What if your child got an A instead of a C in Math, simply by changing the classroom environment?

A paper from the University of Salford, published in the journal Building and Environment, has found that classroom design could have a 25% impact, positive or negative, on a student’s progress over the course of an academic year.

This study was conducted over the 2011/2012 academic year and involved 751 students in 34 primary classrooms in Blackpool, England. Student performance levels going into and at the end of the school year were ranked, in collaboration with the architecture firm Nightingale Associates, on a scale of 1 to 5 against ten different design parameters.

The most significant design parameters affecting learning are:

  • Color– the visual stimulation around the classroom
  • Choice – the quality of furniture in the classroom i.e. whether it was interesting, ergonomic, etc.
  • Complexity – similar to color, the visual stimulation of the classroom to keep learners’ minds productively occupied and focused
  • Flexibility – can the space be manipulated? For example, whether the tables can be arranged in a horseshoe shape to facilitate a dialog, or are you stuck with theater style
  • Light – the amount of natural light in the classroom, and the quality of the electrical lighting

This is not surprising when you consider the revolution happening in adult workplace environments today. Employers are finally open to the idea that higher ceilings (10 ft. or more) impact a team’s ability to innovate and find connections with seemingly unrelated objects; sound can enhance certain activities involving abstract thinking and creativity while hindering deep thinking; desks facing a window, exposure to sunlight, bringing plants and other nature elements into an office all improve productivity, creativity, and reduce stress, etc.

Yet, with all this evidence, why is the modern-day classroom environment virtually the same as decades ago? Any learning environment that is identical to those in which our grandparents, or even our parents, were educated deserves to be fined and presented with a badge of shame.

Think carefully about how a classroom today is typically laid out. Rows of seats, arranged so a student at the front has no sight of his or her peers, while those sitting at the rear can only see the backs of heads. Most classrooms have minimal windows and virtually no outside lighting (a situation proven to increase student depression). And walking around a classroom effortlessly is impossible, given the cramped area, with no storage space whatsoever. No wonder most students bolt out of classrooms at the sound of the bell.

However, there are some beacons of hope when it comes to cutting-edge classroom environments. The Vittra School in Stockholm, also known as “the school with no walls,” is a colorful space that houses a learning environment where the laptop is considered the most important learning tool. Instead of a classic classroom setup, with desks and chairs, there is a giant iceberg with a cinema, a platform, and room for relaxation and recreation now accommodates many different types of learning situations. Instead of a conventional classroom approach, the students are taught in groups, adjusted to their achievement level and based on the school’s educational methods involving “the watering hole,” “the show-off,” “the cave,” “the campfire,” and “the laboratory.”


The firm behind the Vittra School, Rosan Bosch, also designed the Sheik Zayed Private Academy in Abu Dhabi, UAE to support 21st century education. Among the many special design elements are:

  • an organic red bench, meandering through the space, enabling collaborative learning sessions and social interaction
  • safe and comfortable window niches supporting individual contemplation
  • IT learning labs that inspire students to acquire new knowledge
  • a learners’ pool of colorful ceramic pearls to encourage students to dive and honor the heritage of their ancestors.

I am sure you are thinking all this is unrealistic, given the limited education budgets most schools encounter. You are wrong! Here are some general guidelines that cut across all design approaches and budgets:

  1. The environment should match your objectives, both in terms of human interaction and your instructional approach. Find a colleague who has a free period when you are teaching, and ask him or her to come along, observe, and take notes on: 1) how you and your students interact; 2) how you all move about the classroom; and 3) how engaged is everyone in the learning process. Do not be afraid to take learning outside, or into unusual vacant spaces within the school, to explore your options.
  2. The arrangement of seating is major. If you enter a room and see circular seating, you automatically assume a collaborative frame of mind. If you see rows of desk and edges, you start thinking only about individuality. Consider asking parents to donate classroom rugs, cushions, etc. to enhance classroom options, such as creating a community/reading/hangout reading corner for students within the classroom.
  3. Include students in creating the physical environment of their classroom community. Have students define pain points, using a whiteboard to draw a map of the classroom. Students can use sticky notes to write a word or two indicating how they feel, or what types of actions take place while spending time in that section.






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1 Comment

  1. Wendy

    May 1, 2017 at 2:09 pm

    Another excellent article ! Thanks for doing what you do.

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