The Quite Astonishing MLC Junior School

This evening I listened to Barbara Stone (Principal) and Ed Lippman (Architect) talk about the creation of the new building that houses the MLC Junior School as part of Sydney University's Thursday Night Lectures. The school looks amazing, as close to my dream school as anything I have seen in Australia. You can see a little of the layout and sketches on the Lippman Partnership site.

Some of the things that I found fascinating were;

  • the school's philosophy (behind both the architecture and the pedagogical approach) draws heavily on the Reggio Emilia approach. Look it up, I did – food for thought
  • 'classrooms' per se are pretty much gone. Space is organised into uber-flexible 'studios', but these are generally not walled – one contiguous space may be made up of three 'studios', each with a different class and teacher. The result is 'collaborative teaching', requiring staff to dramatically adjust the way they plan and manage activity
  • renaming of spaces (remember the importance of language, people) – 'classrooms' are 'studios', the 'library' is the 'information hub' (or 'hub' for younger children), the 'sick room' is 'health center'
  • extensive use of glass and open-able spaces that remove the segmentation typically seen within a school and the delineation between inside and outside (complete with a large central piazza)
  • a very modular, flexible and organic approach to the design and fit-out that accommodates both day-to-day change, as well as longer term evolution of needs 

Oddly enough, the story that I found most compelling was one that Barbara Stone told about students in the school a number of years ago being involved in the design process. At the time they were in standard classrooms ('egg crates' as Stone described them), and two classes were asked to consider what alternative ways there might be of organising their classroom. They had to develop four possible models, and then they restructured their classroom into each of those patterns for several weeks, taking note of what it was like to be in that space. They worked together to integrate their findings, and each class presented back their recommendation for classroom organisation. These kids were six.  

5 thoughts on “The Quite Astonishing MLC Junior School

  1. Penel

    Great design .. like the open & openable spaces .. bringing the outside environment & community in.
    Interesting the renaming of the spaces .. makes a lot of sense. Not sure about the naming of the piazza though .. hope that’s not replacing the ‘playground’.
    The Reggio Emilia approach to learning sounds wonderful ..
    teacher as co-learner & collaborator with the child .. being ‘inside the child’s learning situation’, seems like a really healthy approach
    the involvement of the wider community in the child’s learning experience
    & their brilliant building design ideas
    love it all

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  2. Brett Rolfe

    To be fair, ‘piazza’ was their architectural tip of the hat to Reggio Emilia – they may not actually call it that. Having said that, I bet they may well want to challenge the overly simplistic nature of ‘play’-ground (as opposed to classrooms where no play occurs?).
    They used the phrase ‘enabling learning’ that I thought fit really well with those ideas of co-learner and collaborator. Teacher as an enabler (of learning) feels about right. Maybe I’m still not completely ready for ‘co-learner’ yet 😉

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  3. Ben Rolfe

    Now, while I love the idea of studios (as places for study) replacing classrooms (as places for the separation of people into classes), I wonder whether such linguistic distinctions really do matter for the students. Can’t hurt, though.
    The design process example is awesome. I think people learn so much better when they are given responsibility. I doubt that there’s any age limit on that.

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  4. Ben Rolfe

    Some more thoughts on language: You know I love wordplay, but I try not to fool myself into thinking it solves anything. So teacher doesn’t really say the right thing – does the term need to be changed? Enabler of learning is a mouthful (enabler by itself has troubling connotations) and when used in conjunction with other ideas, could get downright confusing.
    To teach is to impart skills or knowledge, and to enable is to impart ability. While this is a meaningful difference, I think that the main problem with the word teacher is cultural baggage.
    Ultimately, shouldn’t we just fix teaching to get the word to drop its baggage, rather than using a different word and hoping that the baggage doesn’t follow?

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  5. Brett Rolfe

    I have a feeling that perhaps the use of new nomenclature is as much for the teachers as the students – after all the teachers are the ones that have to change the habits developed over their professional career when they come into this environment, the students have no such baggage!
    Going to have to disagree with you on the language thing though – I think language can be very important (but I would say that). Using words like ‘enable’, ‘facilitate’ and ‘catalyst’ will create very different actual practices compared to ‘teach’ or ‘impart’ (which as I understand it essentially means ‘transmit’). We engage with the world through language, and I think that changing language can have concrete effects on our behaviour.
    While we are fixing ‘teaching’ perhaps we can also fix ‘nigger’, ‘retarded’, and ‘housewife’?

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