Understanding Complexity in Clever Classrooms

Differences in the physical characteristics of classrooms explain 16% of the variation in learning progress over a year, says the research findings from the Holistic Evidence and Design (HEAD) project. Research from earlier stages of this 3 year project have already been published. But little has been said about another reason that this is important work.

Seven factors most influential in the classroom environment.

Seven factors most influential in the classroom environment.

It is not every day that a study into school buildings is published that takes a very refreshing look at the problem of understanding the complex interrelationships between us as humans, the way we interact with our environment and the impact on student outcomes.

The study by Peter Barrett and his team at Salford University into primary schools, or more accurately 153 primary school classrooms and 3766 students, does just this. The three year study which has just ended has just published its final report and it makes interesting reading. See the summary report “Clever Classrooms”. Since English primary school students spend most of their time in one classroom, it made it easier to see any affects attributable to the classroom environment.

The study is important not just for the finding that: “there is clear evidence that the physical characteristics of primary schools do impact on pupils’ learning progress in reading, writing and mathematics… Differences in the physical characteristics of classrooms explain 16% of the variation in learning progress over a year for the 3766 pupils included in the study”. Indeed I would agree with Barrett that this is the first study to show clear evidence of the effect on users of the overall design of the physical learning space in real life situations. However, the study is important for the holistic approach and framework developed which informed the research.

Barrett organised the characteristics into three over-arching design principles based more on neuro-science work. The principles are: Naturalness (light, temperature and air quality – accounting for almost half the learning impact at 49% [of the 16%]); Individualisation (ownership and flexibility – accounting for just over a quarter at 28%); and, Stimulation (Colour and complexity – accounting for just under a quarter at 23%).

There is of course a danger of the findings being abstracted out of context with percentages carelessly broadcast without recognition of the interaction between the elements.

Often the research in this area focuses narrowly on individual variables such as sound, temperature, air quality. Nothing wrong with this in itself, there is much to learn about how we can better design our environments so that they are better acoustically and more comfortable. Sometimes studies try to simplify correlations between say the quality of facilities and learning outcomes, looking for a straightforward correlation between two variables. Indeed they might demonstrate that there is or that there is not a relationship and actually be wrong because the complexity of relationships is not accounted for.

In reality making sense of our environment as humans demands more than just a focus on one sense, such as “how hot am I?” Even when we feel hot or cold our brains are telling us other things about the environment around us. Perhaps it is noisy because there is traffic outside, or it is stuffy because the window is closed. At the same time there may be very brightly coloured furniture which further stimulates our senses. We may prioritise momentarily one sense or feeling over another, but in the end they all come into play and influence how we respond in the environment. Getting to the bottom of this is hard.

Barrett makes the point that the factors normally studied are those that fall in the Naturalness category and that although they are important they only account for about half the effect found: light, temperature and air-quality. Note that acoustics is missing, but this is not to say that it is unimportant, indeed there was some effect on learning but it seems that it did not come through as a significant problem in these schools – see comments by Anne Knock on this aspect of the report.

However, Barrett also notes that the two other categories of Stimulation and Individualisation when taken together are important to users’ experience of the spaces they occupy. For example, the colours should not over-stimulate and be too vibrant, but at the same time “a white box is not the answer either”. Similarly, he cautions us not to have displays that are too busy.

While those who are likely find this research useful will include architects and clients, interestingly, the findings mean that it is teachers and schools who can take control of their environment and particularly control over those factors within the categories of Stimulation and Individualisation. It is of course just one study into  one school type in one country, and more work in this area is needed, but it is nonetheless important for that.

Barrett’s study at once recognises the complexity of both how our brains make sense of the environments we use, but how we might explore these interactions amid this complexity. In many senses this study is deeply human because of this.

Research team:
Professor Peter Barrett
Dr Yufan Zhang
Dr Kay Davies
Dr Lucinda Barrett

From Nightingale Associates (now IBI) that funded the initial work:
Adrian Swain
Caroline Paradise

Personal note:
On a personal note I appreciated being on the Sounding Panel for this three year project. Not only was it an opportunity to learn much about this aspect of research but also to meet interesting and knowledgeable colleagues from around the UK and the world.

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