Better schools for better learning

The evidence is finally available to show that decisions about school conditions – be they large or small – make a difference to learning. If you think colourful, display-filled classrooms encourage scholarship, think again!

School classroomStudies of school performance regularly highlight the fact that the school environment makes a big difference to pupils’ attainment. Such studies normally shine the spotlight on the leadership and organisation of the school, which are clearly key contextual factors that shape the learning experience. But what is usually not mentioned is the impact of the physical environment provided by the overall design and configuration of the school buildings.

This is understandable in a way, as there is scant evidence of such holistic effects. But at the same time, it is also odd. We all know that the spaces we live and work in have a real impact on how we feel and how well we are able to perform. This blind spot seems all the more surprising when it is realised that there is in fact a massive amount of evidence about the tangible impact of aspects of our built spaces (such as temperature, air quality and colour) on humans, in terms of our comfort, physiological responses and changed perceptions. The complication is that the combined effect of these, which is how they are experienced in real classrooms, is hard to pin down. It gets even harder when the impact sought is on something like assessed measures of learning, rather than reaction times or perceptions.

A recent study has taken a novel approach to cut through this complexity and organise what is known within a simple but robust framework. It takes the view that the impact of spaces must be related to what comes through our senses and then how our brain interprets, values, and balances these impulses. Building on the basic architecture of brain functioning, it can be argued that three themes are at play:

  • naturalness – e.g. light, sound, temperature and air quality
  • individualisation – e.g. choice, flexibility and connection
  • an appropriate level of stimulation – e.g. complexity, colour and texture.

Using this approach, the recent study of 751 primary school pupils in 34 classrooms within seven schools in Blackpool1 successfully established a clear link between characteristics of the classrooms and up to 25 per cent of the observed variation in academic progress amongst the pupils. The study dealt with the inherent analytical complexity of this issue by the use of multi-level modelling that enabled variations associated with pupils as individuals to be separated from the effects at the class level. At the class level, 73 per cent of the variation in learning rates of the pupils, based on their test results in reading, writing and maths, were explained by six of the ten factors listed above. Those that came out as being particularly influential were: light, choice, flexibility, connections, complexity and colour.

There were also some surprises. In general, it would seem that it is easier to over-stimulate pupils with vibrant colours and displays than to create calm but interesting environments suitable for learning. Some factors, like daylight, are simply good to have, but of course daylight needs to be linked to effective glare control. For daylight to be controlled ideally, early design decisions about orientation are important, but it is also vital to get day-to-day decisions right, so that users don’t cover up windows with furniture, or leave blinds down permanently after they have finished using projectors. One of the ‘missing’ factors, air quality, seemed to be generally poor (and so not explanatory of variation), but is clearly important. Many factors can be, and are, organised by teachers and users, such as the layout of the room, the choice of display and the colour of walls. It turns out that these are important factors that do impact on learning rates and are not expensive or difficult to change once their effect is recognised.

So the management of the educational environment is key, but this should extend to making active and evidence-based choices about the physical spaces in schools too. We are going to keep on researching this further to improve that evidence base, but the initial proof is there, opening up new avenues to make a positive impact on the learning of our children.

Find out more about this research.

Professor Peter Barrett, School of the Built Environment, University of Salford.

  1. Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J., & Kobbacy, K. (2013). A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning. Building and Environment, 59, 678–689.

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