Walk into most New Zealand classrooms and chances are it’ll look quite different from the classroom you were educated in. In the same way that when you walk into a Doctor’s or Dentist’s surgery, you hope they’re not using approaches and technologies from 20 years ago, educational architecture has had to change with the times. But who’s to say different is necessarily better? Why is the design of classrooms changing, and how can we be sure that ‘innovative learning environments’ are actually leading to better teaching and learning?
To answer the ‘why are they changing’ side of the question, it’s important to note that the New Zealand curriculum has changed significantly over the past two decades, placing greater emphasis on character and capabilities alongside knowledge and skills. Now, a student’s ability to problem-solve, be creative, work collaboratively and show resilience are just as important in the curriculum as their ability to remember information, follow instructions or complete tasks. As a result, classrooms are now much more active places, providing students not only with the opportunity to learn new things, but also to put that learning into action through investigations, inquiries and real-world projects.
In the same way that new classroom spaces have responded to changing curriculum demands, they have also responding to research into the way the physical environment can best support deep learning. Far from being simply a benign container for learning, the physical environment can directly impact on student learning for better or for worse. Barrett & Zhang (2015) found that “differences in the physical characteristics of classrooms explain 16% of the variation in learning progress over a year.” In short: when the physical environment gives teachers the tools they need to do their job better, student learning benefits.
So, what are the features of a ‘well-designed’ learning environment? To start with the basics, ‘the big four’ need to be right: temperature control, ventilation, lighting and acoustics. Poor acoustics impact on learning, as do hot or cold, stuffy, or poorly lit environments. Many of the classrooms currently in use across New Zealand have poor insulation, inadequate ventilation and acoustics that were state of the art in the 1960s when they were built. Modern acoustic modelling and treatments mean it’s much easier to create a quality acoustic environment, and to provide a range of different acoustic zones in order to accommodate the quiet, conversational and noisy activities that a diverse class might need to undertake over the course of a day (Von Ahlefeld, 2009).
Secondly, open is not necessarily better. Research has shown that the key to an effective learning environment is not how open it is, rather the amount of flexibility provided by that environment. Fully open (big barn) or fully closed (individual classrooms) don’t appear to support deep student learning as well as environments that are flexible: able to be used to create larger or smaller spaces by using moveable walls, agile furniture and sliding doors (Imms, Mahat, Byers, & Murphy, 2017). Classrooms with breakout spaces or rooms attached have also been found to impact positively on learning (Barrett et al., 2015).
Also important is how well the environment can accommodate the different ways in which people learn. An effective environment is one that can offer a range of different zones, rather than the traditional ‘one size fits all’ space where most students are doing the same thing at the same time. As Gronneberg & Johnston (2015) observe “individual learning patterns differ, and learning systems should accommodate variability among learners from the outset.” Consequently, the most effective learning environments often have varied room shapes, and offer a variety of different learning zones and breakout spaces (quiet, focused zones; collaboration zones; active learning zones etc., Barrett et al., 2015). Variety is essential to learning, with varied activities and environments closely linked to increased attention and recall of information (Briggs, 2013).
A study of innovative learning environments in Australia showed that when the classroom environment allowed teachers to teach in ways that were student-centred, often employing small group, needs-based teaching, student achievement increased by between 11% and 19% across English, mathematics and humanities (Imms & Byers, 2016).
The amount and variety of furniture in an environment can also impact on learning. For instance there is a growing body of evidence pointing to connections between physical movement, increased oxygen levels in the blood, and memory and recall (Sousa, 2014). In addition to desks and chairs, providing students with the ability to work at standing tables or leaners has proved to be beneficial, with one study (Dornhecker et al., 2015) showing that time focused on learning increased by an average of an extra seven minutes an hour when students had the opportunity to use standing desks.
In addition, research indicates the importance of having strong connections to the outdoors (Dillon et al., 2005); good sight lines, transparency and openness (Barrett et al., 2015); a sense of belonging for students (Gifford, 2002), celebration of learning on the walls (Killeen et al., 2003) and affirmation of student language identity and culture (Ministry of Education, 2013) all contribute to improved outcomes for learners.
Perhaps most significantly however, innovative learning environments allow teachers to work together: to co-teach using each other’s strengths and best ideas. The role modelling, professional learning and collegial support that becomes possible when collaborating leads to significant improvements in the quality of teaching and therefore outcomes for students (York-Barr et al., 2007). It is probably this opportunity that is the definitive advantage of an innovative learning environment.
At the end of the day, the learning environment is only a tool in the hands of teachers. As Blackmore et al. (2011) conclude: “buildings on their own are not enough.” It’s what teachers do with those buildings that counts. But giving teachers the best tools to do their job as well as they possibly can is a vital first step towards creating great learning opportunities for all young people.
Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Davies, F., & Barrett, L. (2015). Clever Classrooms – Summary Report of the HEAD Project. Retrieved from http://www.salford.ac.uk/cleverclassrooms
Blackmore, J., Bateman, D., Loughlin, J., O’Mara, J., & Aranda, G. (2011). Research into the connection between built learning spaces and student outcomes. Melbourne, Victoria. Retrieved from http://dro.deakin.edu.au/view/DU:30036968?print_friendly=true
Briggs, S. (2013). Neuroeducation: 25 Findings Over 25 Years. Retrieved from http://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/neuroeducation-25-findings-over-25-years/
Dillon, J., Morris, M., O’Donnell, L., Reid, A., Rickinson, M., & Scott, W. (2005). Engaging and Learning with the Outdoors – The Final Report of the Outdoor Classroom in a Rural Context Action Research Project.
Dornhecker, M., Blake, J. J., Benden, M., Zhao, H., & Wendel, M. (2015). The effect of stand-biased desks on academic engagement: An exploratory study. International Journal of Health Promotion and Education, 53(5), 271–280. https://doi.org/10.1080/14635240.2015.1029641
Gifford, R. (2002). Environmental psychology: Principles and practice. Geoarchaeology An International Journal, 17(5), 484–486. https://doi.org/10.1002/gea.10025
Gronneberg, J., & Johnston, S. (2015). 7 Things You Should Know About Universal Design for Learning.
Imms, W., & Byers, T. (2016). Does the space make a difference?
Imms, W., Mahat, M., Byers, T., & Murphy, D. (2017). Type and Use of Innovative Learning Environments in Australasian Schools, 1–61. Retrieved from http://www.iletc.com.au/publications/reports/.
Killeen, J. P., Evans, G. W., & Danko, S. (2003). The Role Of Permanent Student Artwork In Students’ Sense Of Ownership In An Elementary School. Environment & Behavior, 35(2), 250–263. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916502250133
New Zealand Ministry of Education. (2013). Ka Hikitia: Accelerating Success 2013-2017.
Sousa, D. A. (2014). Mind, brain, & education: Neuroscience implications for the classroom. Solution Tree Press.
Von Ahlefeld, H. (2009). Evaluating Quality in Educational Spaces: OECD/CELE Pilot Project. CELE Exchange. Centre for Effective Learning Environments, 2009, 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1787/220802117283
York-Barr, J., Ghere, G., & Sommerness, J. (2007). Collaborative Teaching to Increase ELL Student Learning: A Three-Year Urban Elementary Case Study. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR). https://doi.org/10.1080/10824660701601290