8 ways to create inspiring and engaging spaces in schools

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Designing exciting and inspiring spaces for learning isn't as complicated as it sounds. In fact, some of the best ideas are the simplest!

Summarising some of the most cutting-edge research into school design, Tom Brialey gives eight top tips to turn your school into a space where students love to learn.

The most popular TED talk of all time is titled ‘Do schools kill creativity?’, in which Sir Ken Robinson argues passionately for a school system that better serves the varied needs of children in the 21st century. The video is of obvious value to educators, but it’s somewhat surprising that it’s clocked over 6 million views and close to 99 per cent likes.

In fact, the video is part of a wider shift in perspective that has been gaining momentum for the past decade or so. The call for a reformed education system that tackles the increasing complexities of today’s world, from technological innovation to environmental sustainability, has become more urgent.

One area of re-examination that particularly excites us is the increased focus on schools as physical spaces. A movement away from the traditional teaching model, in which expert teachers transfer knowledge to pupils, towards a model of pupil-directed learning, where children are encouraged to develop ideas, questions and solutions of their own, is having a real impact on school design.

The latest research in this area makes for interesting reading, offering inspiring and, at times, simple techniques to turn your school into a space where pupils love to learn! We have done the hard work for you and compiled some of the key messages and ideas into 8 top tips below. 

1. Have a mission

Back in 2013, The Learning Spaces Collaboratory put together a detailed guide to planning and assessing learning spaces. They describe the recent shift in learning techniques as a move away from ‘learning about’ and towards ‘learning to become’. The first question educators need to ask then is, ‘What do we want our learners to become?’

The question is not new – you’ll find a mission statement on practically every school website – but it’s often left unanswered when it comes to school design. The problem is that current research gives no easy answers as to the most effective learning strategies. For example, academics still fiercely debate whether discovery-based learning trumps direct instruction. A 2008 study even found that ‘old’ vs. ‘new’ pedagogies have minimal effect on mean class scores, but that particular sets of learners are impacted differently, especially across gender lines.

In our view, the most important conclusion to reach is therefore not whether a modern collaborative classroom beats a traditional classroom, but whether your learning spaces support and nurture the wider pedagogical methods you’ve chosen to implement.

2. Fix the obvious

If our first tip is a complex strategy, this is a quick and easy fix. Creating engaging school spaces doesn’t need to be glamorous; in fact, much of the most robust research tackles the simple things. As far back as 1948, Ray L. Hamon pointed out, ‘There has probably been more research on heating and ventilating than on any other feature of the school plant.’

Most importantly, ensure you’re meeting standards on air quality, temperature, noise and lighting. A literature review carried out by The Design Council in 2005 found strong links between these physical factors and student attainment, engagement and even attendance.

In addition, if students are frequently carrying heavy bags into school, do what you can to reduce the load. Either share more information on what’s required each day or, if possible, provide easily accessible school lockers. In essence, any steps taken to make sure your pupils are comfortable and alert can have a real impact on engagement.

3. Empower your users

In 2014, a blog post from Grant Wiggins, co-author of an award-winning book on curriculum design, received a huge amount of attention. The post follows a 15-year teaching veteran who decides to shadow a student for the first time. She describes the experience as ‘so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things.’

The story embodies a question that rears its head often in education: do we listen to students enough? School design in particular is an area where the wishes of students and even teachers are repeatedly ignored. The truth is, it’s much easier to make potentially costly design decisions at an administrative level.

But there is real evidence to support the benefits of student opinions. For example, the Measures of Effective Teaching Project found that student perceptions of teacher effectiveness are among the most reliable predictors of achievement gains. Our advice is therefore to let the ideas of students and teachers play an active role in your design thinking. For example, allowing students from different departments to showcase their work on the school walls can provide a sense of achievement amongst students.

4. Start small

The Stanford d.school is a space developed over six years to inspire innovation and collaboration. Its creators offer sage advice on how to create more engaging spaces, whether in classrooms or Silicon Valley start ups. One of their top tips is not to ‘get too formal too fast. Making things precious locks them in too soon, short-circuiting potential improvements.’

At first, it’s difficult to see where this applies to school design, but it’s advice that can make a real difference. Changing attitudes in design practices means there are a lot of options, and it can be extraordinarily difficult to work out what’s right for your institution. As a result, the best approach is to pilot new design concepts first.

For example, before purchasing expensive collaborative furniture, try rearranging your current classroom to mimic the sorts of changes new furniture might encourage. Quantify your results wherever possible but, at the least, seek feedback from students and teachers. If the new space can’t be copied, introduce a smaller version of it – a single classroom or area. The aim is to identify what’s working before committing yourself to irreversible purchasing decisions.

5. Consider all the senses

It’s long been understood that our brains rely on multiple senses while learning. Studies such as ‘Benefits of Multisensory Learning’ conclude that multisensory learning can be more effective than unisensory learning because ‘perceptual and cognitive mechanisms have evolved for, and are tuned to, processing multisensory signals.’

Our increased understanding of cognition has led many teachers to adopt multisensory teaching methods, which can only be a positive thing, but it’s also important to build spaces that support this approach. One vital area to address, especially for younger students, is the level of sensory stimulation in different spaces.

A report from the Salford Centre for Research and Innovation places emphasis on visual complexity, colour and texture, all of which can have a profound effect on mood, mental clarity and energy levels. Make sure you’re aware of how these factors function throughout the school – use them to keep students engaged but not distracted.

6. Encourage collaboration

Collaborative learning, especially in a project-based context, has become something of a buzzword in recent years. A wealth of research supports its benefits, not only demonstrating that groups outperform individuals on learning tasks but that group members perform better on later individual assessments.

Successfully introducing collaboration into the classroom requires support from the environment itself. Expensive technological solutions like interactive whiteboards and 1:1 devices will help, but powerful results can also be achieved with new classroom layouts or furniture, as explored in a really interesting article by Laura Bradley.

Crucially, as well as being an effective teaching tool, collaborative learning prepares students for the 21st century working world, fostering the team skills that’ll one day prove irresistible to employers.

7. Integrate technology

A few years ago, Edutopia carried out a fantastic review of technology integration research, concluding from the results of five recent meta-analyses that technologically supported and blended learning approaches produce better outcomes than face-to-face or online learning alone.

Of course, they also noted that simply dropping technology in classrooms does not result in improved learning. As we mentioned in our first tip, new technology must be aligned with wider learning goals and teaching techniques. As a result, any introduction of shiny new tech should be accompanied by appropriate training, curricula and assessment adjustments.

It’s a sensitive subject for many, but overall we believe introducing tech into the classroom can have profound benefits – not to mention that it provides a better likeness to the world your students will enter into.

8. Be surprising

Our previous couple of tips may be somewhat unsurprising, forming a part of the consensus view on modern education. Well our final tip is to do the opposite: surprise your students.

You may have seen a story last year from Biloxi Junior High School, where teachers spent their summer transforming school lockers into an ‘Avenue of Literature’. The extra effort left a real impression on both the internet and, more importantly, the school’s students. In fact, this creative act resonates perfectly with another concept to come out of Stanford’s d.school: good design is grounded in empathy.

In short, creating inspiring and engaging spaces comes from a real understanding and appreciation for the wishes and feelings of your students and teachers. The d.school even suggests building an ‘empathy map’ to dig deeper into the motivations of users. Our advice is that being surprising helps students realise that somebody truly cares about their individual experience.

Tom Brialey is the owner of Action Storage Systems, a specialist supplier, installer and stockholder of storage system, including a wide range of lockers for secure storage of personal effects.

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