Designing the optimal space for learning

We look at the latest research, and current design trends, to help you create the ideal environment for learning and teaching.

A well-designed, thoughtfully laid out classroom can make a big difference to learning and teaching. However, with trends and research changing constantly it can be difficult to know what current best practice for the learning environment is.

Flexible and functional

An enduring trend in modern educational spaces is the adoption of flexible furniture. Through embracing lightweight and easily movable pieces, educators can quickly reconfigure the learning environment. This flexibility empowers teachers to adapt the classroom layout to different activities and teaching methods, promoting dynamic and interactive learning experiences.

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According to The University of Melbourne’s Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN), evidence shows that flexible learning spaces have a “positive impact” including an increase in student engagement and deep learning skills, as compared to more traditional spaces.

“Well-designed flexible spaces offer more opportunity for differentiated instructions, including targeted explicit instruction to meet the needs of specific student groups,” LEaRN explained.

LEaRN also noted that half of teacher participants in another survey said that flexible spaces are their preferred option for teaching and as spaces where students “learn well across the school curriculum.”

Flexible seating is another consideration in a dynamic classroom. Flexible seating provides students with a variety of seating options in the learning space, allowing them freedom to choose where they sit and the way in which they feel most comfortable to learn. This could look like chairs, stools or sofas, or kneeling cushions and beanbags.

Particularly for students with sensory issues, flexible seating can empower students to choose seating options that best suit their needs.

Latest design trends

When it comes to colour and overall aesthetics, the importance of a well-considered and designed learning space cannot be overstated.

In a landmark 2015 study, researchers found that students are more frequently off task when visual clutter overwhelms “their still-developing and fragile ability to actively maintain task goals and ignore distractions.”

Instead, research suggests educators work towards a ‘middle ground’, where the learning space is not overly cluttered but still embraces colour and materials that speak to the natural environment.

A 2021 study found that classroom spaces that are conducive to learning should feel natural and fresh, not cramped and stuffy. “Students reported less stress and were more focused on a task in classrooms with more natural window views,” researchers noted.

Learning space design
Image supplied by Resource Furniture

If you don’t have open spaces outside your window, you can bring in plants and other natural decorations—“students displayed stronger feelings of friendliness and comfort in the presence of these plants,” the research said.

When researchers added potted plants to high school classrooms, older students also expressed more satisfaction in their surroundings, paid more attention in class, and rated the lessons and their teachers higher, a 2020 study found. “Incorporating indoor nature can thus improve students’ satisfaction with their study environment, which may positively influence retention and students’ beliefs about their academic performance,” the researchers concluded.

In addition to greenery, embracing materials such as timber and natural fibres in furniture design can all help to create a calm and inviting environment well-suited for learning.

What the experts say

Annabel Parletta from Resource Furniture said an effective way to create distinct zones in learning spaces is by using alternating coloured chairs. “This adds visual interest, and allows for easy reconfiguration and rotation of these areas based on specific needs. The learning environment then becomes more dynamic and adaptable. By incorporating this simple yet effective strategy, teachers can create an interactive atmosphere.”

 Learning spaces can be made even more versatile with flexible furniture, which allows for easy reconfiguration. “This adaptability enhances the overall learning experience, creating a more engaging and dynamic environment that fosters student engagement and collaboration. By using flexible furniture, teachers can transform the classroom space to suit the needs of different lessons, promoting active learning and ultimately improving student outcomes,” Ms Parletta said.

learning space design
Image supplied by Resource Furniture

 “By using height adjustable tables, a range of chair and stool heights (including gas lift chairs), furniture can be customised to cater to diverse age groups and meet specific accessibility needs. So, whether it’s providing a comfortable seating option or ensuring easy access for individuals with mobility challenges, these adaptable furniture solutions are a great option.”

Michael Hellyer from Sebel said that furniture plays a key role in a learning environment. “Configurations and types of seating, desks and storage all play a role in fostering learning spaces that are conducive to critical thinking, collaborative learning, communication, and creativity.

“Castors on tables and trolleys allow them to be easily moved to the side of the room and away from desks to create an open space for floor-based activities. Additionally, castors on tables enable students and teachers to create new table configurations for group or individual learning.

“Flip tables are not only a great space-saving piece of furniture in the classroom, but nesting tables also allows for ease of collaboration. Look for a latch that allows users to flip and nest groups of tables with ease,” Mr Hellyer said.

Learning space design
Image supplied by Sebel

“Accessways must be kept clear and classrooms should be uncluttered so that all students, regardless of accessibility needs, can safely manoeuvre the learning space. Having a chair or stool that can be tucked away or stacked is hugely beneficial for accessibility.”

With space at a premium in learning environments, Mr Hellyer said it can be helpful to consider whether a piece of furniture offers more than one purpose – for example, a mobile tote seat offers a dual purpose, both a place to sit and the practicality of storage. Desks with drawers are another example, where students can tidy away supplies.

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