What makes a great learning environment? Mark Ellson, Holmes Miller Architects

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In the run up to the Education Buildings Conference 21-22 November 2107, we spoke to architects about developments in learning environments. Here we hear from Mark Ellson, Holmes Miller Architects

What makes a great environment for learning, and why?

Ultimately, the staff and community of the school make the best environment for learning, by customising and crafting their teaching spaces to marry with the curriculum. The architecture of the school therefore, must act as the canvass for teaching, providing maximum flexibility and offering a variety of learning spaces, without being prescriptive. As architects, we need to understand the broad ranging requirements for delivery of the curriculum, whilst challenging the most appropriate types of spaces for each subject. The building should create opportunities for teachers to present and deliver in the optimum environment, with a view to refining, rather than defining the space for learning. My most rewarding moment in a project is revisiting after the first term, to see how the pupils and staff have taken ownership, and understand how spaces have been populated and developed.

Lenzie Meadow Primary school, photo by Andrew Lee
Flexible teaching space at Lenzie Meadow Primary, East Dunbartonshire. Credit : Andrew Lee


What are the three most important aspects of school design today?

Recognising and investing time into the initial consultation and brief development of a school project is critical. This process can harness the aspirations and functional requirements of the school community, and ensure immediate and positive engagement with staff, pupils and parents. Fostering a sense of ownership with school stakeholders from the outset can move a school design far beyond an arrangement of classrooms, to create a facility that is truly responsive to the exacting requirements of its users.

The role of the school as part of a wider strategy to promote education, health and well-being continues to be increasingly important, with these buildings requiring to function in a variety of ways, both during and out-with the school day. Creating a facility that is therefore less institutional, and more open and approachable is vital, to allow the school to function as an active contributor within the context of the local community.

Finally, whilst the cost and area parameters under which new school buildings are defined continues to become increasingly challenging, it is remains paramount that these buildings continue to provide inspiring, joyful and healthy spaces to foster the minds of our next generation.

Kirkmichael Primary School (detail) Photo Andrew Lee

Playful and creative interior at Kirkmichael Primary, South Ayrshire, Credit: Andrew Lee

How do you think learning environments will evolve in the coming years?

Over the past five years we have seen the design of primary schools being challenged and evolving, to move away from the confinement of the traditional classroom, and provide an increasingly creative environment for teaching. The design of secondary schools however, whilst introducing elements of breakout space, largely maintain a formal classroom arrangement, favouring tutorial format learning.

As a practice, we are exploring a number of different secondary school models, where links are forged with Further Education colleges, universities and local businesses, to widen the scope of the curriculum, and encourage teaching beyond the four walls of the classroom, where a richer and more engaging setting for a subject could be offered. A further model we are developing considers individual secondary schools as a series of campuses, as part of a city wide ‘learning town’, where pupils journey between buildings and locations depending on their subject choices. This model provides pupils with greater responsibility for their individual learning, and aids in transition between secondary and further education.

Harris academy photo by Dapple Photography

Tiered atrium + performance space of Harris Academy, Dundee, Credit : Dapple Photography


How do you see the role of technology in shaping the future of learning environments?

The advancement in technology is intrinsic in the development of teaching methodology. With software and devices so intuitive, the process of learning can become increasingly engaging and immersive, giving subjects far greater depth. At classroom level, I would expect that technology will continue to encourage collaboration, both on a pupil-pupil level, and indeed subject-subject, forging and facilitating cross curricular links.

Technology will also provide greater opportunity for the school to operate out-with the confines of the school gates, allowing real time interaction with other national and international learning centres, community groups and businesses. Furthermore, technology should allow parents to become increasingly informed in the progress of their child, allowing aspects of the curriculum to continue at home, and aiding in ensuring appropriate support throughout a child’s development.

Heathfield Photo by Andrew Lee

Library + Resource spaces at Heathfield Primary School, South Aryshire, Credit : Andrew Lee

Have you seen any international exemplar projects/approaches to learning environments which you think we could learn from in Scotland?

A recent trip to Denmark allowed a visit to Hellerup School, which has been a reference for a considerable number of Scottish primary schools over the past few years. The interesting aspect of this well documented school, is the way staff and pupils have now customised key spaces. Founded upon a concept of individual learning, where the building is entirely open plan, the school have now struck a balance between enclosed, semi-enclosed and open plan teaching, clearly demonstrating a desire for a variety of teaching spaces. This trip also allowed a visit to a recently opened Kunskapsskolan free school, in Helsingborg, which had been developed within a former industrial unit. The creative use of space and clever interventions within the shell of the historical structure demonstrated the viability of conversion of redundant buildings and use of brownfield sites for education, something that is rarely discussed in a Scottish context.


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