“When did your kids last talk to you about what they learnt at school?”
After over an hour of wonderfully enlightening conversation, Australian design icon, Mary Featherston is still refining the perfect question to provoke you, Gippslandia readers, into reassessing the education you, your children or grandchildren receive in school, even the form of the school itself.
Our encapsulating time with Mary has been facilitated by her mentee, Lisa Horton, who, after her involvement in the international award-winning vertical school in South Melbourne, discussed the power of good design and why it’d be such a joy to refurbish her old school, Morwell Park Primary, with Gippslandia in our fourth edition.
Since our previous chat, interior architect and educational planner, Lisa has been industriously establishing her new studio, On Paper, and upon arriving at the ‘granny flat’, adjacent to Mary’s revolutionary Robin Boyd designed home, the two have much to catch up on.
Mary’s late husband, Grant, is Australia’s best-known modernist furniture designer. It has been suggested that nearly every Australian has experienced a Featherston chair. In 1965, Mary formed a life and professional partnership with Grant Featherston – a partnership that lasted until his death in 1995.
Over the encompassing thirty years the pair completed many diverse projects across the fields of furniture, exhibitions, interiors and graphics. In the 1970s, Mary undertook pivotal studies into the design of learning environments for kids, and her work in this field since is internationally recognised.
The following is an edited transcript of the conversation shared with Mary and Lisa over a brisk morning in August. It has been edited for length, to bring the many illuminating insights to the fore.
Our conversation begins by exploring the current issues with the modern disposable furniture industry.
Mary: What we really want is for schools to think about what they’re doing, rather than charging in and wanting ‘funky furniture’.
Lisa: I did just get an email from a school. They sent me through a furniture wish list… it’s all brightly coloured, wacky-shaped things. It’s a bit of a struggle. When you work with educators, the first thing you do as a designer is talk about teaching and learning: ‘What are the practices? What are the activities? What are the students doing? What is the intent?’. The educators come to the table and they just want to talk about the design of the space. This takes a little while to sort out… But once you can get through that great things can happen.
Mary: The design profession is to blame because we haven’t helped people understand the potential of design. So if you’re going to talk to somebody about design they immediately think that it either drops from heaven or that you just act on impulse.
Regarding table design, the classic thing happened in New Zealand, where I sat down with three or four teachers to have a workshop. I said, ‘What do you want to talk about?’ , they said, ‘Furniture!’.
‘What kind of furniture? Let’s start with a table. So what would you want to do at a table?’
‘Have a discussion.’
‘So what shape would you choose for a discussion?’
They all said, ‘jelly bean shape’, so I said, ‘Why would you choose a jelly bean shape?’. They just looked at me as, ‘Why not? That’s what you do’. I knew why. But an hour later, I kept bringing them back to, ‘Why? Why? Why?’. It was a revelation. They said, ‘Ah, okay, now we understand’, and then I said, ‘Now you can apply the understanding of that process to anything – absolutely anything’. The design process is so powerful.
Lisa: The jelly bean table is everywhere, and when you actually drill down into what it’s good for everyone says, ‘Oh it’s great for collaboration’. You look at that piece of furniture and the relationships it sets up with the people sitting around it… The jelly bean puts the teacher right in the middle of the table.
Mary: Yes, they sit in the focus.
Lisa: All the kids are around them.
Mary: It’s about control.
Lisa: If you’re wanting to have a discussion that’s democratic, where everyone is an equal participant, by choosing this table shape you’re setting up a power structure that doesn’t really convey that. Children pick up on that. They understand their position and that structure, I think sometimes more than the adults do.
Mary: I want to get across that every educational experience is ‘designed’. In the full sense of the word; not just the physical design, but the social design too. The whole experience is designed.
The more you understand of why you’re doing it and what the underlying beliefs are, the more effective the design will be. The classic example is the traditional classroom. We’re fond of saying it’s a perfect piece of design for its purpose; if your belief is that children learn passively and that the adult’s role is to transmit a body of information to a group of kids without distraction…You have to question the underlying beliefs, don’t you?
It’s all based on the lesson plan. The teacher comes in with the lesson that they administer to the kids. The kids then practice that, then you test them and then you move on. So every aspect of that experience: the size of the group, how many kids in the class, the fact that there’s only one teacher, the way you divide up the curriculum into little parcels and sort of push it out, they all last a set length of time because that’s when the kids will get bored and need to move on, to the shape of the room. This is our struggle because it’s all of a single piece. Everything is interconnected. You can’t just tweak one little bit of it.
You know, in the 1960s and 70s, when I was really getting into this area, as part of all the liberation movements there was a very strong reaction against the authoritarian nature of it [education]. The undemocratic nature of it. But it was a violent reaction. It was like, ‘Throw it all out!. Get rid of all the walls’. Just make big open spaces, in the belief that the kids had it. That through maturation they would learn and develop. That they didn’t need adults. They would do it on their own. But then we quickly realised that wasn’t going to work either. So all the walls went back in again. That stymied us for years.
But if you say, ‘No, it’s not about adult control. It’s about child-centred’. They’re sort of at the ends of the spectrum. The exciting thing to me, and I think to Lisa too, is that there are now projects that look at the reciprocal relationship between the adult, who’s the keeper of adult society’s values, and what the children bring to the experience. It’s much more dynamic, exciting and more democratic. But it’s subtle. And the environment to support that is very subtle. This is our struggle.
Lisa: I think the struggle with the environment is that it’s something that people can’t easily imagine. We all know what we know.
Mary: Yes, If you’ve only known the traditional system, which is universal… 60 or 70 years ago it was exactly the same.
Lisa: There’s a misconception that the traditional classroom is the only way that education has ever existed, but before the Industrial Revolution education looked differently. It is a formalisation of the process… because we needed a compliant people that were soldiers, clerks, factory workers and all of that. It was a designed experience to create that end product.
I don’t know whether people aren’t aware of how well-designed that whole system is and they don’t necessarily see the value in re-designing the whole system again… It puzzles me because it seems to me that the traditional classroom is what people associate with education the world over. That’s just it.
Mary: Over 75 percent of Victorian classrooms are still like that. People have written thesis asking that perhaps because these environments are so familiar, people are quite unconscious of them. The difficulty is to then question that.
Another important part of the picture is that through the history of education you’ve had two streams: the ‘mainstream’, which is the single classroom, and the ‘alternative stream,’ which is a much smaller number of progressive schools all over the world… but they’ve been started by visionaries, educational luminaries who’ve said, ‘Well, actually, we think that children learn in a different way. And we think that there’s a narrow focus. So what we need to do is to start from a different point of view and really observe children very closely’.
Invariably those visionaries hooked up with great architects or designers and created wonderful spaces, but they didn’t influence the mainstream enough.
Gippslandia: How much are the alternative views starting to gain on the mainstream?
Mary: I think there’s been a total misunderstanding. It’s really scary because 20 years ago nobody gave a stuff about the physical environment of schools. As long as you’ve got good teachers it didn’t matter.
But then we started to experiment and do things locally and it started to resonate.
Schools recognised they’ve got to change, but how do we do it? They say, ‘We’ll have a double classroom with a big sliding door’, or ‘we’ll have a multi-use space’. So lots of those were built and it’s still ongoing. This is the real crux… The kids’ experience in those spaces are exactly the same as in the traditional classroom. It’s still the lesson plan, but with more kids and teachers. The kids can choose where they the work and with who, but it’s basically the same hideous experience. We try and get people to look at other systems, that start from a completely different viewpoints, and say, ‘No, it’s about bringing together what’s in the kids heads, from all their informal experiences, together with what’s in the adults head, and look at what kids need to know about adult culture’. Bringing that together in a reciprocal way leads to the sort of environments that we design.
I spent years designing interactive exhibitions in the [Melbourne] Museum, and because of that I did a lot of reading about what was going on in North America at that time, where there was a huge explosion in children’s museums. They said, ‘First of all you’ve got to find out what the kids know and what they want to know’. I talked to little groups of kids and their ideas were just phenomenal! What they wanted to learn, what they didn’t want to learn, and adding that with talking to specialists and you’ve just got a hit. Also, we know kids learn through all their senses, not just eyes and ears, and they need to be moving.
[Mary speaks of visiting her granddaughter’s classroom, which she was involved in re-designing]
…There were a few really ancient, horrible computers there and the boys would just sit on the computers. We looked at the content and it was crap. I photographed them and you could see the power – computers are so responsive. I thought, ‘So there’s the challenge to the designer! How can you develop an environment here that gets that kid away from the screen some of the time?’ And we did. The screens became part of the whole mix. We had to develop a really rich environment with no money. But it worked.
Lisa: That’s what the traditional classroom really can’t do because it doesn’t provide that kind of stimulus away from the shiny object in the corner… it’s just a monotone environment that’s boring.
Gippslandia: What are some of the techniques that you used in that situation to divert the attention away?
Mary: We’re saying that children are capable, they’re interested and they really want to make sense of themselves and the world… They need all sorts of ways to relate to other people; the way they relate to the teachers, to one another and the way they can express their ideas. These all require different kinds of settings.
It’s been a process of working hard through observation and looking at great projects in other parts of the world: like Reggio Emilia, Italy; High Tech High, San Diego; John Dewey in Chicago [with the Laboratory School] in the 1900s, and the work of David and Mary Nedd in the 1960s in England. Phenomenal work! Whereas we’re operating in an incredibly difficult environment. It’s very conservative, particularly in relation to education, and with totally ad hoc development. Whereas with Reggio Emilia, they’ve been able to evolve over the decades.
Lisa: Their core belief stays true and the ideas around ‘how’ [to execute it] are the things that evolve. The context of how we live today is so different [to the 1970s], but because of their belief, the evolution can be gradual and change as needed. Whereas, here, we go from one fad to another.
Gippslandia: I’m imagining that a child of the ‘70s is pretty different to a child now.
Mary: They’re a reflection of society. If the society becomes more individualistic and materialistic, the kids are going to be as well. Likewise, if the adults are more obsessed with technology.
Lisa: We now know more about human behaviour than we ever have… the links between our physical presence and our environment is becoming more commonly talked about. The amount of research that goes into understanding the way the human brain works when we are engaged in different activities is quite phenomenal too. Understanding this, is impacting how we design space… people are more aware the need to cater for different people because we all learn in different ways.
Mary: We’re all unique individuals. But Reggio has told us, ‘Yes, you must respect and acknowledge that everyone is unique, but we’re all part of a community’. So their emphasis is on developing citizens for a democracy. If you ask them about outcomes, they say, ‘What do you mean?’ They do things in-depth, so you don’t have to cover a whole bloody curriculum… You can then explore other interests in-depth because you know how to.
Lisa: It’s really learning to learn, and celebrating that the process is something we should be paying attention to rather than the end product.
Mary: …And Reggio talk about the pleasure of learning together. That’s beautiful.
Lisa: It’s that key of ‘together’. That it’s actually a collective experience, and the teacher is a researcher alongside the student, who’s a researcher as well.
So is that the essence of democratic learning as well?
Mary: Yeah, and as Russian theorist, Lev Vygotsky said, ‘Sometimes the teacher is above; the teacher has the knowledge. Yet sometimes they’re at the same level and sometimes the student knows more than the teacher. It’s a recognition of that. It’s very dynamic.
Lisa: One example was at Stonefields School, Auckland, when Chris Bradbeer sort of stepped back because a child in his grade three class actually knew more about the 3D printing technology they were exploring than him.
Mary: I think the radicalising experience I had was two days after my first child was born and I was lying in the hospital bed. My friend, who was a teacher with a scientific background, was seconded to the ABC. She made a TV series. The first sequence was of a traditional classroom; rows of desks, the kids are just sitting there and the teacher’s up the front. He’s got a guinea pig in a cage and he’s giving a textbook lesson about guinea pigs. The kids are just, ‘argh’ and looking out the window. It’s a really typical scenario. It changes to the kids around the guinea pig and they’re all talking about their experiences and their knowledge of guinea pigs. It was so animated and you could see that they were learning from that. That really galvanised me. I just thought, ‘Wow!’. There’s another way. There’s a better way.
Mary: There have been many surveys… you go to a school and kids where’s their favourite place in the whole school and it’s always the playground. Of course! That’s where they have agency. That’s where they’re in control. [You see] how kids use nature; I mean it’s just an endless source of beauty and they’ll construct things… Children are now divorced from nature.
Lisa: When you observe children, and adults, in environments it tells you so much about the relationships and the sort of social structures that are at play. You’re looking for the interactions: how children are relating to each other, but also how the adults are relating to the children and each other, and where the opportunities are to build on that. By understanding the behaviours of people, and their relationships with each other and the environment, you can create spaces that actually respond and provide opportunities for them to be even better.
Mary: That’s the basis of all these great educational projects.
One of our colleagues is a top education consultant in Australia and a question she asks is, ‘Think about a learning experience you’ve had. One that really changed you.
A significant learning experience. Not necessarily in school. She did this with the teachers at Dandenong High. None of their significant experiences was in schools, and they were all riveting.
Lisa: I remember an education consultant, said, ‘Imagine if schools were responsible for teaching us how to drive. Firstly, we’d start with the history of the motor car’. How is that relevant to learning how
Mary: When I talking to kids about the Everybody exhibition [the mid to late 1980s], they said they wanted to see actual organs. ‘We don’t want to know why you shouldn’t smoke, but we want to see real lungs: normal lungs and smoke affected lungs’. They were so quick. When they talked about the organs, they’d say straight away, ‘But Mum and Dad won’t be able to cope with that, so they can stay at the door’. They were thorough. Talking with a small group of kids, the teacher always wanted to be there. At the end of every session, the teacher would come to me and say, ‘I can’t believe it!’ The kid who was the most articulate, imaginative and creative was their biggest behaviour problem. This happened time again. That was another radicalising experience.
Lisa: It’s that thing about how we think children think versus how they actually think, and how we, in some ways, kind of dumb things down…
Mary: Very much!
Lisa: …because we have to make them ‘ child-friendly’. It’s one of my biggest bugbears. There’s a misconception that if we’re designing a school or an early learning centre it should be bright and colourful, fun and child-friendly.
Mary: Somebody said, ‘Fun has a very short shelf life’.
Lisa: Children should have a beautiful environment.
Mary: Yes, and the Italians do it wonderfully.
I think one of the answers is that in every area of knowledge or skill, it starts with play and experimenting and then it gets a little more focused. The end result is rigorous study.
In Reggio, the kids wanted to make a full-size dinosaur. I guess [Loris] Malaguzzi [of Reggio Emilia] would say, ‘If that’s what the kids want to do, you have to find a way to do it!’ They found a tennis court, the kids drew the thing and they learned about ratios and scale naturally. It’s really about learning in context and understanding that you don’t start with the rigour, you start with the play and you see the relevance.
Lisa: There’s lots of short-term thinking within government. But I think change can happen in different ways and that’s what we’re starting to see. It’s a very slow moving beast. There are schools in Victoria that have said openly, ‘We’re going to get all our parents and students to sign individualised learning plans, which basically means we can push aside the state-driven curriculum and do it differently’. One particular school was failing, with less than 200 kids, and now they have a long waitlist.
Gippslandia: Could provide some final tips? How can teachers adapt the space themselves? You know take the agency themselves for their class?
Lisa: I think there’s no simple answer and there’s no quick fix. I’d embolden them to observe more. In a way, I always encourage them to talk to us more, rather than trying to figure it all out themselves.
Mary: Exactly, designers understand this whole process. I have very simple, low-cost changes of environment. That’s easy. The hard part is the attitude shift. Once you got a different mindset anything’s possible, even with very little budget.
I kept making the same mistake over again, thinking you can do this within part of the school. You can’t do it within a single classroom, it’s just not possible. This is really hard to come to terms with, but it’s got to be the whole school and it’s not even worth looking at unless the principal is really behind it. What we know is that once a teacher sees the light in the kids’ eyes – wow – they say they’d never go back. It’s getting them to that point… It’s so hard.
Lisa: I always think of a teacher at Caulfield Grammar. She’s probably been teaching for 30 years and after moving into a new prototype learning space, she said to me, ‘Moving here has clearly changed my practice and it’s completely energised my teaching because of what I see the kids doing’. The educator she collaborates with was very quick to point out that it’s not just the space… ‘The practice has changed because our principal has given us this permission’.
Mary: We’ve got to get across that there is this tight fit, but it’s rich and complex. The kids’ experience will be completely different. The kids will come home talking about what they’ve done because they’re excited and they’ll even involve their parents.
We’ve got to get parents, your readers, to the point where they say, ‘I would like my kids to have that experience, and even if they’re not being exposed to the whole curriculum, I can see that they’ll be engaged with the world’. You want them engaged, as that’s what gives them pleasure. We’ve got so many kids that are alienated and anxious.
Lisa: Lots of education theorists and specialists are talking about what schools do to children. It removes the curiosity, the natural abilities or interest of the child because you get sort of straight-jacketed into the silos of the curriculum. Time for play, exploring and being curious is not necessarily the thing that’s supported. I always come back to David Attenborough and Barack Obama’s interview; one of the best things I’ve ever seen. Barack asks David, ‘Where do you think your sense of curiosity for the natural world came from?’ David, just looks at him like deadpan and says, ‘Where do you think yours went? I guarantee you, every child is born with it’.
Mary: Ask people to think about their significant learning experiences, and when we were they amazed by what their kids did? That’s the starting point.
The photographs of Mary & Lisa in Mary’s ‘granny flat’ have been shot by Andrew Northover of The View From Here for Gippslandia. The educational spaces presented in this article depict a project at Caulfield Grammar School by Hayball and the photography is by Dianna Snape. Thank you.
Also, kudos to Heide Museum of Modern Art for their excellent retrospective on Grant & Mary Featherston. It beautifully encapsulated the Featherston’s design philosophies.
Our sincere gratitude to Mary for welcoming us into her home for this fantastic conversation.