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From the front door and school grounds to the classroom, the aesthetics of learning spaces impact brain function and influence how students feel when they're in school -- as well as how they feel about their school.

Neuroscience continues to inform us about how the brain functions and what this means for effective teaching and, more importantly, effective learning. We know:

  • Why emotionally connecting with our students is crucial to their learning experience
  • What is the importance of connecting new information with prior knowledge
  • How using art to engage multiple senses results in increased cognition and recall.

But what about the physical design and layout of our classrooms? Lighting? Sound? How do these and other factors of the physical learning environment contribute to effective learning?

The average American school is over half a century old, designed at a time where information transfer followed the "sage on the stage" model. But as we evolve our teaching methods and technology, our physical learning spaces stagnate.

"Schools are one building type that we're all familiar with because we've all been to school," explains Prakash Nair, president and founding partner of Fielding Nair Architects, specialists in school design. "So we have this mental image of what a school building is supposed to look like." Nair urges everyone to reach beyond our mental images of school, and envision "what a school could be, as opposed to what it has always been."

So what should schools look like?

Curved and Open, with High Ceilings

Oshin Vartanian, Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, used fMRI imaging to study how people respond to contour and ceiling height within architectural design (PDF, 442KB). Vartin et al write:

fMRI imaging revealed activation in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), a part of the brain's core emotion network, when rooms with a curvilinear design were viewed. These rooms were seen as more beautiful and pleasant. Viewing rooms with high ceilings activated a network of structures in the brain that underlie visuospatial exploration or attention, suggesting our preference for rooms with high ceilings might be due to their facilitation of visuospatial exploration.

Another study revealed that more enclosed spaces lead to an increase in cortisol, the stress hormone.

Comfortable

"Research suggests that students need to be comfortable (just like adults) to learn," says Nair. "That includes ergonomic seating and other furnishings, ample daylight, lots of fresh air, and well-designed artificial lighting and acoustics."

Comfort in classrooms? Isn't this just another way that we're shielding our students from the harsh realities of the real world? "Not really," says Jeremy Mettler, a social studies teacher at Batavia High School. "The reality is, if you're sitting in an uncomfortable chair or you're distracted by glare, you're focusing on the source of the discomfort rather than the learning. The distraction is a stress, and if you're stressed, you're not learning."

Well Lit

Christopher Alexander, Emeritus Profesor of Architecture at UC Berkeley, posited in his seminal work, A Pattern Language (1977), that low levels of light in classrooms affected students' ability to regulate the body's natural cycle of sleep and arousal. A 1999 study by Lisa Heschong, principal of the Heschong Mahone Group (and expert in daylighting, lighting energy use, and human factors in building design), illustrated the relationship between natural light and achievement by looking at more than 21,000 students across three states. The higher the amount of natural light in a classroom or artificial lighting that mimicked natural sunlight, the greater the students' school attendance, achievement, and overall health. Keep classroom lights on, open blinds, lift shades, and look for ways to get the students into outdoor light, especially in the morning (Kripke, Youngstedt, & Elliot, 1997).

Fresh and Relevant Visual Displays

"Simply put, the brain likes novelty, new things,” says Michael Posner, cognitive neuroscientist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon. "Novelty taps into two of the three attention networks -- the alerting and orienting neural networks (executive function is the third which deals with regulation)." Translation for learning spaces? Posters and other images or objects on walls or in the rooms are great to capture students' attention. Posner recommends changing them as the content changes because "novelty grabs attention but it doesn't sustain it."

Teaching in 3 Dimensions

Here are some easy, inexpensive, and neuroscience-compatible tips to try in your classroom:

1. Create the Illusion of Space

"Mirrors can transform small spaces," says Camille Overmeer, interior designer at The Camellia. "Placing them across from a window gives the illusion of multiple windows, plus it reflects the natural light." She also recommends laminating wall displays or selecting inexpensive plastic frames for posters, "for their reflective qualities."

2. Involve Students

Nair recommends involving students in examining the various ways that a classroom can be rearranged to encourage more collaboration, discussion, and project-based learning. It's also a great exercise in space planning, measurements, three-dimensional thinking, and layout.

3. Extend Novelty Beyond Visual Stimulation

From middle school teacher Alexandra Fleming: "I regularly changed my seating and brought in a different object related to our unit every few days. When my students entered the classroom, they would connect how the room was arranged to the work they were doing that day."

Both Vartin and Overmeer urge teachers to consider the functionality of the space. "What is it being used for? Let that drive the layout."

How do you use space in your classroom? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.

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Denise M. Cassano's picture
Denise M. Cassano
Artist, Educator, Dog Lover

Lighting and comfort are of utmost importance- but like the article says, student involvement is crucial. I ask students to hang their art work and make decisions as to where things will go. It is interesting to see their choices and priorities. They love to see their own -and the work of their peers- hanging in the room (and let's not forget the hall). They sit up a little straighter when they know what they make will be seen by all.

Amy Peach's picture

Wow. I knew about the high ceilings, but I wonder why curved ones make a difference? I don't doubt it..I've seen these spaces work very well in learning centers. I'm just curious as to the neurological reason why. I cannot stress the importance of comfort enough. I attended TED last spring and I was astonished at how much attention was paid to the seating. It really did make a difference in how everyone interacted. I am SO glad you have written on this very important topic. At my university, we run a Fall Institute on Tech for Innovation in Education and the most popular session last year was design thinking for educators. This led to many discussions about the need for this year's session on designing learning spaces for effective technology use.

Amy Peach's picture

Excellent point about display of their own work. Ownership really does matter.

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