When it comes to academic performance, parents and administrators have long focused on curriculum design and teacher quality. While there’s no denying that curriculum design and teacher quality are vitally important, this focus overlooks the importance of educational infrastructure towards academic achievement. Academic buildings must be intentionally designed to inspire, nurture, and educate children in ways that encourage and stimulate while providing a sense of belonging, so all students feel safe to explore and learn.
Academic infrastructure and classroom design have the power to improve or weaken the learning environment. Numerous studies underscore the importance of facility and infrastructure design on student behaviour, academic performance and teacher tenure. A recent study from the University of Salford in the UK, for example, found that classroom environment can affect a pupil’s learning and academic progress by as much as 25%. This percentage is significantly high and therefore evidence that a positive learning environment is a key aspect of children's development.
Children need to feel confident and settled in their learning environment. They need to have spaces to relax and unwind as well as having access to open and up to date learning areas.
Trudie Lawrence from UK-based design firm Envoplan has closely studied classroom design and infrastructure. In an interview with the BBC, Lawrence says, “A successful classroom design needs to strike the balance between the teaching methods and learning styles that take place in class. Combining learning and teaching helps to create a space that facilitates both the student and the teacher and creates a much more fulfilling learning experience.”
The strategic use of classroom infrastructure can create a conducive learning environment that impacts academic performance. In addition to addressing the previously discussed furniture layout, lighting, and acoustic concerns, future-proof academic infrastructure must include the following features:
1. Technology-infused. Technology must be fully integrated into the classroom for a seamless learning experience. The rise of personal device use in schools and even virtual learning opportunities is changing the relationship between students, teachers, and technology. Devices must be integrated in a manner that is additive to the learning experience, rather than distractions. They must be accessible to all, safe and secure, and children need to feel confident using them. Technology is all around us in the modern world so it is essential that it has a key role within the learning experience whilst not overwhelming other aspects of education. By allowing students to use technology and have it at their fingertips, they will learn to appreciate the positive effects it can have on their lives.
2. Fully collaborative. Classroom design must allow for multiple configurations that support small group work and foster a sense of community and shared ownership in the class’ academic success. When designing collaborative classrooms, spatial density must be carefully considered in relation to acoustics and collaborative work opportunities. Children must feel comfortable in their classrooms and thought should go into the interior design to ensure that it has the maximum health benefit to the child. By having larger rooms children have the space to work on varying projects, and allows for a streamlined learning experience as the children do not need to move between rooms for different activities. Open-air classrooms that provide indoor/outdoor access help facilitate free thinking and collaboration between students. Being out in the fresh air and surrounded by nature also helps to create a calm learning environment.
3. Special learning zones. A comprehensive education goes beyond academic basics to prepare students to be productive citizens and future leaders. As such, school design must include special “learning zones” dedicated to exploration and discovery. These zones could include the outdoor areas, rooms for extracurricular or artistic activities and sports facilities. They are also areas where topics can be discovered or where students can share their work with others to develop their knowledge. Learning does not always have to take place in a classroom so by having ‘learning zones’ across the campus students are able to keep acquiring further knowledge and skills throughout their day.
4. Outdoor learning. Mother Nature can be a great teacher and our campus is intentionally designed to capitalize on these opportunities. Outdoor learning is integrated into daily academic life in a variety of ways including a sensory garden, a natural playground with sand hills and grassy areas for our Early childhood students and a footpath winding through a miniature forest that guides students in their explorations. This teaches children to respect nature and the world around them. In the times that we are living in, this is more important than ever, and so we constantly encourage children to love their planet and want to protect it. They are the generation who have the opportunity to design sustainable products and processes, so by allowing them to integrate with nature we will hopefully ignite a spark for these ideas.
5. Sustainable infrastructure. Whenever possible, infrastructure must be sustainable. The integration of green design elements into academic buildings can significantly reduce or eliminate the negative impact of buildings on the environment. For example, green design elements include utilising natural light, using natural air for cooling, and using green building materials. This helps to reduce the carbon footprint by utilising these natural resources. Again, it also encourages students to look at ways to create a sustainable world, whether it be in relation to energy, food or products. Buildings that integrate into the environment are vital to the 21st century.
6. Safety first. Academic infrastructure must encourage and stimulate learning while providing a sense of belonging so all students feel safe to explore– and all parents have peace of mind knowing that their child is secure. Advanced access control technology and CCTV cameras ensure that academic buildings are continually monitored, so teachers can focus on helping children learn. At OWIS, safety processes are also always being updated and monitored, for instance by going through fire drills and training for staff. This gives parents a further peace of mind knowing that if something did happen, their children would be kept safe at all times. Children should feel safe emotionally and physically. We have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying, and teachers, administration staff and students are encouraged to always discuss any concerns.
An excellent education is intentional, right down to the academic building design and infrastructure that inspires future leaders. Design impacts a student’s mood, alertness level and emotions with important cognitive and behavioural consequences. It can make the difference between children wanting to go to school or not. It can also have a huge impact on how well they are able to concentrate during the school day. By designing a building that integrates all of these factors we ensure children want to be part of the school. They will feel proud to say that they attend their school and will want to help to care for the campus and surrounding area. The right design can provide an inspiring, nurturing and secure learning environment for children to grow into responsible citizens and future leaders.