We spend a lot of time pondering the interior design of our homes, but do we give the same amount of attention to our classrooms? Perhaps not. That’s why Peter Barrett’s (a Professor at Salford University) research is so interesting. In 2015, he and his colleagues studied the quality of learning of 3,766 primary school students in the UK, investigating whether or not the design of their classroom affected their learning via their senses. Barrett identified a 16% improvement on the rate of learning in a room that was well-designed. So what did he investigate, and how can we use his findings to improve the quality of our classrooms?
Half of the 16% impact was attributed to what Barrett calls ‘naturalness’ factors. These are comfort factors, and include elements such as natural light, the ability to control the temperature of the room, links to nature and air quality. For instance, Barrett found that light is important, but too much light (from an over-sized window, for example) is actually a hindrance as it creates glare. So, a moderate amount of natural light is ideal. Similarly, good quality artificial lighting is necessary too, so it’s important that teachers don’t overlook the importance of lamps and bulbs. Artificial lighting should be flicker-free and sufficient for the size of the classroom and position of the desks.
Barrett also identified that a level of stimulation is required to drive the level of engagement with learning. This stimulation can be delivered by use of colour and the use of visual complexity; it is clear from Barrett’s study that a moderate level of stimulation in classroom design is optimal. What is undesirable, he found, is a chaotic classroom – one that is too distracting to learn in.
Speaking in a podcast, Barrett said that teachers quite often make a lot of effort to put lots of things on the walls to create a stimulating environment, but that children’s engagement in lessons depletes if there’s too much to look at, as well as using too many colours. However, the same is true for very plain, minimalist classrooms – Barrett’s study found that a room devoid of decoration, colour or displays had a negative impact on the rate of learning, so, like light levels, a ‘moderate’ amount of stimulation is required for optimum learning. Think about the collective impact on colour and display - “it shouldn’t be too in your face, but it shouldn’t be boring either” he says.
The final thing that Barrett’s study investigated was ‘individualisation’, where the pupils feel that they ‘own’ their classroom by having their work on the walls, for example. This sort of thing isn’t usually measured in studies like this, but Barrett and his colleagues thought it would be worth spending time assessing how the classroom was dressed by children and teachers. Were children’s names on hooks and desk drawers? And is their work displayed on the wall, for example?
Individualisation turned out to be very important for the rate at which children learn, contributing a quarter of the overall 16% increase on the rate of learning. So, while Barrett didn’t make specific recommendations regarding the content of these displays, it makes sense for teachers to buy educational supplies (from a retailer such as this one) to ensure that children have all the necessary tools to make their own displays to hang on the classroom walls. Children should feel that they ‘own’ the classroom as a group, rather than the classroom feeling anonymous.
Ultimately, combining the three elements above in the correct proportions can make classroom design an additional tool to improve learning.