When Tom Murray and I set out to write Learning Transformed our goal was to connect as much research as possible to our ideas and statements as well as the amazing work taking place in schools, known in the book as Innovative Practices in Action (IPA’s). Research should be used to inform as well as influence the actions we take to implement sustainable change at scale. It is also a great way to move those who are resistant to change to embrace new ideas. Below is an adapted section of Chapter 4 from our book that looks as research that can influence learning space design in classrooms and schools.
One area where we found a growing body of research was learning space design. In studying various pieces of literature on the effect of design, Barrett and Zhang began with the understanding that a “bright, warm, quiet, safe, clean, comfortable, and healthy environment is an important component of successful teaching and learning” (p. 2). Their research suggested direct connections between the learning space and sensory stimuli among students. The evidence of such connections came from the medical understanding of how human sensory perception affects cognitive calculations. As such, Barrett and Zang (2009) identify three key design principles:
- Naturalness: Hardwired into our brains, humans have the basic need for light, air, and safety. In this area, the impact of lighting, sound, temperature, and air quality are prevalent.
- Individualization: As individuals, each of our brains is uniquely organized and, we perceive the world in different ways. Because of this, different people respond to environmental stimuli in various ways. Therefore, the opportunity for some level of choice affects success.
- Appropriate Level of Stimulation: The learning space can offer the “silent curriculum” that affects student engagement levels. When designing the space, it’s important for educators not to overstimulate and thus detract students’ ability to focus but to provide enough stimuli to enhance the learning experience.
Supporting this notion, a research study out of the University of Salford Manchester (UK), followed 3,766 students in 153 elementary classrooms from 27 different schools over a three-year period, analyzing classroom design elements along the way. The report indicates clear evidence that “well-designed primary schools boost children’s academic performance in reading, writing, and math” (Barrett, Zhang, Davies, & Barrett, 2015, p. 3). The study found a 16 percent variation in learning progress due to the physical characteristics of the classroom. Additionally, the study indicated that whole-school factors (e.g., size, play facilities, hallways) do not nearly have the level of impact as the individual classroom.
School leaders will often write off the notion of redesigning learning spaces due to financial constraints. However, research indicates that schools don’t need to spend vast amounts of money to make instructional improvements. In fact, changes can be made that have little to no cost yet make a significant difference. Examples include altering the classroom layout, designing classroom displays differently, and choosing new wall colors (Barrett et al., 2015). These research-based factors are minimal financial commitments that can help boost student outcomes.
The effect of learning spaces on various behaviors—territoriality, crowding, situational and personal space—has been the focus of some sociological and environment behavioral research. The consensus of this research is that the space itself has physical, social, and psychological effects. One study measured the impact of classroom design on 12 active learning practices, including collaboration, focus, opportunity to engage, physical movement, and stimulation (Scott-Webber, Strickland, & Kapitula, 2014). The research indicated that intentionally designing spaces provides for more effective teaching and learning. In this particular study, all of the major findings supported a highly positive and statistically significant effect of active learning classrooms on student engagement.
In a research study on the link between standing desks and academic engagement, researchers observed nearly 300 children in 2nd through 4th grade over the course of a school year (Dornhecker, Blake, Benden, Zhao, & Wendel, 2015). The study found that students who used standing desks, more formally known as stand-biased desks, exhibited higher rates of engagement in the classroom than did their counterparts seated in traditional desks. Standing desks are raised desks that have stools nearby, enabling students to choose whether to sit or stand during class. The initial studies showed 12 percent greater on-task engagement in classrooms with standing desks, which equated to an extra seven minutes per hour, on average, of engaged instruction time.
There’s little disagreement that creating flexible spaces for physical activity positively supports student learning outcomes. However, it’s important to note that it’s not simply the physical layout of the room that affects achievement. One particular study investigated whether classroom displays that were irrelevant to ongoing instruction could affect students’ ability to maintain focused attention during instruction and learn the lesson content. Researchers placed kindergarten children in a controlled classroom space for six introductory science lessons, and then they experimentally manipulated the visual environment in the room. The findings indicated that the students were more distracted when the walls were highly decorated and, in turn, spent more time off task. In these environments, students demonstrated smaller learning gains than in cases where the decorations were removed (Fisher, Godwin, & Seltman, 2014).
In addition to the physical and visual makeup of the learning space, a building’s structural facilities profoundly influence learning. Extraneous noise, inadequate lighting, low air quality, and deficient heating in the learning space are significantly related to lower levels of student achievement (Cheryan, Ziegler, Plaut, & Meltzoff, 2014). Understanding how the learning space itself can affect the way students learn is key. Part of the issue facing school leaders today is that quite often the decision about learning space design is made by those without recent (or any) experience teaching or by those with little knowledge of classroom design. If learning is going to be transformed, then the spaces in which that learning takes place must also be transformed. Design can empower learning in amazing ways.
Today’s educational paradigm is no longer one of knowledge transfer but one of knowledge creation and curation. The “cells and bells” model has been prevalent for more than a century, but it is no longer relevant for today’s learners. As educators work to shift to instructional pedagogies that are relational, authentic, dynamic, and—at times—chaotic in their schools, learning spaces must be reevaluated and adapted as necessary. Pedagogical innovation requires an innovation in the space where learning takes place. Simply put, if the space doesn’t match the desired learning pedagogy, then it will hinder student learning outcomes.
Fore more research-influenced ideas and strategies to transform education grab a copy of Learning Transformed. There is also a free ASCD study guide aligned to the book that can be accessed HERE.