Happy Steve

Innovation and Learning

Start with clarity of intent.

Now build it out with an evocative vision. Improvise progress by tinkering: with lots of trial and lots of error. The not knowing is the best bit: the mysteries the surprises, and from time to time the windfalls! 

Hello there, I'm Steve Collis! 

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Filtering by Tag: space

While I can't knock down walls...

After spending a day working with staff at a local state school in Sydney, I received this comment on my blog from a teacher, Natalie Aoun...


While I can’t knock down walls, I’d like to change the way my classroom looks inside. Can I send you a photo of what my classroom looks like?
Classroom pre-makeover! 

Classroom pre-makeover! 

"While I can't knock down walls, I'd like to change..."  !!!!

I replied and few moments later, Natalie sent my this photo, and some more information...

Natalie also told me her ideas: 

- black painted feature wall for chalk drawing (rather than the pinboards at the back)
- grouped tables
- bean bags/ pillows/ comfy chairs
- floating bookshelves
- 'fan' space (because the girls love their music bands)
- iPod ports for music
- iPad ports for charging, like the way they have it set up in the Apple store (we currently had 3 that were issued to our faculty that are not in use yet)
- fairy lights/ lanterns/ hanging bottles (as suggested by my students in roll call)

In my next reply I put Natalie onto these resources:

Inspiring videos by Ira Socol also here and here. Also the Third Teacher website and video. And blogs by Bianca Hewes and Henrietta Miller and Greg Miyanaga

I mentioned other stuff too, including the idea of using www.freecycle.org where there is a wealth of free stuff being given away by local people.


Before I know it, Natalie has started a blog, AND she's set up two spaces where her students can add ideas, including this virtual "padlet" where her learners contributed to the vision. Scroll down and right to browse through all their ideas: 

Where did it go from here? 

Well you'll want to high-tail it over to her blog to see! Here's a sneak peek: 

The blog is a wonderful read - in it you'll find a hilarious conversation with a student starting with "what's the point" and ending with "Omg this is really cool."

And along the way Natalie Aoun is resourceful, creative and proactive. She seeks (and receives) support from the school leadership, gets help from friends outside school, collaborates with the school grounds staff, gets hands-on painting a wall with the students. She puts out word on Facebook and various friends and colleagues get on board.

A transformation takes place!

Water on every table!

Water on every table!

Where to go with this? 

  • first of all, three cheers to Natalie Aoun. Follow her on Twitter, read her blog. What a creative, resourceful, empowered, transformative person!
  • from her blog, there is about a gazillion strategies for transforming a space  on a small or zero budget.   Don't tell me what you can't do - Natalie has already done it!
  •  'While I can't knock down walls'... what can you do? Plenty!

Natalie's story also illustrates what I've come to see as mission critical in school transformation: Inspiration is a force-multiplier.  

Whereas I keep encountering this assumption over and over again: ???to get transformation we need to give teachers release time???

Why? It seems to be... because they're so exhausted, we can't take ANYTHING MORE on, so we need release time.  

Wrong diagnosis I'm afraid. Why are teachers exhausted? Well, lots of reasons, but release time isn't going to cure it.  

I'm not anti-release time, bring it on, but without inspiration and vision it isn't going to cut the mustard. 

Here are Natalie's words in a recent email to me:


Hey Steve!

Are the exclamation marks indicative of the mood I am in right now? I hope so! I wrote a proposal last week for the classroom and it just got approved today. I’m so excited!

The answer to school transformation does not lie in money or release time, but in vision, inspiration, and resourcefulness.

Why not forward on Natalie's blog to colleagues who might like the inspiration? And if you have a second tip your hat to her on Twitter


 P.S. Taxonomy of Frames applied to Natalie's Project:

Note the layers of space involved in her project: physical (furniture, features, etc), virtual (the chalkboard wall), and cultural.

Cultural? Yes because look at the quotes wall: the students themselves have now imprinted messages like "Life stops when you stop dreaming" onto the space itself. It's not just physical & virtual space that will frame their experience from now on, but quite literally the building is clothed in ideas.  



Make Room

Make Room

I have a riddle:

What can you create by taking something away?

- remove tables and chairs...
- remove old displays from walls and windows
- remove the lesson plan
- remove established conventions
- remove the personal histories, and assumptions
- remove goals and expectations
- remove all storage and stored items

Let the clutter fall and a lightness take its place.

You've created a blank slate.

In the clutter, who owned the space? It wasn't the teacher! It sure wasn't the learners.


The space was its own creature, self-perpetuating. The clutter took up the room, vetoing unforeseen discoveries and unrecognised passions.

Now there is room.

Anything could happen. It's a fresh day. It's a new page.

Everything in our field of vision is heavily analysed and processed by our visual cortex and 'adaptive unconscious' - our executive functions are not aware of this, it just gets dished up on a platter... a very full platter.

Those old posters still on the wall are invoking a myriad of tired neural networks, and further, a cascade of associations. It's the weight of the past. The mind uses reference lookup as a default mode, and the process has a hair trigger.

Now you've taken the posters down, and made room. Your visual cortex scans and sees a blank canvas. Subtly the blood flow in your brain shifts to support higher functions; creating the future rather than referencing the past.

An ember-sense of capacity and enlargement grows. The learner feels more receptive and expansive. 

We add back in a few items: liquid chalk for writing on the windows, ordinary chalk for the floor, butcher's paper for the walls.

And we ask: what next? what's on your heart? where shall we go?


Post-Script Vignettes: 

Notes from Frames Taxonomy

Frames are discrete, identifiable, manipulable components of our physical, virtual, mental and cultural contexts. If we don't shape them, they shape us.

- items of furniture are o-frames
- habits, lesson plans, are s-frames
- goals and agendas are n-frames
- our personal histories and sense of established roles are also n-frames

We can create these frames deliberately, but mostly they are just 'spawned' or inherited from the past, and are very often artefacts of our collective neuroses, perpetuating anxiety.

Frames get coded in our the basal ganglia (unquestioned routine) and resisting them can activate the amygdala (fear of social transgression).


Make Room, by Rachel Collis

The notion of 'making space' or 'making room' has become for me a core value in every domain, every situation.

Though your heart's a flickering no-vacancy sign,
Though your heart's forever working overtime,
Though your heart's a suitcase fully packed,
Though your heart's a disregarded artefact -

Love is spacious, love is kind,
So make room. 
Make room.

Though your heart's the city crowds on New Year's Eve,
Though your heart's been struggling for years with no reprieve,
Though your heart's economy class,
Though your heart's perpetually half-mast -

Love is spacious, love is kind,
So make room. 
Make room.

Though the bus is standing room only,
Love's not leaving anyone behind,
So make room.

Though my heart's an insensitive practical joke,
Though you fear I'll strangle you with my yoke,
Though I fight and kick and scratch and scream,

And though I need -

Love is spacious, love is kind,
So make room.

Make room.


For Me at Home 

I try to make room at home, especially room to think/write/draw. 

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Today I'm going to order 'aqua notes' that I've been aware of for ages - creating room to write in the shower! Ironically on their website they also have the opposite... pure clutter, in the form of a crossword to do in the shower.  

My love affair with GTD workflow is about finding mental space to be reflective and receptive in the midst of the insane complexity of school life.

In particular, I want to feel like when there is an interruption and someone needs my help or input, I can genuinely make room for them - have a sense of generous, abundant space for them rather than the scarcity of throwaway scraps.

And how much more important is this aspiration when it comes to young learners!

I have a short video of my school to share with you.

Below, our school principal Stephen Harris leads a tour of one of our learning spaces. From the language he uses about learning, and space, you can get a pretty good idea of the vision and driving forces behind our journey of transformation over the last 5 or 10 years. I have learned a great deal from Stephen, and feel extremely fortunate to be able to work with him. 


Direct link to video.

50% or more of our school learning spaces now have a similar openness and flexibility as the space Stephen tours. I would identify space, relationships and culture as three crucial elements in any institution. The three are in intimate conversation with each other, and shape each other. 

You may notice that we don't have codes for our rooms like a prison. Our learning spaces have names. We don't have bells, either, but I guess that's another story for another blog.

Building the Education Revolution Spaces

International readers, the background to this post is a huge financial investment by the Australian government in new school capital works progams as one of several initiatives to counteract the effects of the Global Financial Crisis. The investment was called "Building the Education Revolution" (B.E.R.).

Here's a video from Balwyn Primary school in Victoria:

The video appears to be published by 'Furnware', a furniture company, but the link at the end of the video goes to the Victorian education website on the B.E.R. There are links from there to standard templates for schools. I can't really tell from the templates if they're any good, but there are some good signs. The dot points on a typical template seem to be on the right track, as does this video with key architects. They really emphasise the adaptability of the buildings to future changes. The thinking is spot on.

I'd love to hear from Victorian colleague about the templates. I'm not exactly bowled over by video footage of a range of spaces but it looks like there's some good stuff in the mix. (Me, the measure of all things, of course!)

Footage from the New South Wales Department of Education and Training, unfortunately, is another matter.

Here's an overview of one of their templates:

The concept of 'computer nooks', is of course dead in the water. That's why you soft-code your spaces. "Team-teaching" is the closest we get to innovation in the NSW video, which isn't very close at all I'm afraid. If I'm depressed by the end of it, this second overview doesn't cheer me up:

There's a complete absence of vision for what is the chance of a generation.

I beg of readers to correct me or add information in the comments. Maybe the Victorian PR machine is just better?

One thing I landed on for NSW was these reports

In this interim report (warning - it's a 10mb Word doc), page 54, we read:

The managing contractors engaged by NSW adopted existing concept design templates developed for NSW DET and prepared these designs for construction. These design templates developed by managing contractors were used in 97 per cent of NSW Government school P21 projects. In some instances the design templates were not well suited to schools with space constraints. This was observed by the Taskforce in inner-city areas

I gather, from this, that 97% of participating NSW government schools had template buildings that were already kicking around the D.E.T. when the funding program was launched.

In Victoria, on the other hand:

The Victorian Government recently developed a suite of design templates for new school buildings in accordance with that state’s Victorian Schools Plan. The Program has provided the Victorian DEECD with an opportunity to accelerate its state-wide roll out of new learning facilities and apply the new design templates. The Taskforce observed the Victorian Government design templates to be of high quality. The template development was hastened to take advantage of the Program and in some instances the designs have yet to benefit from feedback from earlier projects. 

However, nationally:

Design templates were not used by the majority of non-government schools.

The Victorian videos inspired me, expecially the first one.

The NSW one, however, made me feel I was back in the 1980s. It worries me, the cultural inertia that spaces carry with them, and therefore the braking effect the BER investment has the potential to cause on the learning paradigm-shift we so desperately need.