By Celis Brisbin, Programs Manager

Published on Written by Posted in Center for Green Schools


Until now, it may seem bizarre, but the holistic impact of classroom design on the learning of school pupils has been pretty much an unknown quantity. Although many people intuitively feel that classroom design is important for effective learning, there has in fact been very little real evidence. Of course the challenge is far from simple, as there are a myriad of design factors in play within every classroom.

So the University of Salford’s research team targeted primary (or elementary) school classrooms, where the children are in one space most of their time and for whom there are metrics of their academic progress—an ideal “natural” research design. They then worked from the individual’s perspective to create a comprehensive and novel model of the factors in play (the Stimulation / Individualization / Naturalness, or SIN model). Finally they used multilevel statistical modeling to isolate the effects on learning that attach to the classroom level of analysis.

After three years the UK-based HEAD (Holistic Evidence and Design) study has reached a successful conclusion. Based on a detailed study of 153 classrooms in 27 schools in Blackpool, Hampshire and Ealing, involving 3,766 pupils, we have now established the evidence for how important classroom design is for learning and which of the factors involved are particularly important.  

Based on this large sample it can be seen that variations in the physical characteristics of the classrooms explain 16% of the variation in the learning progress of the pupils who spent a year in these spaces. This is a much bigger impact than most people expected. Half the effect links to the normal comfort (or Naturalness) factors considered, but the other half is driven by factors to do with Individualization and the appropriate level of Stimulation. Interestingly factors to do with the school as a whole are nowhere near as important as the individual classrooms, and effective and less effective classrooms were often found in the same school.

The guide, “Clever Classrooms” provides illustrated advice to teachers and designers as to which factors are especially important. This is underpinned by a refereed journal paper in Building and Environment.

Download the guide: “Clever Classrooms”

Peter Barrett is a Professor in the School of the Built Environment at the University of Salford in the UK. He has wide research interests in optimizing the value and experience of the built environment for users. Previously, Professor Barrett has held prestigious roles, including being President of the UN’s International Council for Research and Innovation in Building and Construction. Over recent years he has been working on a project to understand the link between primary school design and pupils’ learning. This was funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

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