Create the right learning environment

A new survey reveals that high-quality learning experiences require high-quality learning environments

A recent study by the University of Salford concluded that classroom design can improve a pupil’s performance by as much as 25 percent. The year-long pilot tested 34 different learning environments, taking into account classroom orientation, natural light, acoustics, temperature and air quality. Further variables such as flexibility of space, organisation, storage facilities and use of colour were also revealed to affect a pupil’s learning progress. But do education establishments give the learning environment enough consideration when planning a new build or refurbishment? Or does classroom design sometimes become an afterthought?

“Schools and colleges are spending vast sums of money on state-of-the-art new buildings but in certain cases not enough thought is being given to the classrooms themselves,” says Melanie Laing, director of Innova Design Solutions, which specialises in creating bespoke learning environments. “Students only see the stunning exteriors or atriums for short periods each day, but it is the interiors and class spaces that make the difference as students and teachers spend most of their time here. Yet in a lot of projects we see, classroom interiors tend to be the last areas considered, and specifications are often determined by the amount of money that is left in the pot, rather than something that is budgeted for.”

Melanie believes schools and contractors need to adopt a more holistic approach to ensure pupils’ needs are properly catered for. “Schools and industry need to consider the whole environment if they want to assist in improving results,” she says. “A variety of factors need to be considered, ideally right at the start of the planning process. The size of the space (class sizes are growing); the lighting; the temperature; the colour of the room; the acoustics; the air quality; the choice of furniture – all of these elements play a major part in making a space that not only works for its users, but is also a safe and comfortable environment in which to learn.”

Melanie adds: “It’s about considering the overall space. You need to think about lighting. Can LED lighting that interacts with the daylight be used? Heating is also crucial because if pupils are too hot or too cold it will affect their performance. And what about the acoustics? Choosing the right furniture, which is designed to encourage good habits such as a healthy posture, is another important consideration.

“The University of Salford’s research underlines the importance of good classroom design. It’s absolutely integral, not just to pupils’ performance but also to their general wellbeing.”

Case study: Southlands High School, Chorley, Lancashire

Southlands High School is a forward-thinking school for 11-16-year-olds where major changes to infrastructure and facilities have helped produce record-breaking results. Southlands instigated a refurbishment and rebuild programme, which led to the creation of modern, cutting-edge workspaces for the sciences, arts and technology.The interior work was carried out by Stockport-based Innova Design Solutions in collaboration with main contractors Keepmoat.Included in the project were a creative arts block, six science labs, an IT room and an auditorium.

Innova incorporated several key features, typically evident in the IT room, which was designed with ‘saw-tooth’ desking to maximise the users’ workspace while making the room manageable for the teacher. Southlands also requested additional space for collaborative theory work, which was solved by a unique ‘doughnut design’, which contains a central hub for group work and student interaction.

The auditorium, which seats 59, was designed with teaching in mind, with the tiered seating allowing students to see the teaching area at all times. Plinth lights on the central benching and tiers provide a dramatic finish.

Southlands therefore both looks impressive and has felt the benefit in terms of improved performance in the classroom. “As a result of this work we now have some outstanding facilities, which have really made a difference,” says headteacher Mark Fowle. “I’ve seen lots of bog-standard classrooms, but Innova produced something different, attractive and capable of inspiring staff and children.The impact on learning and outcomes has been significant, and that’s the bottom line.

“Some of the designs and layouts are unlike anything I’ve seen in any other schools. When we show people around they say it’s like being at a university.”

The learning environment

Melanie Laing, director of Innova Design Solutions, provides 10 tips on how to create the optimum learning environment 

  • Space How well space is utilised is crucial to how successful a classroom is as a working area. As well as meeting regulations governing the number of users in a particular area, a classroom must be able to provide good circulation for interaction and collaborative teaching. A crowded, cluttered space does nothing for ease of movement, communication or concentration.
  • Furniture Withstudents and teachers spending well over 1,000 hours per academic year in the classroom, it’s imperative they are comfortable in order to fulfil their potential. Furniture must therefore be appropriate to the age and size of the user, as well as fit for purpose for the activity in each classroom.
  • Teaching Good teaching is at the heart of successful education and getting the classroom environment right is vital in providing the support and facilities to encourage that. As well as practical aids like interactive teacher walls and IT facilities, allowing for clear lines of sight and short lines of communication from teacher stations also helps the learning experience.
  • Heating An ambient temperature is a key part of classroom comfort and optimum performance. A constant temperature is the ideal as students cannot work to their best if too hot or too cold.
  • Lighting The correct type and level of lighting also play their part in creating an environment conducive to learning. Classrooms should maximise the use of natural daylight, while the provision of LED lighting saves on energy usage.
  • Acoustics How well students are able to hear and teachers can project their voice is paramount to the learning experience. Background noise from heating sources etc must be kept to a minimum, while the addition of acoustic ceilings or wall panels can be of benefit.
  • Colour The appropriate use of colour can influence how the users of a room react and respond, potentially lightening the space for more practical use or adding a different tone for alternative subjects and creative thinking.
  • Activities Different subjects demand different classrooms to provide optimum results. Catering for specific activities is important in the layout of any classroom so that the right space and facilities are provided for the required mix of practical and theory work.
  • Storage Depending on the subject, storage issues may be more or less relevant. Certainly in art, food technology, craft subjects and the sciences, adequate storage areas are vital. But in any classroom, floors and workspaces need to be kept clear to meet safety requirements and to aid concentration.
  • Inspiration Students can be inspired to produce their best in a number of ways. And near the top of that list is the environment they learn in. Students are most likely to respond in a classroom that feels modern, well-equipped, relevant and welcoming. Students have to be there, but should also feel they want to be there.

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