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Why One School Made The Switch To Future Focused Learning

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Grade 6 teacher at St Nicholas Primary School, Shelly O’Sullivan, shares how her students have adapted to Future Focused Learning and what they love about their new collaborative learning environment.

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BFX Furniture fitted out St Nicholas School with Future Focused Learning Zones and flexible learning spaces. Principal, Stefan van Aanholt and Assistant Principal Lisa McSweeney talk about the journey and the positive outcomes the students have experienced as a result of these modern learning environments


What was your vision and why did you decide to go down this journey?

Stefan: If you look back at this school, say six years ago, the infrastructure was tired and old.

Lisa: Functional but old and restrictive in terms of what you could do as a teacher with your students. So, we really wanted to make sure our staff, students and most importantly the parents were brought along on the journey. Our vision was if we were solely committed to those spaces, we needed to bring everyone along on the journey.


How involved were the students, teachers and parents in the process?

Lisa: Initially, we had the parents come in to look at the design, and we had the architects and our project manager address them. The fabulous thing about the architect’s work is that they presented a 3D model where we could virtually walk through these spaces and I think that was key in getting many of the parents on board.

The other thing we did was show photos of where the building works were up to in the newsletter. We had done a substantial amount of research and gathered data on the benefit of these spaces, what they were, what it was going to look like and also why. Those articles were presented to the parents too.

With the students, we held a survey regarding naming the building. We wanted to give them the opportunity to have their say. So, we did a Google Survey Monkey with them, and we asked for their input about what they thought these spaces should be called and why. That’s how we came up with “The Hive” and “The Hub” and “The Zone.”

“The Hive” is for K1 where student learning is just starting and it’s busy and it’s buzzing, and it’s really exciting.

“The Hub” is where the wheels of what the students are learning are being put in motion. They’re starting to understand why they’re there. What the intention is behind their learning. By the time they are in “The Zone”, which is our senior students, year 5 and 6, we want the students to take ownership of their learning.

They’re in control, they’re in the zone of learning, and they need to self-motivate. Teachers are there to facilitate, but we encourage the students to ‘own’ their learning.

As for the staff, during the weekly staff meetings, we were always looking at the plans. We gave them a look at their spaces and discussed with them where each grade was going to be located. Once we were able to show teachers where their spaces were, they were able to have input, and have their voices heard.

Stefan: The teachers were engaged the whole time with the selection process. They helped decide what furniture was chosen. Initially, we trialled some furniture to see what worked, what didn’t work and what was most effective before we embarked on the whole project.

Lisa:  The students were also surveyed on what furniture they thought worked well. We started off with just a small sample, and from there we were able to ask the students “What did you like and why?”

The students were able to say things like “I like being on a high stool at a high table because I find that being at eye-level with the teacher is really helpful”. While other students felt the need to be constantly moving on the wobbly Happy stools.


How did BFX Furniture support the vision for creative and innovative learning?

Lisa: The furniture itself is beautiful. It’s such a change from just having a desk and a chair. I remember one parent ringing me concerned that her daughter had said, ‘I don’t have a desk’.

I had to explain to her, that her daughter has a surface she can lean on but depending on where she wants to work that day it might be a hard table, or it might be leaning on top of a counter, underneath the window, or it might be lying on the floor.

It was interesting that the parents couldn’t get their head around the idea that we would no longer have grey desks and grey chairs. We would have these bright coloured high stools, small stools, coloured tables, different shaped tables that could be used like whiteboards which the students and the teachers love.

BFX worked really well with us and we often had to email back and forth. BFX also visited us a number of times because we wanted to make sure the staff got what they wanted.

We needed their expertise and advice to provide insight to the teachers why we were selecting certain pieces of furniture.

Stefan:  It was an excellent partnership. An excellent partnership!

Lisa: I thought it was a really good relationship and it was a relief to have a good relationship because it just meant that it was fluid and easy. We had the spaces and we just wanted that last bit to go just as smoothly, and it did.

From a budgeting perspective, BFX was always sensitive to our cash flow issues. Options were discussed. Stefan did a great job as Principal to budget and ensure that we had a little bit more capital to be able to finish everything off and have what we wanted.

It would be awful to have all these beautiful spaces but not be able to provide the finishing touches that would give the students and the teacher’s that final “WOW Factor” with the furniture. I remember when the students first went into “The Hub” for the first time, all you could hear was “WOW” and “This is so cool”.

We were worried we might lose families, but the students sold it. One parent said their child said, “it’s like being in my own castle”, which was I thought lovely. 

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How are the teachers using these spaces adapting their pedagogy to incorporate the space and the furniture?

Stefan: If you look at all the research, the success of a school is dependent upon the quality of their teachers. When we are talking about learning spaces, it’s not just the students that are learning. It’s the teachers that are on this learning journey too.

They work in teams of three or teams of four weaving together different strategies, pedagogies, practices and resources. This journey has allowed them to develop and grow. They’re modelling learning as adults.

Lisa: They’re modelling collaboration and what that looks like.

Stefan: Making mistakes and kids see the teachers make mistakes and move on. It’s pretty powerful. Especially for encouraging a growth mindset with the students.

Lisa: What has also helped is that all the furniture is mobile. The teachers have the ability to engage students every day just by arranging the learning space into a new configuration. Or if they put them into specific groups, the students can take the furniture where they like to work whenever they want.

Stefan: It’s incredible that the classrooms look different from day to day depending on what the students are doing, and our teachers adapt to that.

What core skills do you see the students using more because of these learning spaces?

Stefan: We have several mantras at St Nicholas School. One of them is what we call the ‘6 Ups’. “Show up, speak up, look up, team up, lift others up and never give up”. If you start to look at those ‘6 Ups’ through the lens of a classroom, it’s really powerful, and that lends itself to the students collaborating and helping each other through teamwork.

Lisa: The skill we see a frequently is collaboration. You can’t be in those spaces without collaborating. Even the timidest and the shyest student is pushed out of their comfort zone in those spaces.

I believe communication is vital as well. When you go in those spaces, there are expectations that have to be agreed upon. If everyone were talking over the top of each other, it wouldn’t work. So, communication is really important.

I also think that the ability for students to learn in a style that suits them is so special. No longer do particularly energetic students have to be forced to sit still in a chair. They have the opportunity to move around. That’s part of their learning style. They can discover it themselves. Whether it’s learning while lying on a piece of furniture, or kneeling, or reading a book.

Stefan: One of the very obvious results of this transition into the flexible spaces is student engagement. We’re not saying they’re engaged 100 percent of the time, but it’s very noticeable.

Lisa: We had a Principal come through at almost at 2 o’clock one afternoon on a Friday, and she was blown away by “The Hub” where we have 270 children.

She remarked on how engaged they were at that time the day. Even the behavioural problems are disappearing because now you have three teachers who can manage that instead of just one. The students just have so much going on, there’s no downtime in those spaces to become disengaged.


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What positive outcomes have you seen from the students as a result of these new learning environments?

Stefan: At St Nicholas School we have a growth mindset. The benchmark is different for each student. We aimed to improve student learning according to the Australian average of the ACER PAT (Progress Achievement Test) score plus an additional 25 percent.

Lisa: We make no apologies for having high expectations because we know that our students are prepared to rise to them if the right teacher is in front of them and they have the right environment to learn in.

The students knew that every day they have to be adaptable and they have to be flexible. They have to use 21st-century skills in the classroom and in the future. I think it’s early days, but we are thrilled with the results.

At the end of 2017, 70% of our students had reached the targets that we aimed for.

One of the ways we measured student growth was by using the ACER PAT test. So, we tested the students early in the year and then we looked at the results to see where the weaknesses might be. We concentrated on turning those weaknesses or into strengths. Then at the end of the year, we re-tested the students to see how much they had grown as learners.

In the year 2 cohort, for a comprehension scale, we asked every child to grow by 14 marks compared to the National Growth (NAPLAN) which is 11 marks over 12 months. In Year 2 Maths we asked our students grow by 17 marks compared to the National growth of 15 marks.

One particularly achievement that was phenomenal was our year 6 Maths. We had asked them to improve by 4 marks. The results showed they improved by 11 marks. It was phenomenal growth.

It tells us something great is happening in year 6 maths which enables other teachers to learn from each other’s teaching style, activities and share resources.

We can now analyse what’s happening, the pedagogy behind it, and see if we can improve in other areas.

How did you feel at the end of the transition process?

Stefan: We’re on the journey. We haven’t reached the destination yet. We’re talking as if we have, but it’s the changing roles that’s exciting. One of the things we said to the parents at the very beginning was “Why can’t we have what the very best schools in Sydney have?” in terms of the resources and the pedagogies that the city schools have.

All time you hear about how backward the regional areas. When people came up from Sydney to visit St Nicholas School they are blown away by the progress we have made as a regional school.

Lisa: If you look at the furniture in each of the different buildings, you can see the progression. The year 5 and 6 classrooms look more like a university with shared spaces and lounge where students can sit and feel a little more grown-up.

Whereas down in “The Hub” it’s a little less sophisticated and in “The Hive” it’s very basic but still colourful and functional l because there’s been a lot of thought put into the sequence of furniture in those spaces.

When we finally got around to the official opening it was such a joyous celebration of what we’ve been through over the last three years. We included parents, children, teachers, the architects, the builders, and project managers.

It was just a wonderful event to come together and say ‘WOW’ look at what we did.

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