’.”

Hear more from Sean during New Generation Learning Spaces 2014, you can see the full line up here:  

Also, do get in touch if you have any other learning space principles you’re applying to the classroom…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s