The 21st Century Classroom: Creating Effective Learning Environments

Jan 12, 2017 by

The ways in which we learn in the classroom have drastically evolved since I and perhaps you last sat in one. Blackboards and chalk are a mere memory in the past and even now whiteboards are being phased out. The rigid, structured layout of desks and chairs into rows has been a popular trend ever since some of the very first classrooms were established. The idea was simple; the teacher would stand at the front, creating the imagery that they are the source of knowledge, with a blackboard as a backdrop to illustrate and explain ideas. What we know now is this kind of design is inherently flawed. Research has shown that every child is unique and as such, responds better to certain methods of teaching while responding worse to others.

It was educational theorist, Neil Fleming, who identified the four key ways in which people learn, which most educators are now aware of. So, while desk rows appeal to children who react positively to lectured learning, the same cannot be said for other students who are more attune with visual or kinaesthetic learning. Creating tailored lesson plans for individual traits can only address a portion of the issues and there is increasing evidence that the design of the classroom can have an equally important impact on the development of the student.

How Classroom Design is Intrinsically Linked to Learning & Development

Children as well as adults are able to learn effectively when working in an environment which is comfortable. If the mind becomes distracted by visual or audio cues, this limits concentration levels and ultimately hinders the lesson being taught. Barrett et al (2012)* conducted a multi-level analysis of the impact of classroom design on pupil’s learning in a contemporary setting. By focusing on primary schools and using observation, extreme measurements as well as interviews, they established a clearer view of which factors had the most impact. Lighting, high quality fixtures & fittings, zoning as well as colour were all found to be important factors in enhancing a pupil’s learning progression.

The framework for a modern classroom throws out rigid layouts, instead embracing flexibility and comfort. While traditional designs focus on elements which are immediately apparent, genuine change comes from addressing the factors which are regularly overlooked. The colour of the walls and floors and the amount of light flowing through both have a considerable impact on the mood of the environment. It’s understandable why this might be overlooked, but these both play a key role in creating the foundations of a stimulating environment which allow pupils to effectively learn.

The Static Classroom is Dead – Flexibility is the Future

With the advent of modern technologies such as tablet computers and interactive whiteboards, the possibilities for lesson plans are broadened greatly. As the response to certain lesson materials will vary from student to student, having a flexible classroom allows different activities to take place in alternative zones to appeal to different students. If some prefer a more hands on approach, then a tablet computer is ideal, meanwhile those who benefit from reading and writing can use the interactive whiteboard. Therefore, while the content is essentially the same, there are many techniques in use which help pupils to learn.

The concept of zoning is designed to enhance schools and educational facilities which are restricted by space requirements. Creating smaller, permanent spaces is impractical, but creating a larger room which can adapt ensures its effectiveness longer term. This is achieved by introducing castor wheels. This can be to chairs, room dividers and even tables. These allow the space to be flexible for every lesson, so rather than wasting time having to re-arrange every fifteen minutes, the pupils can quickly manoeuvre to a relevant zone.

Creating a Comfortable Environment

While the layout of the classroom creates the avenues for learning to take place, it is important to address the foundations of the environment in the design. With strict budgets, it can become all too easy to simply add a lick of magnolia to the walls. But decorating a learning environment in a style commonly adopted by prison cells hardly creates a stimulating environment for children. Especially at a young age, our perception of colour is quickly developed by elements we associate with them. So, if you were to name the first thing that comes to mind when someone says, ‘blue’, the first response is likely to be the sky or the ocean. The same goes for yellow with the sun and grass with green.

This instinctive response is what makes vibrant colours so effective in educational environments. Their effect is subtle, but splashes of yellow, green and blue will help to subconsciously boost a pupil’s mood. Alternatively, a whitewashed wall conjures up feelings of boredom rather than excitement. Featuring every colour in the rainbow is unlikely to have much benefit, but finding an effective blend of a few colours has been proven by Barrett et al, to have a positive effect on a pupil’s development.

Design a Classroom to Inspire Excitement, not Resent

Developing a lesson which pupil’s will enjoy is a challenge faced by every teacher and often there will always be a few who simply do not click with the subject matter. However, development can often be stunted by much more than just the lesson plan. Creative use of flexible furniture can be used to develop adaptable learning environments. By accommodating the needs of individual pupils into the design, this creates a setting which they are more likely to look forward to.

The desk row design is static in every sense of the word and lessons often follow the same format. So, should a pupil struggle with the content in the first lesson, their interest is likely to wain or even dissipate completely as the weeks continue. Modern classroom design seeks to prevent this with adaptive layouts which play to the strengths of the teacher in charge. As flexibility is at the forefront of the design, investment in furniture and accessories can be made when necessary, ensuring the layout is affordable on a budget and allows it to be developed over time.

*Barrett, P.S., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J. and Kobbacy, K. (2012). A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on pupil’s learning. Available at: http://ecadmin.wdfiles.com/local–files/facilities/Impact%20of%20Classroom%20Design%20on%20Learning.pdf

Lee Bierton is the marketing assistant at Rap Industries, a leading British manufacturer of partition screens and room dividers. With over 40 years’ experience in the industry, they have worked with schools, universities and businesses across the world to create modern, bespoke solutions.

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