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· Helen Evans

Clever Classrooms: Educating for a Brighter Future

How does classroom design impact learning outcomes?

I attended a breakfast talk at the Goldsmiths Centre on the subject of research on wellbeing in educational buildings, with a focus on the impact of natural lighting.

Richard Keating of ORMs took us through some interesting case studies showing various techniques which architects use to embrace the qualities of light within their designs – territory which any architect worth their salt should already engage with.

Lighting designer Mark Ridler of BDP set out a plea for more intuitive lighting design.  His intense and animated presentation ranged from macro to micro scale – beginning with the awesome power of light in the natural world and the history of human existence, touching on recent discoveries in chronobiology (the science of circadian rhythms) and including an explanation of the inner workings of the human eye.  Finally, wider principles were brought back down to earth through an enlightening explanation of the Passivhaus standard lighting strategy at Architype’s acclaimed Enterprise Centre at the University of East Anglia – for which BDP were the lighting designers.

Naturalisation: Daylighting and artificial lighting strategies were central to our classroom designs at Shenley Academy in Birmingham.

But I came away from the event most excited about the third presentation delivered by Professor Peter Barrett (University of Salford, and honorary research fellow at Oxford).  His research team has proven that there is a direct link between the quality of classroom design and the level of academic achievement of the pupils learning in them.  And they have quantified the percentage impacts through clear statistics that government advisors can (and hopefully now will) get their teeth into.

Barrett began by showing us the Education Endowment Foundation website, which states: ‘there is little evidence that the physical environment [impacts] learning outcomes’.  This is the message the government is currently conveying to teachers and school heads – that the quality of the built environment that children learn in has little or no impact on their academic attainment levels.  As horrifying as this may be to hear for those in the built environment profession, the statement is actually accurate – until now, there has been very little comprehensive research published in relation to this issue.

Through cross-disciplinary research and post occupancy measuring of 153 classrooms across the UK Barrett’s ‘Clever Classrooms’ study demonstrates that if a child from the worst performing classroom were moved to one of the best performing classrooms, their academic attainment for that year would increase by an average 1.3 sublevels (under national curriculum grading levels). Given that the Department for Education has suggested that – at this stage - a child should progress two sub levels per year, the implications are significant.

The factors found to be most influential in good classroom design were, in order of influence:

  • Naturalness: light, temperature and air quality – accounting for half of the learning impact
  • Individualisation: ownership and flexibility
  • Stimulation: complexity and colour (must be a balance – not too bland, not too chaotic)

The summary report is available online and can be downloaded for free, so I won’t go into details here.  But the headlines are that this holistic research proves that good classroom design has a huge impact on the average primary school child’s academic performance – in fact, as much impact as the quality of teaching they receive.

Individualisation: At Rosendale Primary School in Lambeth, a range of personalised spaces are provided within the classroom - creating a learning microcosm in place of traditional rows of desks and chairs.

Stimulation: This reading nook within a classroom at Rosendale Primary School makes inventive use of an existing fireplace. Bright colours are stimulating while being balanced by calmer monochrome walls.

Thanks are due to Clever Classrooms for this important piece of research, which sheds light on the poor state of our neglected schools whilst providing practical guidance on which aspects of classroom design must be prioritised in order to improve them. 

What those in the built environment world have believed - at least since the Victorian era - has finally been measured and proven in a scientific report.  The ramifications reach beyond the scope of classroom design and call into question the impact of other work place and home environments on our wellbeing and productivity.  So let’s get measuring to prove the true value of good design!...

Helen Evans

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