Albert Einstein — one of the leading intellectual luminaries of our time and an educator — once declared that he did not teach his students. “I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” It took a few decades, but educational systems around the world are catching up to his philosophy. Interior design for the learning space now provides much more consideration for the student, providing the optimal setting not just for academic achievement, but social edification, as well.
The average age of the American school is 50 years. “Schools are one building type that we’re all familiar with because we’ve all been to school,” says Prakash Nair, president and founding partner of Fielding Nair Architects, specialists in learning space design.
Schools followed the “sage on the stage” model — that is, a classroom layout with a central platform where the teacher stands, and chairs that face it. It’s simple enough, and it worked well enough.
But as neuroscience helps us better understand how the brain functions and the best ways to learn, so do teaching methods and technologies evolve. So should the learning environment.
The challenge now, according to Nair, is to imagine “what a school could be, as opposed to what it has always been.”
What Interior Designers and Architects Tend to Miss About Learning Space Design
According to teacher and former interior designer Erin Klein, architects and other design professionals often “miss incorporating the students’ ideas and opinions.”
It’s not the architect’s fault. “One of the first things architects and designers do is they have to bid for jobs that they’re interested in or clients come to them. Either way they’re consulting with the client. However, that doesn’t happen in education,” Klein says.
She further explains how architects and designers consult with administrative teams instead of students and teachers. The result is consistent with Nair’s concern: Architects end up designing what they think classroom design traditionally looks like, missing the mark entirely.
Interior Design for an Effective Learning Environment
To maximize learning potential, Lennie Scott-Webber, director of education environments for Steelcase and former head of the Department of Interior Design & Fashion at Radford University, says we should create a space that can become the catalyst for change.
“When you open the door to a space, does it give you permission to act differently other than to be behaviorally conditioned to ‘sit and sit’ or ‘stand and deliver’? If the space doesn’t give permission to change, then it’s too easy to revert back to what we know,” Scott-Webber says.
So what does an effective learning space look like? While there’s no single classroom design that works for all, there are a few basic tenets to apply.
Curved, Open, and With High Ceilings
According to Oshin Vartanian, Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, a part of the brain’s core emotion network is activated when viewing rooms with a curvilinear design. They were regarded as beautiful and pleasant. Rooms with high ceilings, on the other hand, stimulated “visuospatial exploration”; that is, they made people pay more attention.
What does this have to do with learning? Emotional connections are crucial to the learning experience. So is paying attention. Vartanian and his team were able to show that a certain type of space is able to encourage both.
In contrast, enclosed spaces are detrimental to learning as they can increase cortisol, the stress hormone.
Of course, design can be constricted by budget, so creative solutions may be necessary. An old-school, standby solution? “Mirrors can transform small spaces,” says Camille Overmeer, interior designer at The Camellia. “Placing them across from a window gives the illusion of multiple windows, plus it reflects the natural light.”
Comfortable Classroom Design Does Not Mean Coddling
Time and again, it’s been proven that students need to be comfortable in order to learn effectively. It’s just common sense — and no, it doesn’t mean shielding students from the harsher realities of the outside world.
Jeremy Mettler, a social studies teacher at Batavia High School, says “The reality is, if you’re sitting in an uncomfortable chair or you’re distracted by glare, you’re focusing on the source of the discomfort rather than the learning. The distraction is a stress, and if you’re stressed, you’re not learning.”
Comfort in a learning environment can be as simple as adequate lighting, proper acoustics, and well-regulated ambient temperature.
Nearness to Nature, and Lots of Natural, or Near-Natural Light
In the 1990s, school districts across America were struggling to find solutions to dismal student performance on standardized tests. They experimented with different curricula, different teaching methods, new textbooks, better trained teachers, smaller classes, and more.
An architecture firm in California, however, scrutinized a different element altogether: light. The question was, could the problem be partially solved by improved lighting?
The answer surprised them. In a rigorous study involving 21,000 students, it was found that those who studied in “classrooms with more natural light scored as much as 25 percent higher on standardized tests than other students in the same school district.”
It supported anecdotal evidence that architects had been citing all along: “Children learn better under illumination from skylights or windows, rather than bulbs.”
One of the authors of the study, Lisa Heschong said they were “completely taken aback at the magnitude of these findings … It’s an eye-opener.”
While the study did not explain why students in classrooms with more natural daylight performed better, Heschong had a few theories. “Kids see better, or teachers see better,” she said. “It may be that teachers feel better, are more motivated by daylighting.”
Classroom design that incorporated nature also had a vastly positive effect. While countless studies have shown that office employees are more productive when they are near a natural element, students are no different.
Studies show that simply incorporating plants in the classroom layout improves the grades of middle school students, reduces sick leave in primary school students, and makes students and staff feel more comfortable and satisfied, no matter their age.
Zoning and Flexibility Are Not Just for Coworking Spaces
In coworking spaces, “I” and “we” spaces are equally important: the latter for collaborative effort and socializing, the former for focused work. Diversity in seating arrangements also helps people break out of ruts and get fresh perspective.
In a learning space, these different zones and the flexible seating are no less important, and the reasons are not that different. In Pennsylvania State University, for example, the HUB-Robeson Center has a grand bleacher staircase ideal for encounters, interaction, and collaboration. Bradley University in Illinois provides a more unique take: collaborative study tables on landings attached to a steel staircase.
Students “are looking for open, fluid designs in the classroom. Instead of a static classroom filled with individual desks, designers should look for ways to create breakout spaces. Educators from Edutopia recommend arranging desks and tables to create nooks and designated spaces specified for different areas of study.”
As well, “Desks, chairs, tables, whiteboards; virtually any piece of classroom furniture can and should have the ability to be moved around in order to adapt to the students’ needs.”
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