Wooranna Park Primary School Case Study
by Annalise Gehling
Wooranna Park Primary School’s story of transformation spans ten years and is impressive for its staff-led status and critical review of all aspects of school life, including space organisation and time management.
The school began a process of change in 1997 when the staff reflected on and clearly articulated the school’s raison d’être, or ‘reason for being’. The framework of this document is a number of research-based beliefs about children’s learning, and around each of these beliefs was established a number of practices that showed commitment to that belief. When establishing these practices, the school made no assumptions about the nature of the school day or the school environment: these were considered adaptable: if the established ‘cells and bells’ model of the school did not support the beliefs about children and learning, it could be changed.
A small group of students at work with a teacher in Wooranna Park’s Prep (Kindergarten) unit
The beliefs suggested that to help students maintain their innate skills as independent learners, and to build on these skills, practice needed to give them the space to develop as an independent learner, rather than always wait for a teacher to give instruction. This implied a different ‘default mode’ of being in the classrooms at Wooranna: instead of entering a classroom and waiting for the teacher’s instruction, students have a Personal Learning Plan, established and updated with the help of an advisor, and on entering the ‘classroom’ they get started immediately on one of the tasks in that Plan. Each student’s day is interspersed with focused workshops, team meetings, tutor groups and one-to-one meetings with teachers.
Floor space for problem solving, play and storytelling, Prep unit.
It was clear from the beginning that this mode of operation needed a very different kind of learning environment so that students could always access the materials they needed for their independent learning projects, and so that teachers could balance the advisory & supervision requirements of negotiated learning time with their commitments as learning leaders in workshops and tutorials.
So the school began the process of changing its learning environments. This was a two-stage process: The first step was almost no-cost and involved knocking out walls between classrooms and corridors to create spaces in which several adults could collaborate effectively and work with larger and smaller groups of students, rather than always at the ratio of 25:1. These new units are largely autonomous and effectively form ‘Small Learning Communities’ (SLCs). Some single-class classrooms were maintained in order for workshops to take place, but just as 50%-70% of each student’s time is spent in independent learning under passive supervision, a similar proportion of the total SLC area is set up to cater for this mode.
Stage 1 also involved sourcing second hand furniture to create a variety of different learning spaces in these more open rooms.
With personal knowledge of what works well under the SLC format, staff and students were expert collaborators in the Stage 2 renovation, planned and designed by interior designer Mary Featherstone. Students identified all the different learning modalities they needed to exercise in the SLC, and space was designed to support these, all within the original shell of the 1970s ‘cells and bells’ building. The resulting SLCs are different for each cohort in the school (Prep (K), 1-2, 3-4 and 5-6 are grouped to form each of the SLCs). The K SLC supports a largely play-based curriculum, with spaces for different experiential, short-term and long-term projects. The 5-6 SLC comprises a set of partially separated project workrooms including a small black box theatre, a messy studio and an open project space, furnished with a range of soft and ergonomic seating and separated into smaller spaces using mobile furniture. In addition there are two learning studios for class-sized groups. The 3-4 SLC is similar to the 5-6 SLC and the 1-2 SLC has not yet had stage 2 of the renovation completed.
Project work area, 3/4 Unit
The school’s central Resource Centre was also consolidated with a range of smaller school facilities and now forms a central location for all shared resources in the school, and home base for specialist teachers. As is the case with all parts of the school it has been designed purposefully, with a range of more open and more closed spaces allowing the opportunity for a range of different learning modalities, most notably including film and audio production. It also has a similarly pleasing aesthetic. Students regularly use the Resource Centre as part of any entire SLC in order to give their teachers group planning time.
Project work area with soft seating, 5/6 Unit
Reading nook, Resource Centre
Today when visiting Wooranna Park Primary School, visitors are struck by several things that make it stand apart from most traditional schools.
Firstly, it isn’t particularly noisy. There is a buzz in each SLC as students go about their work, but the noise level is no more than in a regular classroom in which students are going about working on projects. It may even be quieter because with the range of resources and spaces students have available there is no cage against which to rail.
Nooks and crannies for individual and small group work, 5/6 Unit
Also, students are very articulate about their learning. They know what the state curriculum documents expect them to have learnt and they can share the steps they’ve taken to achieve curriculum objectives.
This is by no means a school for the elite. Wooranna Park is in a low socio-economic community in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. Students of over 40 different nationalities attend school here, and have proven that non-traditional school environments in which student-directed learning is actively supported are viable and highly effective for a great number of children, not necessarily only those from highly academic families.
More information including videos of student work and school structure, and the noted raison d’être, can be found at www.woorannaparkps.vic.edu.au.
Annalise Gehling, Educational Planning Consultant
Annalise Gehling is a Melbourne-based teacher, geographer and designer and serves as Fielding Nair International’s Educational Planning Consultant. Her work with FNI draws upon her big-picture educational philosophy, her broad understanding of educational literature and her varied personal experiences. For more information on Fielding Nair International (FNI) please visit www.fieldingnair.com