In 1994 the RIAI decided to take a serious look at producing a package on architecture for use in schools. It had always been felt that if we wanted a public which had some understanding and appreciation of architecture we needed to start with the children.
By the 1990s the Irish education system had undergone a seismic shift. It was recognised that the arts were neglected, that scientific and technological education was inadequate. There was agreement on the need to encourage critical thinking, expressive and creative abilities, and awareness of national and European heritage and identity. The benefits of cross-curricular activities and interdisciplinary projects were accepted, together with the notion of the use of the environment as a "...an integrating curricular principle and a pedagogically effective teaching method."
The other big change was the invention of the 'Transition Year', an educational breathing space between the Junior and Leaving Certificate Programmes for fifteen/sixteen year olds. There is no fixed curriculum for the Transition Year, which presented a huge challenge to schools but created an opening for curriculum materials supplied from outside the secondary school system. Architecture, because of its scope, seemed to present endless possibilities for learning experiences which fitted the aims and philosophy of the Transition Year. It was the obvious place to start.
However, it was also evident that both teachers and pupils were under pressure, with tension between rising expectations and limited resources. It was clear that the involvement of people working in secondary school education was critical. No matter how interesting the material might be to architects, if it did not meet the real needs of the teacher at the chalk-face it would never be used and the whole venture would be futile.
The result was Shaping Space, written and illustrated by a team of architects and teachers and published in December 1997. A book of almost 300 pages of lesson plans, worksheets, projects and homework assignments, it is structured around three modules, “My Home”, “Neighbourhood, Village, Town City” and “Buildings through History” and includes advice on surveying, drawing and model-making. It was designed so that a teacher who knows nothing about architecture at the outset can take on a Shaping Space module with confidence, and it encourages collaboration between teachers from different disciplines. Teachers of history or geography, art or construction studies, mathematics or music, science, languages and literature, home economics, social, environmental, business, computer or media studies will all find opportunities.
It had been the experience of the Department of Education that in schools where a Transition Year Programme had been running there were ripple effects up and down the school into the Junior and Leaving Certificate cycles. This is what has happened. Elements of Shaping Space are now used in primary schools, in Junior Cert and Leaving Cert Applied programmes. And it is being used in some teacher training colleges, to give primary school teachers the vocabulary they need to address architectural issues in the classroom.