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Senses of Place Learning Towns


Preface An example of how the insight and imagination of Scottish pupils inspired new innovative design concepts for the future of learning and its place in our communities, and an illustration of how whole places can work together creatively to make better places.


Approach The ‘Senses of Place: Learning Towns’ initiative focuses on the two principles at the heart of building better schools and communities in Scotland – participation and collaboration. Scotland’s commitment to participation recognises that the people who learn in our communities are the true experts about their own lives and know the most about their own surroundings. Tapping their expertise and insight through meaningful engagement is key to finding out what works best in any given context. Talking to teachers about teaching, children about childhood, and neighbours about their neighbourhoods is more likely to provoke workable solutions that are supported by the people they are designed to help. Participation is the way we do things in Scotland.

Collaboration is an inevitable part of providing the best services possible using the overall resources available and all the assets we have on the ground. By looking at a whole place we can support whole lives – putting learning at the heart of economically sustainable communities. By asking the simple question – what can we do with what we’ve got – and dovetailing our priorities, we stand a better chance of better outcomes for any given level of resources. Collaboration is the way we make decisions in Scotland. Senses of Place: Learning Towns uses design to imagine different ways of doing things. It also delivers economies of benefits which means we always do more with whatever we have. Inspired pragmatism is not the opposite of ambition: it is the way we deliver our ambitions in Scotland.


Senses of Place Senses of Place was first launched in February 2008, in an exhibition at The Lighthouse, opened by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning. The exhibition showcased the insights and ideas of pupils working with experienced architectural practices to explore their concepts for school design. Five separate themes were explored with a diverse range of pupils from five Scottish local authorities working with five architectural practices. Their original themes were – big spaces, enterprise, outward looking, science, play and active learning. Perhaps even more important than these topics though was the process used. At the heart of Senses of Place was a series of events, workshops, and conversations with the pupils, designed

firstly to engage and inspire them and then to explore with them their own aspirations and imaginations. The quality of the briefing and the relationships this process fostered provided an unusually strong and authentic set of stories and voices for the designers to respond to. What they produced for the exhibition was not only a unique view of future possibilities but a different view of the role of pupils in shaping this future. Since then, the same team of designers have worked closely with the Schools Programme to develop their initial concepts and to explore how these might work in practice in a real context. Using these ideas to unlock the learning potential of our towns has led directly to the Senses of Place: Learning Towns initiative.


Participation Exploring new ideas often means we need to deal with new people and new institutions – and forge new conversations and new relationships. These kinds of conversations form the bedrock of how we design our schools in Scotland. Senses of Place: Learning Towns shows the potential impact of committing to open, well managed, and authentic participation. Participation seems like a good idea to most people – but general support is almost always tempered by specific reservations. These reservations usually find expression in two frequently asked questions. Isn’t there a danger of raising unrealistic expectations? Yes there is, if you ask people what specific solutions they want built rather than what needs and hopes they want satisfied. It is not unrealistic to have

an expectation that people will be listened to about the aspirations they have for the places they want to live in. We want our communities to have high aspirations and we expect the places we create to help turn them into reality. Why should experienced professionals listen to inexperienced amateurs? Because they will have to live their lives in what the professionals create. Because they are the world class experts about their own lives. And, because the alternative – don’t try to understand or engage with the people who will use your design – is not a credible, responsible way to make great places. Participation is not optional, and done the right way it can be a revelation. Better briefs, better insights, better design, better outcomes.


Learning Towns In 2009 the Schools Programme was invited to support Dumfries and Galloway Council in a review of their schools provision within the town of Dumfries. The challenge facing Dumfries was how best to redesign its educational system in the context of the Curriculum for Excellence, the efficient delivery of services across the Burgh, and investment in learning which would help the town’s economic regeneration. A programme of workshops with the Council and its partners explored the potential service and resource benefits of ‘joined up working’ across the whole Burgh, structured around the pressing and practical agendas of the diverse people actually engaged in making Dumfries a better place.

The emerging briefs from these collaborative events and conversations pointed towards Dumfries becoming a ‘learning town’ which would seek to address and integrate learning, planning, economic, and community agendas. Learning would become the key prism through which any consideration of the town’s future would be viewed. This work directly resulted in a long term strategy for the future of Dumfries. To create a town based on a deep understanding of how ‘learning’ could underpin the sustainable growth of the town and the lives of its communities. ‘Schools’ would be a part of the whole rather than oases of learning.


Collaboration Schools matter. They are public places which convey the meaning and purpose of learning in our communities. For children, they are the single most significant built expression of the civic world. Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence encourages, recognises and fosters learning wherever this takes place. It recognises opportunities for learning beyond the school walls - and the potential of whole communities as places for learning.

public resources which could offer great learning experiences if institutional barriers could be overcome.

Those who provide education, from Nursery to University, are responsible for a vast estate at the heart of communities and cities. The spaces that surround these public buildings are not only a critical resource in learning - but also in redefining, regenerating, and enriching the public and private activities around them. In addition every town contains a great range of other

Creating Learning Towns requires a new level of collaboration between those who hold assets and those who deliver services. Based on a number of such exercises with local authorities, the evidence is that Scotland is well placed to explore better ways of doing what we want with what we’ve got.

Learning Towns are about focusing on outcomes for individuals and communities using all of the resources that are around them. For any given community the challenge is to harness the funds to that place, and the assets in that place, to deliver the priorities for that place.


Concepts The five design firms responded to the challenges of both Senses of Place and Learning Towns, and dovetailed these agendas using a wide range of creative concepts for how we might re-imagine learning in Scotland’s communities. Their ideas are not intended as a new direction for educational buildings – simply as a vivid illustration of what might be possible if we viewed the world around us more creatively. And it shows us that we have real choices.

Our communities and towns are about both places and connections. Looking beyond each school site as a stand alone institution, whole towns could be mapped to identify specific ‘hubs for learning’.

Every day pupils pass by amazing educational experiences on their way to school. Exploiting these everyday possibilities for learning could transform educational commuting into ‘journeys of discovery’.

We live and learn in places that are more than individual sites and buildings. Comparing what a school needs for learning with the best learning possibilities a whole place has to offer could inspire true ‘learning quarters’.

Sometimes educational possibilities can best be explored in highly specific spaces. Within walking distance of many schools are buildings designed for other purposes which could also make exceptional ‘polarised learning spaces’.

Senses of Place: Learning Towns recognizes the challenges posed by these concepts. But it also recognizes that design can help us use what we have to deliver the best we can.

Every town has its own diversity of places, spaces, and surfaces. Weaving these together as educational resources using the right interventions and tools could transform these places into ‘educational landscapes’.


Design Senses of Place: Learning Towns is not all about design, but design is key to imagining and realising the kind of places we want in Scotland. In this context, design can be defined as the ‘art of the possible’. It creates new possibilities and offers new choices. It is easy to overstate the role of design and placemaking at the expense of the delivery of services. But in the real world these two agendas need to be reunited and recognised as facets of the same issue – how to design our built environment to improve our lives. Design is often something we turn to after we’ve solved the big problems. And it is difficult to underestimate the opportunities

we miss, and the resources we potentially squander, by not exploiting what design can offer us. Strategic design can be a unique tool for solving big problems. It is what we should bring to the table at the start to help us reframe questions as well as re-imagine answers. Design is not just a drawing: it is an approach, a tool, a way of looking at the world and making it different. Design offers us a way of looking anew at our towns. By bringing together participation and collaboration with a healthy injection of imagination and pragmatism, we can begin to see these as the places that children imagine they could be.


Outcomes The Senses of Place project showed what can be sparked by really talking to pupils and letting them inspire talented designers who know how to really listen. Senses of Place: Learning Towns has explored what some of those initial ideas might mean when held up to the shadowed light of architectural pragmatism. The results are inspiring. They range from toolkits to help learners reclaim their cities, to creating learning spaces which aren’t afraid to take the exhortations of Curriculum for Excellence at their face value. They show how we may not always know the destination of design but we do know where it starts – with the people whose lives are spent within our creations.

This initiative has shown that learning is an effective catalyst for innovation and action in our towns and neighbourhoods. By putting children at the heart of our schools and learning at the heart of our communities, and by working together, we know we can create better places. Local Authorities in Scotland are already doing this. Whether it involves talking to pupils, or collaborating with other agencies, or exploring possibilities with designers, the important message is the need to engage before we build. Where we start determines where we finish, so start well.


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Profile for Architecture + Design Scotland - Schools Programme

Senses of Place: Learning Towns Pamphlet  

The Senses of Place: Learning Towns project is an example of how the insight and imagination of Scottish pupils inspired new innovative desi...

Senses of Place: Learning Towns Pamphlet  

The Senses of Place: Learning Towns project is an example of how the insight and imagination of Scottish pupils inspired new innovative desi...

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