Clongowes Wood College - Spaceoasis

The Bellarmine Centre, Clongowes Wood College

Established in 1814, Clongowes Wood College is a highly regarded Jesuit boarding school located 30km outside of Dublin.

Several years ago, this forward-thinking school, knowing that the learning needs of the current generation are very different from those of previous eras, created a Cooperative Learning Centre to explore new ways of learning, working with Spaceoasis to bring it to fruition. Breaking away from the traditional teacher-led approach, where rows of pupils sit silently facing the front, this new space was somewhere students could be noisy, move around and learn together. Such was its success, Clongowes went on to expand it, extending and reimagining this innovative learning environment to create the Bellarmine Centre.

Clongowes Deputy Head, Martin Wallace, worked with Brian Dunlop Architects to design the space, specifying furniture by Spaceoasis, and this stunning light-filled space, which opened in 2019, couldn’t be more different from its traditional predecessor.

A COOPERATIVE LEARNING CENTRE

TO EXPLORE NEW WAYS OF LEARNING

“The freedom and fluidity of movement made possible by the design and layout has taken all the frustration out of the space. Supervisors have remarked how easy it is now to oversee the two-hour evening study."

Martin Wallace, Deputy Head

The space now occupied by the Bellarmine Centre used to be called the Third Line Study. This study area, for 12 to 14-year olds, was a rectangular space packed with rows of desks and chairs where young students studied in silence for a two-hour period every evening, with brief breaks every 40 minutes. Martin Wallace recalls how supervising teachers would describe their experience as “akin to sitting on top of a rumbling volcano, suppressing the pent-up energy that grew in intensity as the two hours elapsed. Less fearsome supervisors would often have mini rebellions that necessitated reinforcements from the residential staff. The Bellarmine Centre represents a paradigm shift from this approach and since it opened the whole atmosphere and culture of evening study has changed.

“Apart from the obvious physical and aesthetic comfort of the space, the students enjoyed the responsibility afforded them to make some decisions for themselves; when to co-operate, when to stretch their legs, when to retreat to the ‘cave’ for some leisure reading. The optional spaces – the computer room, the art room, the pods – were all colonised quickly and it all seemed so natural."

Martin Wallace, Deputy Head

Martin describes how the new space has influenced behaviour…

“In the old study there were occasional discipline issues if the supervising teacher was late or failed to show up. Now the students enter the Bellarmine, move to their favoured space and get on with their study. The students love the colour, the warmth, the light and the flexibility of the space and respond by taking more responsibility for themselves. In one sense none of this is surprising: people respond to environments. What surprised me was how quickly the students changed their behaviour when provided with spaces that met their needs. We surveyed students a few months after they began to use the Centre. They were and continue to be overwhelmingly positive about it.”

Inside The Space

In the main large open-plan study space, learners can choose from large collaborative LearningSurface writable tables where they can work together in groups, medium-sized tables for small-group work, pods for project work or individual tables or study desks with overhead lockers for focused, independent work. Soft seating options include upholstered booths for reading and tub chairs with low tables for social interaction. Most of the furniture is agile so it can be reconfigured or cleared away to create a large, clear space for presentations or events. Much of the furniture is new, but some has been repurposed from the Cooperative Learning Centre that was the Bellarmine’s predecessor, because it’s still going strong after several years of use.

Adjoining the main study space are an art room (or ‘messy projects room’), a piano practice room and a computer lab, providing spaces for every type of learning and study. There are also two ‘cave-like’ escape spaces where students can go to enjoy a brief respite. Intended for those who want time out to just read a novel for 15 minutes, these spaces underline the importance of the aesthetic while emphasising the choice and autonomy the Centre offers students. They also send a subtle message to the students that learning spaces can be fun.

Boys in the lower years head to the Bellarmine Centre to study and do their homework in an environment that allows them to work collaboratively and learn together, while thinking creatively and taking responsibility for their own learning. During the daytime, the space is used by those who have a ‘free’ or whose teacher is absent.

“In the old study there were occasional discipline issues if the supervising teacher was late or failed to show up. Now the students enter the Bellarmine, move to their favoured space and get on with their study. The students love the colour, the warmth, the light and the flexibility of the space and respond by taking more responsibility for themselves. In one sense none of this is surprising: people respond to environments. What surprised me was how quickly the students changed their behaviour when provided with spaces that met their needs. We surveyed students a few months after they began to use the Centre. They were and continue to be overwhelmingly positive about it.”

"We surveyed students a few months after they began to use the Centre. They were and continue to be overwhelmingly positive about it."

Martin Wallace, Deputy Head

Encouraging change and adaptability

The space is designed to accommodate different learning styles while offering much greater autonomy rather than trying to compel everyone to fit in the same box. Each student can work in the way that is most effective for them, whether that’s alone or with their peers, using writable surfaces to unpack their thinking or discussing their ideas with friends. Some students choose the same spot every night, others choose where to sit and configure the desks in different ways to suit. Learning becomes a more active process when you’re not stuck in rows facing the front, and it’s a popular space with older students too, who enjoy its fluid spaces.

The long-term plan for the Centre was to extend its use to older students, probably over a period of years, but in the end it happened on its own in a matter of weeks! By the end of its first term the Bellarmine Centre saw Rhetoric (sixth year) students sharing the same learning space as Elements (first year) and the new space acquired a new identity in the blink of an eye. A remarkable, organic evolution and a clear demonstration of young people’s capacity for change and adaptability – especially when given learning spaces that meet their needs.

A clear demonstration of young people’s capacity for change and adaptability – especially when given learning spaces that meet their needs.