What is a sustainable learning environment?

To understand sustainable learning environments it is important to understand how the physical environment contributes to a wider, more complex system. Indeed surely a building cannot be sustainable in isolation of its context and use?

Complex interaction

Thinking of the building in its context was the theme that I developed when I was invited to give a presentation on the use and development of indicators of sustainable learning environments at the World Sustainable Buildings 2014 conference held in Barcelona in October.

We tend to think of the physical learning environment as being just the building. However, it is more than this. It is the result of interactions between the physical resources (including the building, technology and external spaces), learners, educators, content, society and policy. Indeed learning itself is complex. Health and wellbeing, affective, social, cognitive and behavioural characteristics of individuals can all impede or enhance learning.

The physical learning environment can produce conditions and mediate relationships that can improve student cognitive, physical and mental wellbeing outcomes. Evidence suggests that the quality of the built environment can affect a range of outcomes beyond just learning outcomes as measured by test scores. For example, anecdotal evidence suggests links between renovating a building and reducing student absenteeism. Other links have been identified, for example, improved physical and emotional health and wellbeing; it can affect student behaviour for example, improved school retention, and reduced vandalism, absenteeism and disruption in class; and it can affect social outcomes for example, improved student/teacher relations, more effective teaching strategies, more engagement with local communities and businesses.

However, it seems easier to describe these effects than it is to measure them with any degree of certainty. Although conventional comfort indicators are important, very often they do not measure these other student outcomes. Also while aesthetic, thermal, acoustic, visual and air quality indicators are important in learning environments, arguably equally, if not more important are health and sanitation indicators such as clean drinking water (especially in developing economies), and ergonomic indicators given that the quality of furniture can directly affect the health of students. We should also look to develop more or better behavioural indicators.

To create a truly effective and sustainable learning environment demands a holistic understanding of these interactions, the building is itself a complex sub-system. Indeed possibly ‘sustainable’ is the wrong word, and we should use ‘responsible’ instead.

Merely producing a building that meets a checklist of technical sustainability performance criteria is not enough. The building has to support the user and so if the user is unable to use it or is constrained by it, not only must its utility must be questioned but so must its sustainability.

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