Classroom design can affect students' progress, study shows

Lots of sunlight, walls painted in happy colors, comfortable chairs: these elements make for nice classrooms. A new survey shows such design factors can influence a kid's performance, too.

Windows that allow sunlight to pour indoors; chairs and desks in happy, bright colors; furniture that is comfortable and easy to move around. All of these elements are widely recognized as factors in desirable classrooms for kids. But a new study conducted by by the University of Salford’s School of the Built Environment and architecture firm Nightingale Associates, both based in the United Kingdom, provides evidence that school design can affect students' performance over the course of an academic year.

The survey looked at the  performance of 751 elementary-school-aged students in 34 classrooms across seven schools in Blackpool in the U.K. The study took place over the 2011-12 academic year. Each of the classrooms were rated by researchers according to  ten different environmental qualities. These included availability of natural light, acoustics, and colors in the rooms.

"Notably, 73% of the variation in pupil performance driven at the class level can be explained by the building environment factors measured in this study," a press release on the findings states. The study is also featured in the peer-reviewed journal Building and the Environment. Design elements can affect children's school progress by as much as 25%, according to the survey.

The catch? Student performance can be affected both ways by classroom design. For better or for worse, in other words, depending on the quality of a school's layout and decor.

School design is a hot topic. In the U.K., it evokes provocative discussions, as that nation is planning to build 261 primary schools using a standardized design template.

Michael Gove, the U.K.'s education secretary, has downplayed the new University of Salford study, according to a report in the online design publication Dezeen. "There is no convincing evidence that spending enormous sums of money on school buildings leads to increased attainment," a spokesperson for Gove told Dezeen in reaction to the survey. "An excellent curriculum, great leadership and inspirational teaching are the keys to driving up standards."

In the U.S., Architectural Record magazine continues to add to its ongoing series on school design case studies, suggesting that places of learning are important building types for their design innovations. The editors have written in their introduction to the series that clever new layouts have been emerging, perhaps in response to education-world concerns that American students need to find fresh ways to stay competitive academically, and that schools have pressure to encourage inventive thinking via their layouts.

And an exhibition on inventive and effective school design, "The Edgeless School" (discussed recently by SmartPlanet columnist C.C. Sullivan ), on view at New York's Center for Architecture, has been gaining attention. It has just been extended several months beyond its original end date of January 19, now to May 25, likely due to widespread interest in the subject matter.

The University of Salford study, funded by he Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in the U.K., will continue for 18 months. The goal is to survey an additional 20 schools in various regions of the U.K. The next chapter of the survey will no doubt offer more discussion points in the ongoing debates on the effectiveness of classroom design.

Image: 4nitsirk/Flickr

[via Wired Science and other sources]

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