Guiding the Design Process: The Holy Cross College Early Learning Centre, Perth


In the recent interview with HoltThink, I indicated that designing within the allotted square footages is necessary for keeping the costs of the school project into line with the anticipated budget. While we work to align projects costs, we must also understand the mission and vision of the client. By embracing a responsive approach, we can thoughtfully transfer the goals of the mission and vision into a practical and inspiring design. Hence, we must aspire to adopt a responsive design approach.

A responsive design approach begins by examining the context of the place and developing an understanding of the spaces needed in the design. Rather than merely arranging spaces to align with the proposed exterior design aesthetic, the responsive designer considers interior relationships first and reflects on how the spaces (s) will influence learning process. Furthermore this approach brings together the research on the learning process and learning environments. Hence, this approach regards the learning environment as a vehicle of transformation whose life truly begins once it becomes inhabited by learners.

While the description above hints at this unique process, how does the responsive approach work to create such environments? The goal of this article is to tell the story of how this approach was employed in creating the Early Learning Center at Holy Cross College in Perth. This article will examine a process which has extended my experiences as a designer, researcher and educator.


(Fig. 1)

Understanding the Program (Educational Brief)

The Early Learning Center (ELC) is part of the third stage for a six stage master planning effort by EIW for Holy Cross College (HCC). By the time (2022) the all the stages are completed this campus will support the development of Kindergarten through Grade 12 students. Nevertheless, the work for the schematic design ELC began in November 2011. The spatial program included:

    • 2 Pre-Kindergarten Classrooms with a shared toilet room (100 square meters, each);
    • 2 Kindergarten Classrooms with a shared toilet room (90 square meters, each);
    • 2 First Grade Classrooms (70 square meters, each)
    • Multi-purpose Room (65 square meters);
    • 6 storage rooms (10 Square meters for each classrooms);
    • Staff Office (12 square meters); and
    • Toilets (staff, universal access toilets, as well as boys and girls toilets).

The primary concepts that influenced the design were grounded in my experience as an educator in New York City, research on the use of space at various schools in New York City, and an examination and assessment of specific architectural precedents from around the world.

Experiences and Research from the Classroom

My primary training in the classroom occurred at an alternative public elementary school. This training occurred in the first half of the 1990s. This elementary school housed kindergarten through 6th grade and was located in East Harlem New York City. Except for kindergarten, this was a two stream school. There were two first and second grade classes, two third and fourth grades, and two fifth and sixth grades. Each teacher planned their activity-based curriculum. The curriculum was designed to encourage independent and collaborative work. Within this environment, the children learned from their negotiations with their social environment, teachers and peers, as well as their physical environment.

The experience I gained from working at this school in a third and fourth grade classroom revealed that:

    • Teaching is a direct result of preparation. There are routines (rotations) that are planned to occur every day. These structures provide consistency ad continuity. Furthermore, this structure instills routine along with building and reinforcing the culture of the classroom environment;
    • Learning occurs in a variety of ways, since each learner has particular way of acquiring knowledge and working with others (Fig. 2);
    • Cooperative learning is not a group always working together as a unit, but rather involves occasions to share ideas collectively. Furthermore, cooperative learning promotes opportunities for independent work which allows learners to develop knowledge that is shared with the group;
    • The physical environment provides occasions for connecting the learner and the things to be learned. This is achieved by having defined activity areas/settings/zones that can expand or contract depending on the actions and activities of the group (Fig. 3); and
    • Over the course of the year, while learners develop biologically, emotionally, and physically, this development is influenced and shaped by the learning environment. Hence, learners are transformed develop emotionally, socially transformed by their transactions with their social and physical environments (Lippman, 1995).

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Role of the Teacher in an Activity Based Learning Environment:

As indicated, teachers structure the cooperative activities to encourage the learner(s) to develop their communication, creative, and critical thinking skills. Cooperative learning strategies were employed to encourage students to develop these formal skills in seemingly less formal ways (Giangreco, Clonigner, Dennis, & Edelman, 1994; Harper, Maheady, & Malette, 1994; Johnson, Johnson, & Maruyama, 1984; Slavin, 1983). Since this age-group looks to their teachers as referents of behaviour, the classroom teachers modelled cooperative learning activities (Griffin, Belayva, Saldatova & the Velikov-Hamburg Collective, 1993; Moll & Whitmore, 1993, Arndt, 2012. This was achieved from presentations to students about the activities and projects performed with other teachers. These presentations allowed teachers to share what they had learned and showcased how people can be transformed by their work with others. Lastly, these presentations highlighted that everyone possesses valuable knowledge that contributes to solving problems.

The Activity-Based Learning Environment:

The learning environments may be described as Acivity-Based as well as Learner-Centered. Within this environment, the teacher’s is not a content provider but rather a facilitator of knowledge. The facilitator oversees the work that is being developed and is in all ways ready to guide the students’ participation (Knowlton 2000; Greeno 1998). In these settings, the activities are structured to promote opportunities for peripheral, guided, and full engagements (Fig. 4). Learning is understood as a practice where students are engaged in experiential, authentic and relevant activities. Furthermore, children are encouraged to build on their schema as they consider possible options for solving current and future problems.


Organization of the Activity Based Learning Environment:

Whereas the day was a series of scheduled routines, the physical environment of the classroom space was planned with the intention of guiding the learning process. As the teachers’ planned the curricula to support the children’s’ learning experience, every aspect of the physical setting was arranged with a variety of clearly defined activity settings (Lippman, 1993, 1995). Conceptually, there were six learning zones: a reading area, building area, block corner, display corner, science corner, and art niche. These settings served a dual purpose. While they were planned to support the different formal activities, these learning zones also promoted opportunities for the development of social and emotional aptitudes, such as learning how to resolve conflicts and share resources with one another (Lippman, 1995).

Additionally, the child’s identity formation relates to the day-to-day history within the setting (Proshansky & Fabian 1987; Proshansky & Kaminoff 1979). Therefore, the classroom becomes a place where learners develop their identity, a sense of self, as they work through the specific tasks at hand (Rivlin, 1975; Wenger, 1998). Furthermore, identities are created as meanings emerge. The meanings are reinforced from the individuals’ transactions. Hence, the situations within the settings encourage them to view and review their own achievements as well as acknowledge the accomplishments of their classmates. These accomplishments contribute to the shaping of a learner’s identity (Lippman, 2010).

End of Part 1

To view the full article on the HoltThink website, click here .