Truth be told, the title of this post is a bit deceiving. Student learning, and more specifically, setting the right tone for learning, begins the moment a student enters the school building, not just when he or she crosses the classroom threshold. Case in point, think of how entering a dental office versus a favorite fast food restaurant affects your entire psyche. Do you want to flee or feast?

Now transfer that thinking to an academic setting. The question isn’t if classroom design affects student learning, but how so. Secondly, how can builders, designers, educators – and, yes, students – effectively collaborate to create exceptional learning environments. Ones that stimulate, engage and inspire students (and staff) to work more productively and creatively.

Before you dive into design, open your mind to possibilities. Take off your blinders and think big, says Michael Risdall with Smith System. “Consider thinking about the whole school acting as the classroom. The door shouldn’t be a barrier to learning zones.” He offers these tips for designing 21st century K-12 education spaces.

Classroom Design 21st Century

Where to Begin:  Curriculum

Whether new or existing, classroom design should begin by asking high-level questions about your curriculum. What are you trying to teach? What are your objectives? What techniques is your district trying to implement? What role does and will technology play?

Ideally, drive design with these answers, tempered with the practical aspects – budgets, enrollment numbers, time constraints – and, obviously, whether you have a new or existing space. Also consider how your overall learning model affects your space. If you’re going with collaborative learning, think about the collaborative pod footprint and how you’ll use the learning/library commons as a breakout space for collaborative activities.

The Proof

Funding design often requires some amount of evidence-based justification. A good place to start is with an often-cited, powerful study on design and learning.

Between the fall of 2012 and summer of 2013, the University of Salford (England) along with architects Nightingale Associates, conducted a year-long pilot study. Together, they wanted to determine if classroom design affects student learning. Data was collected from 7 primary schools in 34 classrooms with different learning environments and age groups, and 751 total pupils.1

The findings:Classroom design could be attributed to a 25 percent impact, positive or negative, on a student’s progress over the course of an academic year. The difference between the best- and worst-designed classrooms covered? A full year’s worth of academic progress.”2

So, what classroom design aspects mattered most? Six of ten design parameters had the most significant impact on student learning:

Color – providing an ample amount of visual stimulation through color on walls, floors and furniture: warmer for younger students and cooler for older students

Choice – quality of the furniture in the classroom, as well as providing “interesting” and ergonomic tables and chairs for pupils; support a “This is our classroom!” sense of ownership

Connection – clear and clean corridors; quick access to classrooms and connections with other spaces; wide and clear pathways

Complexity – greater site and building area, and novelty of surroundings; interior decor that catches attention, in balance with orderliness

Flexibility – how well a given classroom could accommodate pupils without crowding them, in addition to how easily its furniture could be rearranged for a variety of activities and teaching approaches

Light – quality and quantity of natural light, and degree of control with the level of lighting

According to Peter Barrett, Ph.D., the lead author of the study, “I think this is the first and only study of schools that takes a holistic perspective, guided by a comprehensive neuroscience and sensory framework, and employing multi-level modeling to isolate the impact of the built aspect.” 1 The gist? It’s a valid study. And compelling. So much so that study leaders are expanding the study beyond its original scope.

Getting It Right

“Suppliers are being held to a higher standard. To survive, manufacturers of school furnishings must have the breadth of products to support any curriculum or style of teaching,”

For architect and designers, emerging research and tightening budgets are putting more pressure on design teams to “get it right.” Design standards once considered innovative – like the findings in the Salford study – are now expected parts of any new or renovation project. For example, suppliers such as those in school furnishings are expected to stay nimble to the morphing needs of 21st century schools.

“Suppliers are being held to a higher standard. To survive, manufacturers of school furnishings must have the breadth of products to support any curriculum or style of teaching,” Risdall added. “This really is where Smith System shines over other manufacturers.” The company offers several lines of highly versatile tables, seating, storage and shelving, as well connectivity tools, for K-12 schools.

Case Study:  Middle School Library Renovation

Deer Path Middle School in Lake Forest, IL, offers a good example of how to successfully incorporate aspects of the Salford study results into school renovation. Learning By Design magazine awarded the school an “Outstanding Project 2014” award in the Middle School/Intermediate School category.3

As part of its 2020 Vision, the school’s administration wanted to renovate its existing vacant and under-utilized library into a dynamic media center. The goal was to create a space that would serve as an ideal environment for the three Cs – creating, collaborating and communicating.

The project began with collaboration. Project goals were formulated through a collaborative process between school administrators, teachers and students. Each group was involved in creating and executing the vision for the project. (Salford study concept achieved? Choice.)

Builders removed all walls that obstructed an open layout concept and provided areas for computer labs, a green screen room, moveable library stacks, numerous plug-in stations and a performance space that could also be used as a large-scale instruction area. (Salford study concepts achieved? Connection, complexity, flexibility, light.)

The resulting media center is now a light-filled and versatile space where middle school students can work with tutors and experience peer-to-peer learning. The new space dramatically redefines the notion of “library” in the 21st century. (See photos of the Deer Path Middle School Learning Center by accessing the Spring 2014 edition of Learning By Design online.)

Stay Tuned

Over the next few months, this blog will dive deeper into the Salford study, examining some the six most influential design parameters. Check back for future posts on how color, choice and flexibility impact learning. You might be surprised.


1 “Study proves classroom design really does matter,” Salford Centre for Research and Innovation. Salford University, November 9, 2012.

2 Vanhemert, Kyle, “Study Shows How Classroom Design Affects Student Learning.” Fast Company & Inc., January 18, 2013.

3 “Deer Path Middle School, Learning Center Renovation,” Learning by Design. Spring 2014.

Additional source:  Sullivan, C. C. “School Standards and Designs Advance” McGraw-Hill Construction Continuing Education Center. January 2014.