Innovation in learning environments

Innovation is perhaps a slippery word. It often assumes something new which implies something never done before. Is there much that’s never been done before? Indeed, have we forgotten something that was done and at some point in the future will be ‘rediscovered’ and presented as innovative?

Neumagen School near Trier, Germany; 200 AD (Roman School). Many in higher education, if not schools today can relate to this scene.
Photo: Wikipedia / Shakko

For example, in Athens of 400BC at Aristotle’s Lyceum, excavated about 20 years ago, the master would tend to teach while walking with his students.

We tend to think that the design of the learning environments that we see today have been recent innovations – or at least started in the 18th century and 19th century along with the development of mass education.

From the second century AD a Roman school (for those who could afford it) – for the Romans the three core subjects were science, maths and rhetoric – the small group seminar is recognisable today.

A little more recent the University of Bologna in the 13th century. Now we’ve got guess what? Students lined up in rows facing the ‘master’. This was happening 600 years before the time most people thought that it was invented, although of course the model was well suited to the new demands of education during industrialisation. And of course here we are 800 years later!

So, what do we really mean by innovation in learning environments? And to what purpose is the ‘innovation’ directed?

The 1960s saw the development of prototype schools such as the School Construction Systems Development prototype schools. In some ways familiar to some of the developments that we see today but in a context that was much different. The main problem with these was that the teachers had not been trained to teach in such spaces, and as they were not involved in the design process didn’t feel much incentive to live up to the concept which might have been a nice idea, but failed in its reality.

So, the focus on innovation shifted in the 1970s and 80s away from product (the design of the building as a product) to process (how the design is created) with calls for a permanent dialogue between education experts, policy-makers architects and other stakeholders.

More recently the innovations that we often hear about have been product focused, but I think the truly innovative environments are those that recognise the interplay between space, and user through time.

If there is any hope that today’s attempts to radically innovate school design will be more successful than their predecessors, it lies in different and significantly more inclusive design processes.

Education systems around the world are having to address a range of issues with their current school building stock from increasing school age populations in some areas, a building stock that is often not longer fit for purpose – whether it is the fabric that has degraded or simply not enough space of the right type – as well as emerging technologies.

An important message from two reviews that I was involved in with the OECD, one on Portugal’s secondary school building modernisation programme and the other for Mexico indicated that for true modernisation more is needed than just improvements to the physical infrastructure… Teachers need to be engaged too.

This debate has been played out in the context of the recognition that approaches to teaching and learning are changing, our understanding of how students learn has developed but so too what students need to learn to be effective contributors to society. Education systems are expected to help students develop ways of thinking – creativity, critical thinking, problem solving; ways of working – collaboration, teamwork, adaptability, leadership; and ways of living together – curiosity, empathy, self-esteem, resilience.

To support this an effective learning environment should encourage social interaction – learning is a social process; be learner centred and inclusive; reflect patterns of learning and enable collaboration.

Education is a system – so all of the parts are connected, something that is often forgotten or not even recognised; and the learning environment in the broader sense that includes the curriculum etc as well as the narrower sense of the physical learning environment impact on each other.

However, the role that the physical environment plays in education from a passive back-drop in which the activities of teaching and learning takes place, to one that directly affects how learners learn is still much debated and a focus for exploration, and we shall hear more about some of these areas of investigation today.

Whatever the case, the buildings and spaces in which education happens should be supportive of the activities take place in them, not the drivers. What those activities are and how and importantly when they are carried out are the drivers.

To get a deep understanding of these processes means that education has to be involved in the conversation to drive the purpose of the design.