To what extent can the built learning environment impact on children’s learning? Well, potentially a well designed learning environment can increase the learning progression of a primary school student by as much as 25%. That’s according to a new piece of research- by Professor Peter Barrett and his University of Salford team. It’s an important piece of work which has certainly caused a bit of a stir in the UK, prompting the call for a rethink in guidelines for new school buildings, and will no doubt lead to further explorations.
The study- a pilot project- was carried out in Blackpool and used data from 751 students from 34 classrooms in seven different primary schools. It built on the work of researchers such as Cao who stated “that people’s discomfort is not usually determined by a single factor but reflects the integration of a number of physiological and psychological influences caused by many factors” (p. 394), as well as previous work by Barrett and Zhang exploring student and teacher views of built environments.
Recognising the complexity of build environment factors the researchers identified ten design parameters encompassing 37 different factors that would determine the quality of the classrooms. These factors included physical elements such as quality of light, air quality, external noise levels, corridor width and size and shape of the classroom but also less easily measurable elements such as the flexibility of the space, the degree of ownership by the students, comfort of chairs and the clearness of corridors. These were measured and quantified on a visit to the school by the researchers according to a five point scale.
Student achievement was measured using National Curriculum Assessment Framework levels in reading, writing and maths (TA levels). Details of pupils age, gender (they had an even 50/50 split in the sample), and prior achievement was also collected and used to create student level control factors. The researchers acknowledged that there were additional elements at play including the quality of teachers and the overall ethos of the school but mitigated this by identifying groups of children in classes as well as across a number of schools. They also suggest that given that children spend 50-80% of their school day in the classroom therefore it is ‘reasonable to think that physical environment provided by their classroom could impact on the pupil’s overall learning progress’ (p.682).
Having analysed the data using a multi-level modeling strategy the researchers were able to draw some conclusions. On a ‘class’ level six of the ten environmental factors were considered to significantly effect a child’s learning progression. Colour, choice, complexity, flexibility, and light were seen to have a positive effect, whereas connection was identified as a significant but negative impact. The researchers recognized that this presented a new question and an opportunity for further investigation. Of the control variables, previous attainment as well as age-weighted previous attainment both had a significant effect on learning progression on a pupil-level.
Interestingly and slightly alarmingly the researchers discovered that among year 6 children the higher the pupil’s start level, the less the progress- possibly, they suggest “because this is the last year of primary school and pupils with a high level start may not be able to achieve a higher level over the year as they had reached the highest possible level that can be achieved already at the beginning of the year” (p. 686).
Overall the study claims to explain 51% of the variability in learning progress of the 751 students and leading to the conclusion that by putting the student in the classroom with the ‘best’ built environment factors rather than the ‘worst’ would have an impact that equates to the progress of the average student over one year.
This pilot study has come in for some critique. However I believe that it is undoubtedly an important, if complex paper. What’s missing perhaps is the lack of any recognition of the effect of the teacher in the research. The researchers recognise that teachers’ effectiveness is not a factor in the model but at the same time consider that they do not anticipate a strong relationship between the teacher effect and the built environment factors. The acknowledge that teachers do make decisions on the arrangement of the physical classroom space but consider them to be environmental (rather than pedagogical) factors. I am interested to see where this research goes next and to what extent teacher effects can be taken into account.
Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J., & Kobbacy, K. (2013). A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils' learning. Building and Environment, 59, 678-689.
Cao, B., Ouyang, Q., Zhu, Y., Huang, L., Hu, H., & Deng, G. (2012). Development of a multivariate regression model for overall satisfaction in public buildings based on field studies in Beijing and Shanghai. Building and Environment, 47(2012), 394-399.
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