Conference: The Design & Management of High Performance Learning Environments 2009

Highlights of the conference held at The British Library, 18 June 2009

Professor Peter Barrett, Salford University

Professor Barrett discussed the challenge of creating new spaces for learning with complex issues of competing demands and tremendous finesse needed to achieve the desired outcome. He also looked at aspects of neuroscience to help with some basic guiding principles.

As we know the design criteria for most new builds often leaves out the vital element of learning spaces or spaces for people. He talked about the relationship between the brain, senses and space.

There is a cycle based on how the physical space affects human senses (comfort) which then mediates the brain response (activity, behaviour) which results in the need to adapt to the physical environment.

You can’t argue against the logic of this, science shows how the environment influences behaviour and how we act within it. The built environment is experienced through our senses.

Professor Barrett talked through research of how light, colour and smell affected people. The results were unsurprising as most people preferred to be near a window with plenty of daylight

People preferred contrasting colours as this was found to be more stimulating, with lighter colours above darker ones, similar to looking at the sky at dusk.

In terms of smell, the dissatisfaction with tobacco smoke was fairly constant over time, but the perception of how bad ‘human bioeffluents’ were tailed off over time!

Research from 2004 in Sweden showed that views of nature reduced stress and the need for pain relief in hearts patients.While US studies demonstrated that daylight levels induced faster learning in schools, with a 20% increase in maths and a 26% improvement in reading.

What was particularly interesting was the impact of colour. Subtle hues such as beige or pale green can enhance concentration.I asked Peter the question of where did he source his information on the psychology of colour? He mentioned studies by Manke from 1980.

The summary was that while the practical implications of creating new spaces are complex, the rewards are potentially high.

The second presentation was by John Lorimer of Manchester City Council.

The theme was on designing schools to meet the needs of pupils and teachers and how the council has engaged them in the design process.

John’s second slide was a picture of a man running through a minefield, I thought this was a poignant metaphor, as he said that we must make a noise and start up important dialogue while we tackle the obstacles and issues along the way of creating new learning spaces.

One of the most important issues for children these days is identity, children think about many different things these days but especially their culture, language and family life.

Their emotional health is vital as many kids are depressed, some have eating disorders and behavioural problems.

The council sees the need to engage with all stakeholders and holds 5 day workshops when designing new classrooms and schools.

Kids were asked to design a new refectory, we saw a photograph of a layout made with pieces of fruit with round tables, but no long benches or tables. This was felt to resolve issues of identity.

There were also trails with different types of tables, with an emphasis on quality and furniture that made the kids feel more grown up.What was interesting was that the most popular tables turned out to be the most expensive. ALthough a deal was made with the manufacturer due to the power of bulk buying.

The last photograph showed a classroom at Gorton Educational Village primary school. It was designed to allow for some kids to work individually with the largest area set out for the teacher to deliver the lesson.

There was a large screen in the middle of the room for the teacher to present on, with IT provision behind where the teacher could easily look around to keep an eye on those kids working on their own.

Obviously it needs a very good teacher to cope with this type of working, but the research has shown a huge improvement in the kids achievements.

Andrew Harrison, Director of Learning & Research at DEGW.

He is involved in a number of major research projects on the workplace and in particular, exploring the impact of Personalised Learning on School Design.

Up until now most research has focussed on teaching spaces and room utilisation over just one working day. There is little emphasis on library and social spaces as well as administrative offices.

In terms of space, a 2005 report showed that in the UK, the average estate cost is £192 per square metre. Teaching spaces costs £160 per sm and research anything up to £250 per sm.

Useful statistics

According to current research, academic and administrative offices account for up to 28% of most universities’ estates.

2005 study at Loughborough found only 30% utilisation of individual offices

Offices are typically not included in space utilisation studies

Students are more demanding, universities are becoming more customer orientated and students want value for money

Academics often view workplace as individual offices or large scale open plan areas.This is an opportunity to create interesting alternatives.

Innovation is happening, with the corporate sector providing inspiration in particular, as we know there is a trend towards open plan space emerging across universities.

Space can be a catalyst, it can be used to work on or tell stories.

Andrew gave examples such as the Re-Invention Centres at University of Warwick, GlaxoSmithKline Innovation hubs, the White Space at University of Abertay, Loughborough, LSE Box and Google.

The point being that spaces can be a catalyst for innovation, creativity, collaboration, interaction, knowledge sharing and collegiality. He did acknowledge the need to balance these aims with need for privacy, concentration or areas closed off for noisy activities.

The Freeman Centre at the University of Sussex was used to illustrate this point.

The most useful part of the presentation was DEGW’s creation of briefing tools, www.exploreacademic.com These are freely available web tools that allow a structured framework for users to create a workplace strategy, with case studies and workshop expertise. It features models to think about the relationship between spaces and process.

Alexi Marmot, AMA and Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. (Consultant to Kings Cross development for Central St. Martins, UAL)

Alexi went through an A-Z of designing good schools based on her evidence based research. I have just highlighted those aspects that caught my eye.

Brief – A good design brief should include facts and figures as well as the vision. It must be appropriate, it should delight, be timeless and fulfill the users’ intentions.

Educational transformation – with the relationships between teacher and learner as well as between the learners (Peter Jamieson’s ears must have been burning) Peer to peer learning needs spaces for social interaction, where discoveries are made through conversation.

Digital natives are being taught by digital immigrants! We need to build in IT infrastructure that is capable of changing. It needs to allow mobile technology We are seeing more and more students using video, not just to communicate ideas but as way of submitting coursework.

The library needs to be seen as an ‘ideas store’, functioning as a learning hub and allowing group work, food and drink

Nurture -poor environments and facilities say to students, “we don’t care about you”

Outdoors – learning lawns?

Personalised learning – different people learn in different ways, group working, individuals,

Quality – Universities should invest in quality design and materials, these will not be wasted

Sustainability – This should be inherent in new building design

eXperiment – Small pilot projects to test designs, which will form models for further spaces.

We should allow stakeholders to ask questions without appearing foolish, it is designed to empower and engage. Engage with the local community, not just to help break the digital divide but also for funding possibilities but for joint initiatives and collaborative projects.

ICT trends in Learning Environments

Matthew Walling, Cordless Consultants and Kevin Watling, Teddington School, Richmond

Matthew had just spoken at the LTSMG Learning & Teaching Spaces Managers Group conference that day, the second day of which I missed to attend this conference.

He talked about enablers of change – i.e. data projectors and drivers of change – i.e. wireless networks. He believes that students are now choosing universities on the quality of technology.

Before starting university many students are familiar technology, with interactive whiteboards in most secondary schools.

He talked about kids on geography filed trips with cameras that record GPS data within the photograph as though they putting digital pins in a map to record their activity.  We know how students are conversant with smart-phones, instant messaging and camera-phones which can bluetooth with other devices.

Kevin Watling is Assistant Headteacher and has overseen the development of new teaching spaces. He sees the function of design rooms for creativity not productivity.

Kids were taken to the Cordless Consultants’ innovation centre to test out new technology alongside the teaching staff.

He showed photographs of a ‘plectrum’ shaped table (very similar to the teardrop shaped tables designed by Peter Jamieson) The shape changed the dynamics of the student’s interaction, with a different emphasis depending on where the students sat.

Other tables were higher up with stools, the different height allowing the teacher to stand up to talk with kids. There was no teacher position at the front of the room, rather it had small spaces for the kids to engage in different activities.

They were also given responsibility and freedom to use any of the ICT and reprographic equipment in the room.

The last speaker was Noel O’Connor, Dublin Institute of Technology

He gave a detailed summery of the ongoing plan to develop  a brand new purpose built campus on the outskirts of Dublin.

Noel described their 10 year plan for space utilisation and ICT infrastructure. Classrooms to be 60% formal, 20% flexible and 20% informal with a similar shift in the Library spaces.

Contact hours for teaching and in the labs were reduced by about 10-20% unsurprisingly. With an increase in the average class size from 25-30 up to 40.

In terms of ICT provision, DIT plan to reduce the number of workstations from 3,500 down to 750.

To replace staff workstations with laptops

An expected increase in student laptop ownership to 100% as their WiFi provision also increased to 100% coverage.

Another interesting idea from Noel was the following plan

All classrooms to function as generic computer labs but with few general IT labs, where specialist demands dictate. Larger Open Access and informal learning spaces fused into single multi-layout areas.

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