LED lighting for optimum learning spaces

Most people have a rudimentary understanding of the effect of lighting on the human condition. We are familiar with the circadian rhythm. We have all felt sympathy for those in the far north of Scandinavia with their winters of endless night, but the concept goes far deeper than just light and dark, daylight and the night sky.

Parents of sleepless infants may have been advised that blue light is calming, while warm red lights may excite the precious offspring you are so desperate to hypnotise into restful bliss, but what of calming light at school? What about concentration? Can the brightness and hue really make that much difference? Studies have shown that they can, and experts are nodding in agreement. Lighting does matter, and it really should give pause to any school administration looking to upgrade lighting, or even analysing the learning environments for suitability for purpose.

A paper published in science journal Sage, titled ‘Illuminating the Effects of Dynamic Lighting on Student Learning’, stated in its abstract that “light quality varies substantially in nature and in controlled environments, leading to questions of which artificial light characteristics facilitate maximum learning”.

Recent research has examined lighting variables of color temperature, and illumination for affecting sleep, mood, focus, motivation, concentration, and work and school performance. The Sage article reported that a study conducted in the USA found a higher percentage increase (34 percent) in “oral reading fluency performance” when 84 third graders were exposed to ‘focus lighting’. Focus lighting is characterised by 6000 Kelvin (K) of output, and an average of 100 foot-candles (fc) of light maintained.  Foot-candle measurement tells us how much light is directed at the area or object we wish to illuminate.  Compared to control lighting conditions, whereby an increase of just 17 percent was recorded, the difference was substantial. 

A Korean study, conducted by Kyungah Choi and Hyeon-Jeong Suk, the results of which were published in specialist medical journal, Optics Express, further explored the effects of dynamic lighting systems for the learning environment.

Legrand Luminess LED luminaires provide even light distribution, avoiding glare and shadows
Legrand Luminess LED luminaires provide even light distribution, avoiding glare and shadows


Standard fluorescent lights were used to light one half of a group of 54 year-four students, while the other half were placed in a room with LED lights that could be tuned to CCTs of 3500 K (which is a “warm” yellowish white), 5000 K (neutral), and 6500 K (a “cool,” bluish white that mimics natural daylight).

“The preliminary study and the field experiment fully supported a positive effect of 6500 K lighting on academic performance and 3500 K lighting on encouraging recess activities,” reported author Kyungah Choi in The Huffington Post.

In a fascinating 1995 study conducted by E.M. Grangaard, and reported in Color and light effects on learning, 11 six-year-olds were measured for on and off task behaviour, and blood pressure fluctuations. When moved from the fluorescent lit classroom to one with blue walls and full-spectrum lighting, researchers recorded a one percent reduction in blood pressure, and a “dramatic decrease” (22 percent) in off-task behaviours, under the experimental lighting conditions. 

Perhaps the most remarkable and extensive study was conducted in Hamburg in Germany. The study involved 166 children, aged between eight and 16, and 18 teachers. Dynamic lighting was installed in a test group. Teachers were able to select from four different settings; normal (for regular class activities); energy (to invigorate for higher activity requirements); focus (to aid concentration); and calm (to relax students). LED lighting was utilized, as it is well suited to environments that require such flexibility.

The results tabled a significant improvement in performance, including a 45 percent reduction in errors, (interpreted as improved concentration), and 76 percent reduction in hyperactivity, when using the ‘calm’ setting during maths. The study was conducted by Professor Dr. Michael Schulte-Markwort, at the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf.

Industry viewpoints

School News reached out to three supplier experts for their thoughts on the matter.

Lighting in schools can be achieved through a combination of elements, not just the actual lights. Mahmoud Kebbi from LeGrand Australia explained that lighting providers will need to conduct a thorough assessment of your school prior to making recommendations.

For example, the placement of windows will determine how much natural light is naturally available, therefore minimizing the artificial light required. “It involves dimming the light fixtures to ensure the correct light level is achieved, this way we have more natural daylight than artificial light”.

Actual daylight is not the only factor; the degree of ‘reflectance’ from internal surfaces also contribute. “With reflectances, I am referring to the colour and finish of the walls, ceiling and carpet” Mr Kebbi elaborated.

These factors are vital to the creation of a positive learning environment. According to Mr Kebbi, lighting can also influence our moods and learning capacity. “Trying to learn in a class room that is poorly lit can result in frustration and stress.

Mark Robinson of Verbatim concurred. “Creating an environment that replicates daylight improves both student and teacher ability to concentrate, especially when used for more than a few hours”.

The message is crystal clear; lighting matters, so with all of these factors, what should school management teams be looking for in a lighting system provider? Stefan Manolidis of Shine On Lighting said it’s vital to “as the right questions”. The success or failure can depend on the quality of the equipment. “You need to ask to see the data sheets, what’s the lifetime of the chip? What about the driver that runs the luminaire? You need to be informed about the depreciation of the product.”

What about the cost?

Mark Robinson said, “swapping from fluorescent tubes to LED will improve the lighting in and around the classroom while lowering the amount of energy usage”. Mr Robinson put a figure of 50 percent on the reduction in energy required for lighting, after the switch.

All suppliers I spoke with agreed that the initial cost is slightly higher for LEDs. They also agreed that when considered in the context of the considerable savings; reduction in maintenance, reduction in electricity costs, it could table an average ROI of three years. Mark Robinson added that “LED prices have come down considerably in the last 12 months and with increasing costs of energy the payback period is sure to decrease”.

Stefan Manolidis suggests you ask, “for every Watt you put in to that fixture, how much light are you going to get out of it?”, though price is not the starting point in Shine On’s process. “We look at best functional outcome first”.

Defining the function of the space

The starting point for all experts was educational purpose. What is the area to be used for?

tar of the Sea College upgraded to Shine On LED tubes, highbays, backlight panels and globes.
Star of the Sea College upgraded to Shine On LED tubes, highbays, backlight panels and globes. Photo: Shine On


In the case of outdoor lighting, Mahmoud Kebbi recommended LED outdoor lighting with motion sensors is the ideal solution for reducing energy consumption. Other applications that can benefit from the cost-saving efficiency of LED, in conjunction with sensors include floodlighting on the sports fields, bulkheads on the building exterior for general security and carpark lighting, for Sthose candle burning lesson planners.

“Basic sensors with time delay in classrooms is a simple and effective way to save energy and reduce CO2 emissions”.  According to Mr Kebbi, the installation is simple with savings “that far outweigh the cost of the sensor”.

For indoor spaces, the focus is less on the efficiency of lighting control and would begin with the question: What activities are performed in the area? This is where the concept of dynamic lighting mentioned earlier is salient. The benefits of a dynamic LED system are exemplified by the ability of the educators at the Hamburg test school to modulate lighting for their students, hence creating the ideal ambience for tasks ranging from high-activity based learning to quiet time.

The next important question is: ‘who is using the space?’ All providers agreed that the purpose of the space is vital, and intrinsic to this are the intended users of the educational facility. Do the users have special needs? Are they vision impaired? How old are they?

The variability of end-user requirements was made apparent by an example in an article titled ‘Normal vision development in babies and children’ published by the American Academy of Ophthalmology in 2014.  The article stated that “focus, tracking, depth perception, and other aspects of vision continue to develop throughout early and middle childhood” and that “convergence, the ability of both eyes to focus on an object simultaneously, becomes more fully developed by about age seven”.

“While these facilities are developing, younger children require more direct light to increase the depth view” Mahmoud Kebbi contextualised.

With all this to consider, and several experts from which to draw, it seemed logical to collate a summary of advice based on their views. Collecting a list of the biggest mistakes suppliers see schools making with their lighting resulted in plenty of overlap. Here is the summary of how to avoid the pitfalls:

  • Switch off lighting in an unoccupied rooms or even better install sensors and timers to do it for you.
  • Carefully consider what you have already. Utilise natural light and dim lighting fixtures accordingly.
  • Understand the current market. Stefan Manolidis advised that educating yourself about the products is paramount. “people want to believe that the cheaper product is as good; it’s about understanding good quality from bad ones”.
  • Consider the effects of glare on students; ensure light fixtures comply with glare rating as stated with AS/NZS 1680 (indoor lighting standard for Australia and New Zealand).
  • Work with a company who is established and prepared to back all performance claims with warranty periods.
  • Is your provider willing to put you in contact with a school they have provided with a LED installation? Speaking to ‘real people’ at schools who have implemented the lighting solutions can be invaluable. Viewing the installation and actually seeing the lighting in action can iron out questions you might never have thought to ask.

Suzy Barry

Suzy Barry is a freelance education writer and the former editor of School News, Australia.

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