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Student-centred classroom design — science or fad?  

March 11, 2019

Thinking of redesigning classrooms into more flexible and innovative spaces with yoga balls, rainbow coloured carpet and organic conversation furniture? Is it really time to discard the traditional classroom and engage an architect to create Google-inspired, Scandinavian spaces?

In the past decade, Australia has seen a boom in the construction of trendy technology-rich learning spaces with visually appealing interiors in schools and universities. But 75% of classrooms are still classrooms where all desks face the front, teachers stand and talk at the students and students write things down.

Before launching a classroom makeover, consider how much talk of future ‘classroom-less’ learning spaces is hype and how much is based on evidence-informed models.

What’s all the hype?

The current conversation about the impact of learning environments on student learning outcomes is centred around design - traditional/conventional classrooms vs ILEs (innovative learning environments). The common idea is that the structural design and furniture layout can and will influence the learning outcomes of students. This narrative has mingled with concepts like blended learning and flipped classrooms. Blended learning, in particular, has been found to result in higher student achievement compared to either fully online or fully face-to-face learning experiences.   

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New classrooms are being designed to facilitate more flexible and minimalist spaces that encourage collaboration and creativity while embracing online learning technology. Swedish designer Rosan Bosch, best known for the Vittra School Telefonplan, which opened the country's first  ‘classroom-less’ school in 2011, has recently teamed up with Studio Gang Architects to design a public charter school in Chicago. Founder, Sarah Elizabeth Ippel, describes the design as “a flipped relationship with circulation space. Rather than breaking learning spaces up with hallways and walls, and asking each educator to stay in one space with one group of students, teachers circulate around the shared entire learning space throughout the day depending on the activity and learning needs of our students.”

The Academy for Global Citizenship
A rendering of the Academy for Global Citizenship
Images courtesy Studio Gang

An evidence-based approach

As yet the industry is still in the exploratory mode when it comes to determining the relationship between classroom design and student performance. Much of the enthusiasm towards ILEs is driven more by interests outside the student-teacher relationships - i.e. architects, bureaucrats, consultants and academics. There is surprisingly little evidence to inform how ILEs actually influence learning outcomes.

To address this dearth of evidence-based research, the University of Melbourne and the Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Projects, have teamed up to study the effect of innovations in school architecture on student learning. This first phase of the project saw the collection of large scale data across Australian and New Zealand schools. Despite huge investments in school infrastructure, it was found that existing evidence rarely showed any impact of ILEs on student learning outcomes.

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In response to the apparent gap between the educational potential of innovative classroom design and actual performance, phase 2 of the study focuses on developing the spatial competency of teachers. A ‘toolbox’ of knowledge tools, strategy tools, evaluation tools and professional tools to assist teachers to effectively use new learning environments is being trialled in three schools before rolling out to hundreds of schools across QLD, NSW and ACT Departments of Education, and the New Zealand Ministry of Education. So far, results suggest that it can take five years for teachers to adapt to ILEs.

Meanwhile, a study of 153 schools in the UK by the University of Salford, provided evidence that flexible spaces can boost academic performance. The study looked at three aspects of classroom design - naturalness (i.e. light and temperature), stimulation (i.e. colour, visual complexity) and individualization (i.e. flexibility, student ownership). It was found that optimising all three aspects in primary school classrooms improved academic performance in reading, writing and maths by 16 percent.

Personalization factors like flexibility and student ownership account for over a quarter of the academic improvement attributed to classroom design.
Classroom flexibility combined with good airflow, lighting and temperature control is important in achieving academic outcomes.

Teachers, not shiny furniture, make learning flourish

Peter Barrett, lead researcher of the University of Salford study and now an honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford, advises that flexible classrooms work when they go hand in hand with a change in pedagogy. This is similar to the conclusion of Dr Terry Byers, Research Fellow with the ILETC Project, University of Melbourne - that in the transition to innovative classrooms, we need to partner with teachers, rather than external experts, in order to achieve professional growth and transformation of learning outcomes.

Project leader, Associate Professor Wesley Imms, the Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN) group, sums up the findings:

“The best ILEs start with the teachers talking about what sort of teaching and learning they want to see, and building the space around that, as opposed to architects having to solve both pedagogic and design issues by themselves.”

Thus, while ILEs have the potential to enhance learning outcomes compared to traditional classroom environments, the move towards flexible, innovative spaces must be a teacher-led evolution. It’s not just about overhauling learning spaces with the latest table configuration, a new chaise lounge and standing desks, but developing new dynamic use of ILEs by teachers and students. As such, changes in classroom design should be teacher-led and based on evidence rather than architectural fads.