We know how to design buildings for minimal heat loss, says Professor Stephen Hempell, but "no one knows how to prevent learning loss." Hempell isn't being pessimistic, and he is well aware of research showing that physical variables such as air quality, temperature and noise can have an effect on learning.
Rather, his statement reflects the findings of Steve Higgins and colleagues that, overall, there is a "relative paucity of research on effective learning environments," especially research that takes into consideration the rapid development of "technology-enabled, peer-to-peer and self-directed learning." Existing research, says Higgins, seems to be largely predicated on a traditional view of learning as a chalk-and-talk enterprise.
This observation is based on a review of research completed mainly in the U.S. and the U.K. Those conducting the 2005 review, commissioned by the Design Council, found most research on the impacts of environment on teaching and learning has focused on discrete elements (e.g., noise). What's missing, they say, is a synthesis of understandings and attention to the relationship between design and context (e.g., culture and geography). Administrators involved in designing or upgrading facilities should be aware of the following messages from existing research:
Higgins and colleagues found clear evidence that extremes in environmental elements (e.g., poor ventilation or excessive noise) have negative effects on students and teachers. For example, various studies have found that environmental noise is associated with reading problems (e.g., Haines et al., 2001), deficiencies in pre-reading skills (Maxwell & Evans, 2000), and general cognitive deficits (Lercher et al., 2003). Improving basic environmental conditions has significant benefits. However, once conditions meet minimum standards, the evidence of effect is not so clear.
Help users (including parents) articulate a clear vision for their school and involve them in the school design process. When this happens, designers and architects are more likely to come up with successful designs that address users' needs, according to the literature review conducted by Higgins et al. These analysts observe that "the open-plan classroom movement showed that purely physical design solutions that are not owned by their users or supported with effective systems and behavior change" may not yield the desired results.
The complexity of the school environment makes it difficult to clearly establish and quantify a cause-and-effect relationship between an isolated design element and student achievement. Advocates for single design elements such as lighting and color may cite research to back their claims, but it is important to understand some of this research has yielded conflicting results.
School decision makers are best positioned to use existing research when they approach school design decisions holistically. Higgins' review of the research suggests decision makers might want to think of school design in terms of "fitness for purpose" for particular contexts. Present and future instructional technology needs should also be considered.
Don't defer maintenance
Researcher Ed Young suggests school maintenance schedules should take into account how the physical environment contributes to time on task-an important variable that influences student learning. This view is supported by Daniel Duke, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Educational Design and Planning. The center's comprehensive survey of Virginia schools in 1998 found that 36 percent of the state's school systems reported loss of instructional time during 1997 and 1998 because of problems with school facilities. These problems ranged from early dismissals due to a lack of air conditioning to 10 days without classes because of a heating system failure.