The Key to Effective Learning Environments

The idea that merely redesigning a school building will on its own lead to improved student outcomes and in particular drive education transformation is still being given more credence than it deserves. But the physical environment does play an important role.

Dandenong High School, Victoria, Australia

Dandenong High School, Victoria, Australia: The design of this environment was led by the school principal

All you need to do, so the argument goes, is redesign the physical learning environment and the rest follows – teachers will teach differently and students will learn more effectively. As attractive as the idea sounds, it is far from what the evidence suggests. What really leads to improvement in a school is effective school leadership and good teaching backed by coherent policy making. A well designed physical learning environment will contribute to it, but is not itself the driver. Indeed effective leadership is also the key to an effective learning environment.

I raise this because this idea has been advanced several times recently at conferences and in meetings I have attended. Indeed a few days ago a senior advisor on school buildings in a government ministry was expressing a concern about this standpoint, they often get architects showing images of schools such as the Danish Hellerup example and saying that this is what a school should be like. It was a commonly promoted view at the height of school building programmes over the last ten years or so. For example, it seemed very much to be the premise of the Building Schools for the Future Programme in the UK.

When designing the learning environment, physical or otherwise the starting point has to be education itself, and how teaching and learning takes place. This is at the heart of creating an effective brief. In short the message is: a great school building will not rescue poor school leadership and teaching, but it can leverage effective leadership and teaching.

A good case in point that many may be familiar with is Dandenong High School in Victoria, Australia. I quote this because it has been in operation for sometime now – the new school became operational in 2009. The briefing for the design of this environment was very much led by the Principal of the merged high schools brought together to create Dandenong, backed by the state department for education which was carrying out a lot of work on developing effective teaching and thereby creating a context in which the ‘transformation’ could take place.

I remember the Principal telling me when they moved into the buildings in 2009 that the job was far from done. In spite of the teachers being to a great extent sold on the new pedagogical paradigms, it took a lot of continuous staff development work to keep the ideas on track. The spaces, generally interconnected with few doors and not that many walls, did enable them to teach differently and offered all sorts of opportunities.

Another issue that tends to get forgotten, is the succession. What happens when the strong and effective school head leaves? If the new principal is not into for example team teaching, then the whole premise behind the design collapses, and unless the building can respond to a radically different set up it becomes a nightmare to use. At Dandenong the succession was secured and the programme continues.

There are other good examples too of course, that remain successful and there are those that no longer work but are referred to as if they still do.

If you are embarking on a school building project: Focus more on how you, or the teachers, use the spaces you have and how it can be used differently or more effectively. Go for what supports your needs as they are now and as you see them in the future. This is what is behind a good brief for a building. Don’t be oversold on the idea that everything will change just because you get a new building.

Useful Resources:

Briefing and Evidence based design

The following two publications look at creating a good brief and what the evidence says about designing effective school buildings

Clients and architects looking for where to start could start here:

Blyth, A. and Worthington, J (2010), Managing the Brief for Better Design, 2nd Ed, Routledge

Lippman, P (2010), Evidence-Based Design of Elementary and Secondary Schools, Wiley


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One thought on “The Key to Effective Learning Environments

  1. I absolutely endorse your view that the physic environment cannot be a driver for change without good leadership. But whilst the physical learning environment is not the main driver it will either help or hinder good teaching or learning however that is constructed. It will never in my experience be neutral.

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