Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The impact of learning environments

In an effort to collect research about learning environments I’m looking into a number of literature reviews at the moment. One such example is the review produced for the Design Council by Higgins, Hall, Wall, Woolner and McCaughey (2004). It set out to investigate what makes a good school environment and looked at collecting evidence around student motivation, behaviour and achievement.

The review uses four elements of a conceptual framework in order to categorise and organize the review. The authors looked at Systems and Processes, Products and services, Environment, and Communication. Learning is places at the centre of these four in order to indicate that improved student learning is an outcome of changes to these four elements.

One of the first comments that the review makes is an acknowledgement that there was relatively little research on effective learning environments at the time, particularly when concerning the communications and systems needed to underpin physical environments. What evidence there was available was largely based on “a traditional view of ‘chalk and talk’ learning in standardized ‘one size fits all’ institutions” (p. 3). Contemporary moves towards personalized learning, formative assessment, self-directed learning, as well as technological transformations were shifting notions of what a learning environment should look like and the report recognises the lack of a robust research base for informing new approaches.

Interestingly, a large proportion of the literature reviewed falls into the Environment category. So there are some useful links into research on factors such as lighting, ventilation, noise, colour, temperature and air quality. The review confirmed that there was clear evidence that extremes of environmental elements like poor ventilation and excessive noise have negative effects on student outcomes. But it also found that once school environments come up to minimum standards the effects are less defined.

The key finding however relates to the extent to which, and the ways in which school users are engaged in the design process. The greater the involvement the greater the success. “The message is clear. School design cannot be imposed nor bought off the shelf” (p. 3). Here it’s worth thinking back to the open-plan classroom movement when often standard templates were designed and then rolled out to subsequent new schools. The review recognizes that by purely providing this physical design solution without ownership by its users, nor effective systems to support it, it is unlikely to be successful.

“It is important, therefore to beware of ‘architectural determinism’ of plans for renewal and development that do not allow for both local variation and ownership and of programs which do not budget for an ongoing investment in and iteration of school environments” (p. 6).

The review concludes by calling for locally driven, user-led pedagogically embedded environmental improvement to schools. It recommends too that policy makers summarise the lessons of the past for a range of audiences including teachers, architects and education authorities. It suggests that investment in change should be an iterative process as opposed to one driven by a five year building plan. And it finishes with somewhat of a warning:
 “Building Schools for the Future pre-supposes a commonly held view of what the future will look like: unless this is generated collaboratively and implemented flexibly, there is a significant risk of expensive failure’ (p. 37)


Higgins, S., Hall, E., Wall, K., Woolner, P., & McCaughey, C. (2005). The impact of school environments: A literature review: The Centre for Learning and Teaching, University of Newcastle.

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