Everyone Round the Camp Fire – Learning Comes First in New School Design

Over the last couple of years I have begun to take a deeper interest in the spaces that we call school and those we don’t but which are still considered spaces for learning.

Much of this focus has to do with our ongoing work at NoTosh with architectural firms and in support of schools seeking support and advice in making the most of new and old physical designs.

So I was drawn to this piece about a new school just outside Stockholm – partly due to the blog title – “Learning environments based on learning.” Here is a short extract in which Ante Runnquist explains some of the spaces or learning environments they have designed for the Vittra Telefonplan.

  • Campfire situations are characterised by communication flowing from one to many, requiring a space that can accommodate a certain number of people in a group situation, where everybody can focus on the person talking or presenting.
  • The watering hole is a place where people come and go, and a learning environment where you can gather in groups of different sizes. A watering hole is a place of exchanging communication, flowing back and forth. The watering hole areas are typically placed where you naturally would go, and where you maybe bump into somebody or something.
  • Show-off situations are situations where one person communicates towards the rest of the world, showing what he or she can do or has done, thus requiring a physical space for display and exhibition.
  • In the cave, communication flows within oneself, requiring a physical frame that furthers seclusion and contemplation.
  • Lastly, the laboratories are places where the students can acquire hands-on experiences, working physically and practically with projects in a societal and experimental context. The laboratories inspire students and teachers alike, enlarging the learning experience and inspiring teachers to use different tactile approaches.

In practical terms the learning that is going to take place dictates what space would be best. And Ante Runnquist, a Vittra researcher and the author of the post, supports what we believe at NoTosh about how the pedagogy surely is the forerunner for any school design.

Even though pedagogy has changed greatly over the last 100 years or so, the physical blueprint for schools, dating back to medieval monasteries remain: it is one based on time-space-topic. Behind this lies a basic assumption that the students need to be regulated , if a school doesn’t verify that the students are in the right place at the right time and doing the right things, they simply wouldn’t do it.

During our trip to Sydney in November of 2011 Ewan and I found an old book of school designs from decades ago and were amazed to see how traditional the furniture was in the diagrams. Despite the interesting spaces being crafted and planned, you could still see the regimented learning that would take place from the rows of desks. Some things never change.

In our experience new school design does not automatically mean a school is thinking about learning in new ways – much of our design thinking work helps school do just that and if we are fortunate this precedes any physical planning. In fact it should inform the design.

It is exciting to see that the plans at Vittra Telefonplan have this as a simliar focus.

First, I think we have to rethink pedagogy: what are the dynamics of an education with focus on on 21st century skills? Second, as a consequence: we need to rethink the learning environment. When we do this, things start to happen.

Picture: Detritus of “meaningless language” to describe learning cast aside by students at MLC (Sydney, Australia) by Ewan McIntosh


  1. You might like Biancas Hewes work on waterhole, campfire and cave. She’s successfully adapted it to PBL in standard classrooms, appealing to habits of mind and imagination. She’s in Sydney too.

  2. Great fun to read this! Creative learning environments has been one of our missions for years and Telefonplan is a really fun project. -Shouldn’t we all join forces in this and learn more from eachother? -To be continued!

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