Designed for Better Learning

Enduring change in Athens Public schools

How Athens took ‘experiential learning’ and ‘participatory design’ from theory to practice

Two and a half years after the start of the Designed for Better Learning program at the City of Athens, how enduring is the change in culture and attitudes for the 4,000 children in the 24 pubic schools that were transformed through this Athens Partnership program? Are new students faced with a changed experience or is the impact of the DBL program gradually fading away?

5 City of Athens nursery homes that share a common courtyard were renovated through the Designed for Better Learning program.

5 City of Athens nursery homes that share a common courtyard were renovated through the Designed for Better Learning program.

Starting in the Spring of 2016, the Designed for Better Learning (DBL) program, supported through an exclusive grant by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), transformed 24 schools, equal to 5% of all public schools overseen by the City of Athens, using a groundbreaking approach that combines education with architecture and actively involves teachers, students and parents in the process and maintenance. The result was not just much better looking schools, but also a cultural shift which came from a significant increase in the sense of a personal connection and engagement with the school. The Athens Partnership coordinated the program for the City of Athens, while the Transformable Intelligent Environments Lab (TUC TIE Lab) of the Technical University of Crete was responsible for the scientific planning and implementation.

Stelios Vassilakis, Director of Programs & Strategic Initiatives, Lenia Vlavianou, Group Director of Communications, Alexia Vasilikou, Communications Officer and Aristi Stathakopoulou, Program Officer at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, met with the principals of all the kindergartens, who shared their first-hand experience of the changes brought about by Designed for Better Learning.

Stelios Vassilakis, Director of Programs & Strategic Initiatives, Lenia Vlavianou, Group Director of Communications, Alexia Vasilikou, Communications Officer and Aristi Stathakopoulou, Program Officer at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, met with the principals of all the kindergartens, who shared their first-hand experience of the changes brought about by Designed for Better Learning.

Popi Baskeki, the Principal of one of the preschools, speaks enthusiastically about the change that happened through the Designed for Better Learning program.

Popi Baskeki, the Principal of one of the preschools, speaks enthusiastically about the change that happened through the Designed for Better Learning program.

Last July, we welcomed the Stavros Niarchos Foundation for a visit to the pre-schools that were revamped using this innovative method. The changes included a redesigned common courtyard for all, upgraded internal spaces, as well as new educational games and constructions for the 500 children and 60 educators at the 5 Nursery Schools of the Municipality of Athens, at Christodoulakio, on Kifissias Avenue. After a tour, we sat down with the same team of educators who took part in planning the changes at the very start of the program.

The nursery school principals recalled the planning stage of the program, when DBL architects and researchers sat together with educators to discuss how they envisioned a more functional, education friendly school environment. The greatest challenge to overcome for the 5 nursery schools was that they were housed in adjacent buildings that shared a common school yard that was separated by gates, fences and walls. These boundaries divided up the space and also created visual barriers between the educators and the children.

Vaso Leneti, principal of one of the nursery schools (left) with Marianthi Liapi, DBL project manager from the TUC TIE Lab of the Technical University of Crete.

Vaso Leneti, principal of one of the nursery schools (left) with Marianthi Liapi, DBL project manager from the TUC TIE Lab of the Technical University of Crete.

“When we first heard about the program, we were very enthusiastic and hardly believed all these changes were possible! The project team, architects and researchers, were asking us ‘what are your wishes and dreams for this school?’” says Popi Basdeki, the Principal at one of the five nursery schools.

The first stage of Designed for Better Learning focused on large-scale architectural interventions: unifying the separated playground, creating more efficient interior layouts, upgrading facilities such as the bathrooms. And change did not stop here: through the “Educational Pla(y)ces” structures, the DBL team worked with students and teachers in each of the schools to enrich learning spaces and incorporate educational equipment.

One of the new educational tools designed by the DBL team together with educators, created at the City of Athens Maker Space, also a part of the DBL program.

One of the new educational tools designed by the DBL team together with educators, created at the City of Athens Maker Space, also a part of the DBL program.

“Through this program, we came to put to use concepts that we previously talked about theoretically, like ‘experiential learning’ and ‘participatory design’, but could never really enforce in our environment”, says Maria Vlachou, Principal of the Christodoulakio complex. The testimonials make it clear that the transformation had a deep impact on school culture.

“The combination of top-down and bottom-up changes is the unique element of this approach”, said Marianthi Liapi, Project manager of the DBL program. “We found the common ground between the needs and visions of educators and the school community, bringing innovation together with tailor-made solutions that served that specific community at a world-class standard.”

Children now play in a stimulating environment that supports development and allows them to take more risks while exploring their environment.

Children now play in a stimulating environment that supports development and allows them to take more risks while exploring their environment.

The tour showed first-hand what data already indicated to us – which is that 2.5 years later the transformation has been maintained and supported by these schools. Although construction crews transformed the architectural environment, it was the DBL methodology which went below the surface and engaged teachers, parents and the children in a way that made them stakeholders and guardians.

A Maker Space for Athens schoolchildren to explore 21 century technology

How do you program a robot battle? How can you use a 3D printer to design and produce a chess piece or a key ring? What is it like to visit a space station through the use of virtual reality? These and many more digital applications are now available in the new City of Athens’ Maker Space - free for students of all ages in Athens to explore. The Maker Space is the first municipal fabrication lab in Greece, equipped with machinery and digital tools for designing, printing, and manufacturing (it includes laser cutters, 3D printers, CNC router, vinyl cutter, etc.).

maker-space.jpg

Through new educational programs, this year more than 1150 children in Athens have already explored the Maker Space, learning about applied digital technologies through hands-on experiments. More than 220 teachers have also taken part in workshops – designed to help them create new tools to enhance school learning and introduce creative play in the classroom.

“In spite of all its technological wonder, the Maker Space is not a just a showroom where you can admire technological applications. Children and adults are invited here to become creators, taking digital technology into their own hands,” says Alexandros Kambouroglou, Executive Director of the Athens Partnership, who coordinate the Maker Space program.

maker+space+3.jpg

The Maker Space is an integral part of the City of Athens’ “Designed for Better Learning” program, which has already upgraded 24 public schools in Athens through an innovative educational approach. “Designed for Better Learning” - funded by an exclusive grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation - is being implemented in collaboration with the Transformable Intelligent Environments Lab of the Technical University of Crete and coordinated by the Athens Partnership.

Mr. Kambouroglou continues, “In Maker Space, children can see, for example, how simple objects are designed and produced. Their curiosity is naturally sparked as children begin to wonder ‘what can I dream up and construct next?’ Through the Maker Space, children are getting a first-hand experience of what it is to be an inventor in the 21st century.”

The Maker Space is part of the third implementation phase of the “Designed for Better Learning” educational program. In its first two phases, architectural interventions were made in 24 schools in the municipality of Athens, and 87 "Educational Pla(y)ces" - educational projects enriching the learning tools and the school environment - were added with the active participation of pupils and teachers. 

Educational Leaders Awards 2018 Gold prize awarded to Designed for Better Learning initiative

designed for better learning gold award

The City of Athens’ “Designed for Better Learning” program won the Golden Prize in the “Best Learning Experience” category at the Educational Leaders Awards 2018, the nationwide prize awarding private and public bodies for best practices in education. This pioneering program, designed by the TUC TIE Lab of the Technical University of Crete, was launched by the Athens Partnership with an exclusive grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

The prize was received by Athens Mayor, Mr. Georgios Kaminis, who stated that "with Designed for Better Learning we have transformed 24 schools, changing the relationship of children and teachers to their school. We created attractive learning conditions and revived the educational process itself. I feel very proud as a mayor when I hear parents telling me that their children do not want to leave school."

designed for better learning gold award4

The program renovates public schools in dire need of repair—with the ultimate goal of improving learning and teaching, and enhancing community engagement. Twenty-four schools, kindergartens, primary schools and high schools have been transformed and continue to be upgraded, with the active involvement of researchers, architects, teachers, students and parents. More than 4,000 public school students and teachers in the Municipality of Athens have been directly impacted by Designed for Better Learning initiative.

designed for better learning gold award

“The Designed for Better Learning assessment showed that we achieved a small revolution in education: 77% of the children responded positively with changes school and 43% of the teachers even tested new ways of teaching under the program,” said Alexandros Kambouroglou, Executive Director of the Athens Partnership. “This award is not only a testament to our success in 24 schools but that we have developed a methodology that can be replicated in many more. We are grateful to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and our project partners for their commitment to this initiative.”

designed for better learning gold award3

“On behalf of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, we would like to warmly congratulate the Municipality of Athens, as well as the Athens Partnership and the Technical University of Crete for the recognition the Designed for Better Learning initiative as the Best Learning Experience,” said Aristi Stathakopoulou from the Grant Management department of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. “We are particularly proud that through our grant we contributed to the implementation of this innovative educational program, which is transforming schools by activating and involving the whole school community. This grant is part of the Foundation’s 10 million euro donation to the Municipality of Athens for programs that aim to strengthen the City and change daily lives.”

designed for better learning gold award2

The first stage of Designed for Better Learning focused on large-scale architectural interventions in school buildings: more efficient interior layouts, upgraded facilities such as bathroooms, unification of previously separated or obstructed spaces, new spaces for students to play and socialize during breaks. These changes were intended both to solve operational problems and provide a fresh, new image of the school as a creative learning space, in vibrant child-friendly colors.

Through “Educational Playces,” a participatory process led by architects and researchers from the Technical University of Crete, Designed for Better Learning also achieved the goal of activating and empowering the school community.  An “Educational Playces” team worked with students and teachers in each of the schools to enrich learning spaces and incorporate educational equipment to enhance learning. From gardening pallets on the roof of a school that had no plants, to circuits to understand the properties of electricity, to a “tree of emotions” that encouraged children to seek out and express their mood, educators placed the process in the hands of students to direct these efforts. Key to success was participative design, constant communication and direct access to a state-of-the-art “Maker Space” lab, equipped with machinery and digital design, printing and manufacturing tools (laser printers, 3D printers, CNC routers, vinyl cutters).

The Maker Space workshop in Serafio, Athens, also founded and operated with a grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and coordinated by the Athens Partnership, continues to support the Designed for Better Learning Program. Teachers participate in training workshops on the use of laboratory equipment and the possibilities they can offer in learning. Students are able to work with modern technological applications, exploring STEM (Science, Technology, Mechanics and Mathematics) educational programs.