How schools are designing ‘brain-friendly’ classroom spaces

Brain-friendly schools support different learning styles, promote active involvement, incorporate multimedia, recognize the impact of environmental factors such as noise and lighting, build connections to the world outside the classroom, and encourage community accessibility and involvement.
By: | Issue: May 2020
April 14, 2020
ROOM WITH A VIEW—Floor-to-ceiling windows at Eliot School in Boston allow the city’s natural and historic assets, from Boston Harbor and the Charlestown Navy Yard to the Bunker Hill Monument and the USS Constitution, become part of the classroom design.

The concept of a “brain-friendly school” is one that supports different learning styles and abilities, promotes active involvement, incorporates multimedia, recognizes the impact of environmental factors such as noise and lighting, builds connections to the world outside the classroom, and encourages community accessibility and involvement. It’s the kind of environment teachers and students will appreciate all the more after returning to school after long coronavirus closure—and one that may more closely rival the potential choice of seating options students have gotten used to at home.

4 tips for creating brain-friendly classrooms

Eliot School’s executive director, Traci Walker Griffith, recommends looking at the following parameters when designing a collaborative classroom space.

1. Creativity: Where are the areas to write? Is there a place to paint or draw?
Is there space for students to work individually, in small groups and with the
entire class?

2. Accessibility: Are whiteboards located throughout? Are there enough
electrical outlets dispersed evenly throughout the classroom for flexibility in
use of tech devices?

3. Seating: Are traditional chairs and desks really needed
for every student? Seating options can include adjustable
seats and desks, beanbag chairs, ball chairs, rug seating,
multilevel benches and more.

4. Research: What research have you done on such
spaces, including attending conferences and speaking
with other schools? Find other educators that have gone
through a similar classroom design process to determine
what worked or didn’t work and why.

“Learning environments must be flexible to maximize students’ cognitive development. Teachers must be prepared to use time, space, furniture, materials, groupings, strategies and other classroom elements in multiple ways to address students’ multiple developmental trajectories,” write authors David A. Sousa and Carol Ann Tomlinson in Differentiation and the Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner-Friendly Classroom (Solution Tree, 2018).

“We know from the learning science that when we give them space for visual learning, their learning goes beyond short-term memory,” says Robert Dillon, director of innovative learning for the School District of University City in Missouri. If a teacher can introduce adaptable and adjustable spaces and furniture, students feel more empowered and comfortable in the classroom. The flexibility to move also enables students to add more seconds of movement to the day. This, in turn, promotes body and brain health.

When creating such spaces, experts suggest keeping the following best practices in mind.

Considering what the environment communicates

Increasing internal and external communication with parents and the community about design gets buy-in. Give district stakeholders, including teachers, talking points about why the school is implementing classroom changes.

Nonverbal messages also communicate a school’s priorities. When students, faculty and visitors are in the building’s offices, hallways or restrooms, what do they see? If it looks outdated, is cluttered or displays a poorly thought out design plan in regard to flow, sound, light and furnishings, it can send a mixed message about the school’s student focus.

“The spaces should become another asset for learning; in some districts, the shared and classroom spaces may be the only space of beauty that they are surrounded by in their daily lives,” says Dillon. “We need to blend the art of space and learning sciences better; we have a responsibility to blend better.”

Brain-friendly schools may have inspiring digital or print images of children learning on walls, he adds.

Understanding classroom design needs

Redesigning a space involves first understanding the current environment, says Joseph DiPuma, the district coordinator of innovation at Flagler Schools in Florida. He suggests filming a classroom over a period of time to record how teachers, students of varying ages and community members are using the space and what is working well or needs to be adapted. Could limitations with architecture be improved upon or compensated for with interior design?

Wall, floor and seating textures, plus lighting, smells in the room and types of flooring, matter. Like a symphony, if one instrument is off-key, you can feel the difference, DiPuma says. White or light-colored walls are optimal, but try to bring color in through classroom items, desk edging or other removable pieces.

Just remember: Incorporating beautiful furniture and technology does not equal engagement. Adaptable, dynamic spaces can evolve as well, to inspire creativity and add choice to engage learners.

Designing with history

The three-building Eliot School, a Boston Public Innovation School and the city’s oldest continuously run school, has educated American figures such as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. A $15 million gut renovation to its 585 Commercial Street building involved designing to fit the views of Boston Harbor for the school’s nearly 400 fifth through eighth grade students. The views help reset students’ brains when they look up and out to historical, light and natural inspirations outside the windows,” says Rebecca Berry, president and sustainability director of Finegold Alexander Architects, the project’s architect of record.

Within the existing building’s restricted layout, the project team built adaptive use interior spaces. The design includes a digital art studio, a technology-focused classroom with a robotics lab and laser cutter, a media center and 18 simple classroom spaces that encourage collaborative learning.

“We are building a learning environment for tomorrow that gives voice and choice to the kids,” says Executive Director Traci Walker Griffith. “We see physical space as the third teacher.”

Creativity in an adaptable classroom

The classroom culture needs creative and collaborative buy-in from the educator and administrators, and “letting go” of complete control of the space. Administrators can foster creativity even if it means failure by enabling students to tinker and adapt objects for classroom use in a makerspace or part of the classroom. Flagler Schools’ District Coordinator of Innovation Joseph DiPuma provides two examples from his own classrooms:

He created cost-efficient small “whiteboards” for students by wrapping old skateboards, surfboards and cubes with gloss spray paint (whiteboard film rolls can also be used). A rack holding the boards in the classroom enables students to grab them as needed.

In another class, the teacher and students created mobile tables by slipping PVC piping and casters onto static table legs.

Classrooms are simple in design, and flexible. Features include calming muted interior colors, desks and tables that can be reconfigured easily, softer seating for sensory input options, and multiple white boards, says Berry. On upper learning floors, exterior design elements allow for interior learning nooks. Small group collaboration spaces between classrooms have built-in seating, plugs and whiteboards.

In Flagler Schools, old skateboards, surfboards and cubes are wrapped in glossy spray paint and students can grab them as needed for whiteboard activities.

In Flagler Schools, old skateboards, surfboards and cubes are wrapped in glossy spray paint and students can grab them as needed for whiteboard activities.

Students are encouraged to brainstorm on how the classroom should be adapted to their learning for that day’s tasks. By actively participating in designing their space, and supporting creativity, curiosity and autonomy in their learning, it gives students competencies and literacies to be change agents, Walker Griffith explains.

One music teacher ran a mixed-grade podcasting production course. Some students brainstormed podcast ideas in the building nooks while others were in the music studio going through scripting, the idea design process and production.

“This is all connected to the pedagogy of play,” says Walker Griffith. “When you create with and for adults and kids, your engagement is higher. Engagement is organically co-created when both adults and students find meaningful ways to build relationships and feel connected with what they are doing together, such as co-planning the classroom or reconfiguring the common space.”

Ariana Fine is DA’s newsletter editor.