Why place values are all important

27th July 2018 at 00:00
New evidence reveals a strong link between educational buildings and students’ learning progress. Peter Barrett suggests how colleges can adapt

Spaces in all educational buildings must surely be geared towards the support they can provide to students’ learning?

This may seem obvious, but is actually not always, or even often, the case. This is partly because educational buildings, at worst, are seen as an unavoidable cost or, only slightly better, as a marketing tool to impress prospective students and parents. The key reason, however, is that, until recently, the links between learning progress and the physical characteristics of the learning environment lacked evidence.

This is no longer the case. After several years’ concentrated effort in the field, the HEAD (Holistic Evidence and Design) project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, has isolated and scaled these impacts. The model behind the study is novel and extends beyond the basic human need for “naturalness” factors such as light and air quality.

It includes the individualisation of the spaces by affording learners flexibility and options for ownership, as well as the creation of the optimal level of ambient “stimulation” through the use of colour and visual complexity.

This model was tested by linking the progress of 3,776 primary school pupils to the characteristics of their classrooms, while controlling other factors. The findings were striking: variations in the physical characteristics of the classrooms explained 16 per cent of the variation in the learning progress of the pupils.

These findings are having a wide range of impacts: from informing initiatives at the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, to stimulating furniture manufacturers towards ideas such as learning rooms, and supporting architects in their educational designs.

The impact of educational settings

What does this mean for FE colleges? Students are human and so the effects can be expected to translate, and although they do not spend the great majority of their time in one classroom, FE students do still spend significant time in educational rooms of various types, which will all have their impacts. I would argue that the following should be considered:

* Optimum level of stimulation. A mid-level of stimulation in the ambient environment was found to be optimal for learning. Simply put, this means spaces should not be too boring or too hectic when the shapes of the spaces and displays and colours used are all taken together. Many spaces are very plain in practice and the judicious use of decoration could rapidly improve matters.

* Opportunities for individualisation. It is common in HE and FE for pupils to move around the campus from lecture theatre to seminar space etc, driven by a central timetabling system that matches class to room size. The result can be that students are a bit like refugees, with no place they can call home in the institution. The challenge here is to think how areas for students can be created where, say, something of their personal output is on display, where they can feel a connection with the institution, perhaps through departmental or subject themes.

* Healthy naturalness. In many buildings, it is common for rooms to be too hot or cold; dark or glaring; very often stuffy, echoing and lacking views of nature. These are problems for basic health, will impact negatively on learning and should be addressed. It can be a simple matter of opening windows or blinds to let fresh air and daylight in. Half of the impact on learning detailed in the HEAD study was attributed to these simple, natural factors.


Now that the impact of physical spaces on learning has been proven, the overriding proposition is for those responsible for FE buildings to put themselves in the shoes of their students and actively invest in creating spaces that are interesting, but not chaotic; that have a positive impact on health; and that give students opportunities to feel ownership and a connection with the institution.

Professor Peter Barrett is an emeritus professor at the University of Salford, and honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford

For more information about the Clever Classrooms project, visit cleverclassroomsdesign.co.uk

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