July 14, 2017

We Have Proof: Good Design Boosts Academic Performance

Is there proof that good school design leads to better learning?

The education design industry has long held a common belief that as designers we have only anecdotal ‘proof’ that good design influences learning outcomes.  A peer reviewed team of researchers from the University of Salford Manchester, England has demonstrated that in fact, there is proof.

This blog is a response to questions asked at the recent A4LE 2017 Southwest Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah.  During a lively discussion about design and learning outcomes, one participant asked “[With] no evidence to prove space matters to education outcomes, should this be focus of A4LE in upcoming strategic planning sessions?”

From the schools selected for touring, it was apparent that the conference organizers had already thought about this question.  We saw some very nice schools that have incorporated new thinking in education design:

  • Lots of daylighting and operable windows
  • A variety of classroom collaboration spaces with options for even more collaboration (garage doors)
  • Flexible furniture
  • Ample technology
  • Vibrant colors
  • Efficient mechanical system
  • Sustainable (even net zero) designs

How are these Utah districts doing it?  And how do we get politically motivated legislatures to recognize the value or need for these types of facilities?  Nearly everyone in politics and even in the A/E community believes there is no proof of the need, particularly when measured by standardized testing.  In Arizona where charter schools now serve 16% of students and 30% of schools (1), we often see small classrooms, 30+ students lined up in traditional rows, and decades-old teaching methods.  Their scores are touted as proof that space doesn’t matter.

I believe that question is better answered in another dialogue about how charter schools are run differently and are comprised of quite different demographics compared to their public counterparts.

Are we implementing new trends out of instinct and anecdotal stories, or is there actual proof demonstrating good design positively affects student performance?  According to a year-long study conducted by researchers at the University of Salford Manchester, England, the answer is yes, there is proof. “…Clear evidence has been found that well-designed primary schools boost children’s academic performance in reading, writing and maths.”

The peer-reviewed study, “Clever Classrooms, Summary report of the HEAD Project (Holistic Evidence and Design)”, February 2015 http://www.ri.salford.ac.uk/peterbarrett/head_project, followed rigorous scientific research methods.  Details of the process are included in the linked document.

The HEAD project was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.  It studied the learning progress of more than 3766 pupils in 150 classrooms and 30 schools over a year-long-period to measure variations in learning progress attributable to physical characteristics.  It was found that classroom design is far more important than whole school factors such as navigation, special facilities or playgrounds.  Researchers addressed the overall design of the physical learning space, not just single factors such as daylighting or air quality.  Highlights (paraphrased for simplicity) include:

Natural environment such as light, temperature and air quality accounted for half the learning impact.

  • “Good lighting significantly influences reading, vocabulary, and Science test scores.”
  • Students showed “significantly faster and more accurate responses” on memory and recognition tests in classrooms with improved ventilation rates.
  • Student attention spans and task-performance deteriorate as temperature and humidity increase.

Ownership and flexibility in the classroom accounted for about a quarter of learning impact.

  • Breakout zones within classrooms positively affect learning, while zones in corridors or separate spaces appear to have little effect.

Appropriate levels of stimulation through complexity and color accounted for about a quarter.

  • Classrooms that display student work (up to a point!) promote participation.
  • Complexity and wall color both appear to promote the best results when applied in a moderate amount. Classrooms with minimal visual stimulation and white walls offer poor learning conditions.  The same is true of too much stimulation and/or overly large or bright walls.  Advice for teachers includes providing a lively space, yet keeping 20-50% of the wall space clear.  Light walls with a feature wall in a brighter color are also the most effective.

I am delighted to see this in-depth research and conclusive proof of the new thinking our profession is embracing.  Healthier, better designed spaces do matter.  We know it, and when possible, our designs show it.  Now, as education leaders, let’s share the news with legislators, administrators, community leaders and voters.

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Read more:

News story: http://www.anfarch.org/news/the-impact-of-classroom-design-on-pupils-learning-final-results-of-a-holistic-multi-level-analysis/

The study as published by Science Direct, publishers of peer reviewed scientific, technical and medical research: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360132315000700

Another article of interest about Active Learning:  https://thejournal.com/articles/2017/07/05/designing-learner-centered-spaces.aspx

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