The Shape of Learning

I’ll bet you remember your elementary school. Chances are, if pressed, you could find your locker and open it. Why are these spaces so burned into our memory, so vivid in our minds? Childhood years are referred to as formative because they are just that. As children, we experienced everything in heightened sensatory ways; the feel of grass under our feet, the taste of ice cream, the aroma of our school. Experts will tell you that optimal learning occurs when our senses are engaged and our brains are appropriately challenged. While we all know this intuitively, we tend to ignore this basic fact about learning when we design schools, sacrificing in the name of uniformity, the perception of cost, or other pragmatic reasons. The fact is, children spend the majority of their waking hours in school buildings and the greatest care should be taken to ensure that those hours are not spent in an unpleasant or bland environment, but rather one that is conducive to learning.

There are essentially two realms of interior design that need to be addressed for a space to facilitate learning: the physical needs of the occupants and the sensatory needs. The first of these, physical needs, is obvious but often overlooked or assumed to be satisfied. Human brains need oxygen and water to function. Is the mechanical system supplying enough outside air or has the A/C tech shut off the outside air dampers because “those things make the units run all the time?” CO2 sensors are an effective, efficient way to control ventilation based on demand rather than code prescriptive formulas. Where are the water fountains and are they accessible? If a teacher does not have to send students all the way across the school for a drink, they are more likely to allow them to step out of class. Consider providing more water fountains than codes require, ideally inside the classrooms so hall passes are not needed.

Additionally, thermal comfort and light facilitate interaction and learning. Keeping the room at a comfortable temperature may not be best realized by a thermostat or sensor in every other classroom, therefore each classroom needs a sensor. A combination of natural light and artificial light will keep students attentive. Last, but perhaps most important in terms of classroom instruction, is the acoustical performance of the space. Can the students in the back hear and understand what is being said at the front? Given today’s large class sizes, a simple localized voice-reinforcement system can be a cost-effective way to reduce teachers’ sick days due to hoarse voices.

Now that the physical needs of our students have been met we can direct our attention to their sensatory needs. Previously dismissed as “touchy-feely,” many recent studies have shown that these design elements can have a direct effect on learning, behavior, and most importantly to today’s educators — test scores.  If one doubts the power of suggestion, they only have to look to retail environments to see that color choices, lighting, etc. can have a direct effect on behavior. Why are most fast food restaurants red and yellow with bright lighting? Because that environment has been proven to entice hunger but discourage loitering/lingering. Conversely, fine dining establishments are often darkly lit with dark colors to encourage intimacy, privacy, and luxury. What design elements, then, encourage learning?

We can look at the Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD’s Pre-K centers to illustrate some salient design approaches. These are the youngest students in the district, and for most, this is their first exposure to a school. The design team sought to create a non-threatening, playful environment that initiates young children to unconsciously associate learning with fun. Because these students could not yet read, colors were used to differentiate the classroom levels. Throughout the school elements were dropped down in height to reduce the scale of the building and make it more approachable.

Because this was both a renovation and a new building type for the district, a computer model was generated to help administrators visualize the new environment. Design elements and student artwork, bulletin boards, rugs, etc. were placed in the model to approximate as closely as possible to the real thing, as these must be considered in the design. Through this process, feedback and suggestions were made to refine the final product and make sure that the design team and the district were on the same page. The resultant facility has been well received by teachers and parents.

At the other end of the age spectrum, we see spaces designed specifically for adult learners. Denton ISD was faced with the problem of not having a place to train its educators. Like most districts, they had been “making do” with professional development in empty classrooms, gyms, and cafeterias after hours. However, due to a district shift in the curriculum focus and exponential population growth, on-going intensive training was needed. Also, like most districts, they were hesitant to go to the voters with a bond project that was not campus-based. To address these concerns the project was proposed as an interior only remodel of an existing property the district owned. This building, formally a church multi-purpose building, was in poor condition; however, the cost of renovating was still only about half that of new construction. Additionally, this important piece of the community fabric was preserved and adapted to a new use.

The district wanted its new professional development center to communicate to the users that they are valued and will be treated in a professional manner. Again, computer modeling was used to design the spaces prior to construction documents that were drafted for bids. The district was particularly involved in the design process, selecting woods for the veneers, patterns for the carpet, and paint colors for the walls, all of which are used to reinforce the professional training mission.

Bold, vibrant colors enrich the environment of this center. However, this does not equate to multiple color palettes with many colors to track. Only two colors were used for walls and one for door frames. Natural wood, ceramic tile, and plastic laminate were then used to flesh out the design scheme. Whatever colors are picked in your facility, contrast should be used to maintain interest. For instance, three of the walls can be painted one color, with one “feature” (usually the front wall) wall used as an accent. Alternatively, elements such as structure or ductwork can use the accent color. This provides just enough variety to keep the students from becoming bored and losing interest in the presenter. Organic carpet patterns or carpet tile can break from the traditional single field color and provide another level of interest and mental stimulation.

Many studies have been made on the optimal age-appropriate color schemes for students, as well as the psychological effects of those colors.  One can state that elementary students prefer bright, primary colors, however, it can also be said that these colors excite children and make it difficult to create a calm environment. In general, primary colors (including school mascot and colors) should be limited to common-use areas, while classrooms need to be more neutral, with only one wall designated as the accent. One interesting thing to note is that in studies of color and mood/disposition, it was found that no matter what color a room was painted, if it was new paint, scores improved. This speaks to the need of occupants to feel valued, and if care is shown toward the facilities and environments we put students in, they will exhibit better attitudes and responsiveness.

The myth is that well-designed education environments that foster learning require more money than a utilitarian, functional approach. This is simply not true. For instance, the choice to paint every wall in every hall and classroom the same “off-white” is driven by short-term goals — to limit the amount of attic stock and color selections that maintenance has to keep on hand. When this kind of thinking is shaping decisions, the environment suffers. Easier for touch-up and future re-paint, yes; cheaper, not by much. The sacrifice made in terms of quality of experience, however, has been great. Where special conditions dictate use of only one paint color, consider the use of other materials to add visual interest to the space. Natural light is also effective as a tool to shape the space and promote general well being of the occupants.  Consider also, when only the front wall inside a classroom is painted an accent color, that color can be rotated fairly easily without much expense. Get your teachers and students involved in the color selection process (or even the painting) and watch dramatic results in terms of reduced vandalism, greater pride, and perhaps even improved test scores.

Call on your architects and interior designers to exercise their design skills in the schools where students spend so much of their time. It is a fairly straightforward cost-benefit equation if it means that a child has a better chance of success.

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