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"Typical rigid classroom rows, with teacher at the front, do little to aid either teachers or students"

Learning by design

The physical learning environment can have a huge impact on school improvement, says Peter Smith

Posted by Stephanie Broad | January 10, 2016 | People, policy, politics, money

A ‘deeply troubling’ situation with many schools ‘languishing in mediocrity’ and others having ‘failed miserably year after year after year.” That was only part of the damning eulogy delivered by Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools, as he gave his annual report on the state of UK education.

Urgent action is needed to improve failing secondary schools. Over 400,000 students in the North and the Midlands attend schools deemed inadequate or requiring improvement. The number of students in poor-performing secondary school rocketed from an already sizeable 100,000 to 170,000 last year. 

On one hand, we find the problem of underperforming schools failing to provide many children with decent levels of education. On the other we find an equally serious problem - the increasing inability to attract high-calibre individuals into the teaching profession. That’s not to say that good teachers don’t exist in the UK. There are many. The problem is that recruiting and retaining the best teachers for our UK schools is becoming increasingly difficult. 

In reality, we neither need nor can expect an influx of super hero teachers, miraculously swooping into under-performing schools and lifting standards instantly. What we can do is invest in our schools and our teachers. Giving them the ability to perform as best they can, to provide the good levels of education we all demand, is essential.

The physical learning environment has a huge part to play

The learning process is an unquestionably complex mix of economic, environmental, human and motivational factors. Having been involved in numerous public sector school modernisation and upgrade programmes, it is in my experience that the physical learning environment has a huge part to play.

As with any industry, the best people want to work in the best environments. Likewise, pupils are far more likely to be engaged and inspired if they are working in engaging and inspiring environments. When it comes to classroom layout and design, the devil is in the detail. 

Typical rigid classroom rows, with teacher at the front, do little to aid either teachers or students. Teachers struggle to keep the attention of mischievous students on the back row. Students have to peer over each other’s shoulders to see the teacher. When it comes to any practical work, students have to crowd around the teacher’s front desk with a poor view or work around fixed desks unsuited to the task.

If we take the example of a science lab, the classroom in which the Government hopes the brightest STEM students will be born, practical work can cause serious problems. It takes a long time to set up practical experiments. Once set up, limited desk space means students, often bundled into large groups to gather around limited resources, are not properly involved in the activity itself. Then there’s packing away to be done. 

In short, students spend more of their lesson setting up and unpacking equipment than they do learning.

By addressing archaic learning environments and embracing innovative solutions, damagingly problematic learning environments can be removed. Instead of huddling around Bunsen burners on wooden desks with their backs to the teacher, students can work in cultivated labs, laid out with circular Hot Corners designed specifically for group activity and gas and electric services positioned on the front face of units to maximise desk space.

IT rooms also provide a perfect example of how thoughtful design can transform a potentially difficult environment into one that maximises learning. A teacher standing at the front of the class, unable to see what their student are ‘working’ on is a common situation. Through a well-designed learning environment, this situation can be turned on its head. The implementation of saw-tooth desks, which allow all computer screens to be turned towards the teacher at the front of the class, are a simple and effective way of tackling disruption and ensuring lessons are as productive as possible.

Taking the learning environment seriously means viewing it as a facilitator. The best learning environments provide flexible spaces that allow for both theoretical activity and collaborative work – with the ability to switch between the two efficiently.

Putting teachers in these learning environments invariably allows them to more effectively carry out their work more efficiently. For pupils, working in high-class environments that engage and inspire them leads to a greater sense of pride in both those spaces themselves and the work they complete in them.

If we’re going to tackle the striking educational disparities dividing Britain we need to start at the base level. The learning environment provides this core. Invest in it wisely and inspired teachers and pupils will follow right across the country.  

Peter Smith is director of Innova Design Solutions    

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