What One Massive UK Study Says About How to Design a Great Classroom

Classroom Design

To commemorate World Teacher’s Day last year, Reuters’ photographers shared images of students around the world in different classrooms—including those without electricity, books, chairs, or walls. These photos serve as a reminder of extreme global inequality in the distribution of educational resources. But they also suggest that few physical materials are strictly necessary for building a rich world of learning.

While learning can potentially take place anywhere, aspects of the immediate physical environment, from the arrangement of desks to the air quality of the neighborhood, may impact student learning. But how much does the physical environment relate to students’ academic growth?

Designed to address this question, the Holistic Evidence and Design (HEAD) Project published its results in 2015 and was named one of Edutopia’s Education Research Highlight studies of the year. This study deliberately incorporated geographic and socioeconomic diversity in their sample by collecting information about 3,766 students from 1st through 6th grade at 27 schools in three districts!1

The results? Taking into account reading, writing and math scores, the HEAD study estimates that moving an “average” elementary school student in the UK from the least effective learning environment to the most effective one has the impact of more than half a school year of growth.

Rather than examining the impact of a single factor like air quality, this study examined a wide array of school and classroom features. Taking this holistic stance and measuring student growth over the course of a school year allowed the researchers to answer two other key questions:

1. Which aspects of the physical environment seem to relate most strongly to student learning?
2. What does this suggest about how to improve schools?

First and foremost, they found that the immediate classroom environment, rather than the overall school environment, was much more strongly related to student outcomes.1,2 The authors of the study point out that this may be because they conducted research in the elementary grades, where students spend the majority of the school day in a single classroom. Further research with secondary students, who spend more time in hallways and moving between many different classrooms, may support different findings.

To gather their data and break down their results, the researchers considered elements of naturalness, individualization, and complexity in the classroom environment.

Naturalness: Let there be Light

Across all aspects of classroom design in the study, lighting had the strongest link to student learning.1,2 The availability of natural daylight and/or good quality electrical lighting were important. The researchers recommend keeping classroom windows free of obstruction from furniture or displays, allowing in natural light while actively monitoring glare during the day as needed with blinds.1

Good lighting is of course critical to sight, but different levels of light also provide signals to the body related to alertness and attention via the circadian system. This system is related to sleep/wake cycles, as well as micro-shifts in hormones over the course of a day.3 In addition to supporting attention during the day, we speculate that good lighting may support learning and memory by promoting quality sleep at night.

Air quality (recently covered by my colleague Gabriella Hirsch in this post) and temperature were also strongly linked with student learning. Two aspects of classroom design with weak links to student learning include sound factors (such as noise pollution from busy nearby streets) and the availability of nature (such as natural views from classroom windows).1

Individualization: Find the Flair

Having a distinctive look and feel to the classroom was related to improvements in student outcomes.1,2 This “distinctiveness” may be accomplished by a unique, built-in aspect of the classroom, such as shape or layout. It can also be accomplished by displaying student work and/or by having special areas of the classroom with students’ names and spaces, such as drawers or lockers.

Why might classroom uniqueness and personalization matter? The authors of the HEAD study suggest these issues may increase students’ sense of classroom ownership.1 This hasn’t been shown conclusively, as many explanations are possible. One study of kindergarteners and 1st graders suggests that environmental personalization may be related to higher self-esteem.4 A separate study of adults suggests that personalization may buffer emotional exhaustion in workplace environments that have little privacy.5 While current evidence is limited, these studies support the hypothesis that personalization in working environments may support psychological well-being across the life span.

Another important aspect of classroom individualization in the HEAD study was flexibility; the authors of the study recommend that teachers create clearly defined classroom zones to support different types of activities and/or small group instruction, particularly in the younger elementary grades.1

Complexity: Hit the Sweet Spot

How visually complex should classrooms be? On average, classrooms in the HEAD study that were Spartan—filled with blank, white walls—didn’t do so well. Yet, on average, ones with every inch of the walls spattered with color didn’t do well, either. It seems that there may be a “sweet spot” between minimalism and high-intensity chaos that is associated with better student outcomes. The researchers recommend keeping 20-50% of the wall space clear and including some elements of color in the classroom environment (which also sounds aesthetically pleasing!).1

One study has found that in highly decorated classrooms, as compared to very sparse ones, kindergarteners score worse on teacher-administered tests and spend more time off task. The authors of this study suggest that visual complexity can be distracting to young children.6 However, other scientists suggest that these results were driven by the newness of the décor rather than visual complexity itself.7 No study has yet comprehensively examined the effects of various levels of classroom décor complexity on student attention across grade levels, and further research may be needed to understand and support the “sweet spot” hypothesis.

One caveat
The HEAD study aims to describe what was happening in classrooms and correlates student outcomes with different classroom types. Like other studies of this kind, it can’t establish causality between different classroom environments and student learning. They can’t rule out the possibility that something else might be driving their results. For example, it may be that teachers who attend to classroom design also tend to create effective visual displays in worksheets and/or more organized activities that better support student learning.

What’s next? Probably Pinterest
As you consider your own teaching and learning environments for the final stretch of spring quarter or the next school year, keep the design elements of naturalness (especially light), individualization/personalization, and the level of complexity in mind. And know that the time and care you put into creating a great space to work and learn may make a difference.


References & Further Reading

  1. Barrett, P., Davies, F., Zhang, Y., & Barrett, L. (2015). The impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning: Final results of a holistic, multi-level analysis. Building and Environment, 89, 118–133. [Paper]
  2. Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Davies, D. F., & Barrett, D. L. (2015). Clever Classrooms. [Report]
  3. Boyce, P., Hunter, C., & Howlett, O. (2003). The Benefits of Daylight through Windows. Lighting Research Center, 1(1), 1–88. [Report]
  4. Maxwell, L. E., & Chmielewski, E. J. (2008). Environmental personalization and elementary school children’s self-esteem. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28(2), 143–153. [Paper]
  5. Laurence, G. A., Fried, Y., & Slowik, L. H. (2013). “My space”: A moderated mediation model of the effect of architectural and experienced privacy and workspace personalization on emotional exhaustion at work. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 144–152. [Paper]
  6. Fisher, A. V, Godwin, K. E., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning in Young Children: When Too Much of a Good Thing May Be Bad. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1362–1370. [Paper]
  7. Imuta, K., & Scarf, D. (2014). When too much of a novel thing may be what’s “ bad ”: commentary on Fisher, Godwin, and Seltman (2014), 5 (December), 1–2. [Commentary]
  • Evans, G. (2006). Child development and the physical environment. Annu Rev Psychol, 57, 423–451. [Paper]
category: L&B Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *