What Makes a Great Learning Environment?

Architecture and Design Scotland interviewed Chris Malcolm to gain insight into the modern day learning environment.

What makes a great environment for learning, and why?

A holistic approach to designing learning environments is imperative.  Discovery, exploration and imagination should be promoted through the use of flexible space and outdoor environment in all school years, not just through early years and primary school.  Creative thinking is essential for moving forward and one of the fastest growing industries as well, therefore environments should be designed to encourage and facilitate this.

Post occupancy evaluation at Cornelius Vermuyden in Essex demonstrated better behavioural outcomes simply from having a pleasant environment – the head teacher believed pupils felt empowered to learn and respected as result of having brilliant facilities to attend.  Learning environments should provide everything a teacher and pupil needs without trying to be the star of the show – good outdoor connections, natural light, control of their environment, good storage to prevent clutter, inspiring classroom aesthetic and quality acoustics.

What are the three most important aspects of school design today?

How schools address the external environment is key.  This covers a wide range of issues, including seamless, well integrated accessibility to and from the school, but also how the building addresses the local context.  As important civic buildings and community focal points, schools need to enhance the fabric of the sites in which they are placed.  This means they should respond to local climate, topography, history and character, which also reinforces the principle of learning beyond the classroom in the wider environment.  A good example of this is our recently completed Anderson High School in Lerwick, which takes the superblock model as a starting point, but manipulates it to create a massing more appropriate to the rural context of Shetland.

At the same time, with increasing pressures in available budgets, there is a need for standardisation of components and performance criteria, efficient space utilisation and offsite prefabrication in order to reduce construction programme and building area.  Balancing the competing aspirations of place sensitive school design with the desire for efficiencies through standardisation is one of the key challenges going forward.

It is also essential to ensure that the internal environmental conditions – control of temperature, light, acoustics and ventilation are conducive to learning and concentration.

How do you think learning environments will evolve in the coming years?

There are currently good discussions on future pedagogical trends taking place but evolvement is slow.  The structure of school suffers from conformity – the hierarchy of subjects placing science and maths at the top originated in 1840.  Our economy and world issues have changed hugely since then.  While the Curriculum for Excellence tries to prepare pupils for the future by promoting more flexible and experiential based learning, it is evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

We are progressing into the information era where everything is available at the drop of a hat and academic inflation is rendering several university degrees redundant.  Skills and originality become essential – thus creative subjects and problem solving should evolve and the design of schools must accommodate and promote this way of learning.

How do you see the role of technology in shaping the future of learning environments?

In terms of use in learning environments, technology is a fantastic tool when not difficult to use – environments must be designed to make use simple by teachers / pupils or it will not be used as curriculum are so tight for time without adding complications.  Flexibility will be key to allow multiple use of spaces for as wide a range of functions as possible.

Technology is already dramatically impacting on how we design and construct educational buildings.  The use of BIM allows for greater coordination and the minimization of risk during the construction phase, but also allows better engagement with project stakeholders during the design development phase.  Virtual modelling allows the anticipated environmental performance to be accurately assessed at early stages.  There are also strong synergies between BIM technology and off site manufacture, which gives scope for achieving significant cost savings and programme efficiencies through the standardization and mass production of certain common elements of school project design.  However, this does need to be balanced against the need for schools which respond sensitively to place and context.

Have you seen any international exemplar projects/approaches to learning environments which you think we could learn from in Scotland?

Two international school projects which stand out for us are the Saunalahti School in Finland by Versas Architects, and Monte Carasso Primary School in Switzerland buy Luigi Snozzi.  At Saunalahti, well considered landscaping and transitional zones create useable outdoor space even in harsh winter conditions.  The school addresses community uses well and incorporates a range of studios and workshops to develop practical skill.

The Monte Carasso primary is a conversion of a former monastery, and incorporates a café, shop and public square as well as the primary school. Located right in the heart of the town, the school is used by a wide range of people at different stages over the course of the day.  This creates a safe environment through high passive supervision by the whole community, with very little in the way of physical barriers.

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