A world-first professional development and action-research program at Sydney Catholic Schools is taking teachers’ skills and students’ academic work in flexible learning environments to new heights.

The Sophia Program was established by Sydney Catholic Schools in collaboration with the University of Melbourne. It supports principals and teachers in the 147-strong network of schools to use space effectively as a teaching tool.

“The data allows our system to make better decisions about the future design of our schools.” – Vivienne Awad, School Design Specialist

“It is common for teachers to move into a newly built space and then have to work out how to operate in it,” said School Design Specialist at Sydney Catholic Schools, Vivienne Awad.

“This presents a huge challenge for teachers as their voice may have been absent in the design process. In this project we are advocating, before we commit to a major build, let’s see that we are utilising spaces well and getting the teaching practice right.”

The program also investigates the impact of learning environments on teachers and students, with a report on the impact of flexible learning spaces on student wellbeing to be released this year.

“To have university researchers collaborating with us to gather data and give it back to us in a form that is user-friendly is fantastic,” Ms Awad said.

“The data allows our system to learn about the factors that schools need for success in these spaces and to make better decisions about the future design of our schools.”

Thriving practice

Regina Coeli Catholic Primary School Beverly Hills’ Year 3 students and teachers were engaged in the program in 2023.

The school’s Leader of Professional Practice, Tania Melfi, said co-teaching within the flexible learning spaces had helped students thrive. 

Eighty-five per cent of students in the pilot were at or above the expected level for mathematics and benchmark reading levels when compared to Australian norms.

“The students and teachers feel like they are collaborating better, learning from each other and playing to their strengths through working as a team,” Mrs Melfi said.

The Sophia Program’s professional learning modules are aligned to the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.

“Sydney Catholic Schools is the only school system in the world who has done this” – Dr Marian Mahat

Associate Professor, Learning Environments from the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education Dr Marian Mahat co-leads the project with Vivienne Awad.

“For me, to see a school system so supportive of advancing teachers in their learning environment and supporting those teachers in designing and using the space is exciting,” Dr Mahat said.

“As an academic I do a lot of research. To see it in practice within schools and to see how much they have grown since the beginning of the program is exciting.”