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Why are you able to advise on school design?

I instigated and led the HEAD (holistic evidence and design) research project that in 2015 isolated, for the first time, the impact on learning progress of physical classroom features, all taken together – as they are really experienced. This was based on a large sample of UK primary schools and revealed that differences in these physical characteristics explained 16% of the variation in learning progress over a year for the 3766 pupils in the study.

What can teachers do to create healthy environments and is this important?

Yes, basic health factors are very important and explained half the 16% impact on learning. Humans seek positive “natural” living conditions.  Thus, teachers can be careful to actively ensure that the classroom environment is controlled so that the air is fresh (changed regularly), the temperature is comfortable (remembering that children – especially boys – like it a little cooler than adults) and noise levels are dampened by things like acoustic ceiling tiles, carpets, and soft furnishings.  Artificial lighting should be well-maintained and be of high quality, but access to natural daylight is still important, given that it both provides light for vision, as well as, sets the body’s daily (circadian) rhythm. Of course, in many countries this means care should be taken to avoid glare and overheating, but external shading is effective for this. Blinds should not be lowered and then just kept down.

What other factors should teachers look out for?

Driven by the fact that pupils are all individuals, teachers can optimise learning by providing a flexible range of learning zones to support different styles of engagement. For younger children this involves things like reading corners, wet areas, role-play spaces and table layouts that support individual, group and whole-class working.  The other thing teachers can do is make the pupils feel a sense of pride and ownership in their classroom. This covers a lot of opportunities from, for example, putting pupils’ names on trays and their work on the walls, creating distinctive class-made displays, to the provision of age-appropriate, good quality furniture.  These factors account for about a quarter of the 16% impact.

Should classrooms be de-cluttered to aid concentration?

It depends where you are starting from! Our results very clearly show that a mid-level of ambient visual stimulation is optimal for learning – driving another quarter of the 16% impact.  So, either extreme of very plain or very busy, can be thought of as boring or chaotic. The effect of the classroom is made up of a combination of its visual complexity (linked strongly to the use of displays and banners) and the colour scheme used. The latter should be generally calm with some highlights, such as a stronger colour on the teaching wall or a really vibrant colour in a small recess area.  What matters in this context is the overall impact, which is quite easy to judge – once you know what you are looking for.

Do you have any more advice for teachers?

Simply this – based on our results you can actively assess your classroom and change it in many small ways and it will enhance the learning of the pupils. It is better to try to improve a bit on a lot of fronts. You can think of the classroom as an instrument that you can play, rather than a simple container for the children. Lastly, every classroom is different ,so each must be carefully assessed in its own right.

Where can we look for further information?

Have a look at the Clever Classrooms report where the findings are illustrated with practical examples. This is freely available as a pdf at, along with a number of more technical papers.

Professor Peter Barrett will be speaking at GESS Dubai 2018 sponsored by Gratnells. http://www.gessdubai.comx