LEaRN interview in Architect Victoria

LEaRN Associate Director, Dr Ben Cleveland and Research Coordination and Communication Officer, Bella Bower were interviewed by The Office of the Victorian Government Architect for the Spring edition of Architect Victoria.

By Cara Wiseman & Sophie Patitsas, Office of the Victorian Government Architect.

This interview has been reproduced from Architect Victoria by the Australian Institute of Architects. To view the full magazine, click here.

Ben Cleveland Bella Bower

As a leader in advocating for design excellence it is important for the OVGA to invest in a culture of learning and knowledge sharing. Making connections and engaging with people and institutions that undertake primary research equips us with the evidence we often need to argue the case for good design.

Our level of engagement with research varies depending on priorities and emerging design issues. In 2011 a partnership between the OVGA and Monash Architecture Studio (MAS)1 resulted in the publication of a design-led research report exploring design strategies for enhancing the outcomes of infill housing redevelopment in the middles suburbs of Melbourne - an invaluable piece of work that challenges conventional housing models.

In other instances, for example during formal design review, we tap into our pool of experts on the Victorian Design Review Panel to relate industry learnings and research insights to real design challenges. The internationally-recognised research findings2 of our panellist, Distinguished Professor Billie Giles-Corti and her collaborators from the University of Western Australian and RMIT - studying the impact of policy on the urban design quality of housing developments and in turn, the health and well-being of residents - become a very powerful tool in design review when delivered directly by the lead researcher.

Our work in education and health has also led to a close engagement with the University of Melbourne's Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN)3 - a multidisciplinary forum, a portal and an international network bringing together academia and industry to research, imagine and discuss physical learning environments in school, vocational, university, medical and corporate contexts. This work has directly informed both our advocacy and advisory work - for example our publication, Good Design and Education.4

We spoke with LEaRN's Associate Director, Dr Ben Cleveland and Research Coordination and Communication Officer, Bella Bower to discuss how research can inform both government policy and practice.

A major aspect of your research involves collaborations and partnerships. How does that work across government in Victoria?

We engage in research collaborations in many different ways, such as partnering with the Department of Education and Training (DET) on sponsored research projects, as well as Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage projects. A recent example is the work we did for the Footscray Learning Precinct, for which we provided a 'translational brief' that linked current learning programs and educational aspirations across three schools with existing research into school design to provide a strategic brief for DET, the participating schools, and the architects taking on the master planning.

We were also engaged to review the Victorian Standard Entitlement Frameworks for Schools in 2015-2016. This project involved bringing together multiple stakeholders from across government and industry. We're now in discussions with DET about how the recommendations from the research can inform policy into the future.

Your network seems to talk to a lot of people in those spaces - people setting the policy frameworks, as well as the educators and designers - with you there as a broker as well?

To design a learning environment - whether it's a university building, school, or early learning environment - it's important that the design is developed with 'collective shared knowledge'.

Fundamentally, all of our research is interdisciplinary. That's really important. It's about multiple groups saying 'we need to pay attention to this issue' and collectively pursuing a well-informed and developed understanding.

Our 'Talking Spaces' conference is a key annual 'moment' when we draw groups from multiple disciplines together to distil our latest research into presentations, share informative site visits with educators, architects and policy makers, and talk collectively about current issues. The event is about dissemination, but equally about the informal conversations that occur. These enable us to get a feel for what people are talking and thinking about, what they need. This influences the directions of our research.

Talking Spaces 7: Intersections. Photo courtesy of LEaRN.

Talking Spaces 7: Intersections. Photo courtesy of LEaRN.

When there is so much research out there, how do you distill it and clearly communicate the findings?

This is something we're dealing with on a current project. Having completed nearly 50 learning environment evaluation case studies with Catholic Education Melbourne and Parramatta we have millions of pieces of data across 18 inquiry themes related to the pedagogical effectiveness of learning spaces. Given there is only so much information that people can engage with, we need to decide what data is of most relevance and how our findings can be effectively communicated and distilled into policy recommendations.

It's about drawing out common themes across the research/ evaluation program. For example, we can tell you that acoustics are still a problem.This is not just an amelioration issue but a fundamental design problem to be addressed across open and interconnected learning environments.

Can you tell us more about how you communicate your work and the role of the web and social media in engaging a wider audience?

LEaRN is a real 'collision' between the Faculties of Architecture Building and Planning, the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences at The University of Melbourne.

With our cross-disciplinary focus and composition of researchers it's important that we clearly communicate who we are, what we do, and how we can collaborate.

Our new webpage and social media integration strategy has allowed us to provide open access to the 'accepted versions' of many of our publications - book chapters, journal articles, conference proceedings.These are usually only available to people within universities. By posting these 'accepted versions' on our website it has created a virtual learning environment, a hub, for accessing academic learning environments research - a wonderful portal for practitioners in architecture, schools and government to read up on recent research.

Our website and twitter account have also helped form international relationships and start new collaborations. For example, we have 1000+ subscribers to our Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change ARC project twitter account (@projectlLETC) and our new webpage has attracted close to 1000 viewers within a month of its launch.

It's really interesting how research can translate into exemplars. Do you have examples of this you're involved with?

A great example of how LEaRN's research has been integrated into a built form is the Caulfield Grammar School Learning Project that has seen us collaborate both with the school and Hayball. Recently this project was shortlisted for the James D. MacConnell Award, an international award from the Association for Learning Environments (A4LE) which recognises comprehensive and innovative planning processes and community engagement.

Hayball have collaborated with LEaRN as a research partner since 2008. They've been involved with all our major ARC projects. - Smart Green Schools, Future Proofing Schools, Evaluating 21st Century Learning Environments and most recently, Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change.

In the Award finalists interview, the jury members, mostly from the United States, were intrigued by what we've been doing in Victoria. We had to get across that while this was a set of three modular buildings within one school, this design sits within a larger context. Essentially, they are prototypes for testing ideas to discover what works - and for whom. In this context partnering with LEaRN to evaluate the occupation of these modular buildings has helped inform future facility design, as-well-as teaching and learning practice. The project provides a good model of collaboration between educators, designers, and researchers.

Caulfield Grammar School, The Learning Project by Hayball Architects in association with LEaRN. Photo by Diana Snape.

Caulfield Grammar School, The Learning Project by Hayball Architects in association with LEaRN. Photo by Diana Snape.

To what degree did LEaRN's involvement in the research enable the school to agree to sign up for this?

It's fundamental to the project, as the whole approach was conceived as a way of testing ideas. The context is that it's a very big school with a lot of infrastructure across five campuses - a lot of which is old and very traditional. They needed information on which they could make effective design decisions going forward, so spending a bit of money upfront on three prototype modular buildings to test ideas before committing to major new buildings was actually not a bad strategy.

Are there any other projects or models that have captured your attention that we could learn from here?

There will always be cost restraint, but the inclusion conversation is an interesting one - everyone knows it comes with a cost. If we want to take the inclusion of students with special educational needs seriously, how much are we willing to pay to make this happen to the benefit of all involved?

That's a really big question - and also conversely, what is the cost to society if that doesn't happen?

You can look at this a few ways. For example, there is the question of the number of dedicated special needs schools needed. Victoria has a high proportion of special needs kids attending special needs schools when compared to other states.There are efficiencies to be found in addressing this, not just in the number of schools, but in management and resources across schools as well. Still, we need more information about 'what works', so evaluation of inclusive schools and inclusive school facilities is required.

Can we get better at evaluating the design of government projects?

The short answer would have to be yes. There's a lot to learn about how design can better support education - and probably money to be saved in the long run. Good design requires good ideas, as well as feedback on which of those good ideas have worked well, for whom and why.


  1. OVGA: Infill Housing Study
  2. Ground-breaking urban design study earns international award
  3. Learning Environments Applied Research Network
  4. OVGA Publication: Good Design and Education

More Information

Isabella Bower