What makes a great learning environment? Jonathan McQuillan, Anderson Bell + Christie

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As part of our focus on education and learning spaces we spoke to architects and designers about developments in learning environments. Here we hear from Jonathan McQuillan, Associate,  Anderson Bell + Christie


What makes a great environment for learning, and why?

Our preference is to consider a philosophical approach, rather than individual attributes.  We find aspects of the Reggio Emilia approach to be a powerful design tool, in particular that which considers the environment to be the fourth teacher. This approach also challenges designers to consider how the environment can be aligned with the objectives of the Curriculum for Excellence. This asks how both the building and external environment can provide direct and indirect learning experiences.

A recent example of this is Ferryhill Nursery School in Edinburgh. The building was positioned to allow an area of existing woodland to be integrated into the external play space.  As a result the environment now provides a rich, engaging and diverse array of learning experiences for the pupils.  This has generated a large amount of positive feedback from the children, parents and teachers.

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

Attainment is a key issue.  From our work in Early Years we are considering methods to enhance engagement with parents and care givers from the very beginning of a child’s educational journey. The opportunity for change associated with the shift to 1140 hours by 2020 could provide a vital component to assist with closing the attainment gap and increasing attainment in literacy and numeracy.  To do so we need to provide a comfortable environment which removes the pressure from adults. This will allow them to feel welcome and more inclined to participate in their child’s or their own advancement.

Recently school design has shifted away from cellular enclosed spaces towards open plan and flexible environments.  It is important to consider the impact of this type of environment on children of all abilities.  Larger spaces inherently come with more noise, visual distraction, activity and even odours.  All of this contributes to a sensory burden that impacts all children.  We need to ensure that the level of sensory information is controlled in these environments, otherwise there is potential for an impact on learning.

Designs that consider health and wellbeing are important.  Initiatives such as the Daily Mile, which aims to achieve an elevated heart rate for 15 minutes each day, have accomplished measureable improvement in both fitness and attainment levels. Designers must give more consideration to the external environment in all schools.


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

Learning spaces are moving towards more open, flexible, team orientated and collaborative environments.  The feel of such spaces is moving towards something that we are more used to seeing in higher education.  This process is still in its genesis, but there are built examples around the UK which indicate this move.

An interesting driver for change is the need for local authorities to consolidate their property portfolio while increasing co-working and links between services. The creation of Health and Social Care Partnerships also facilitates the opportunity for stronger integration of social services and primary care into council facilities.   Local authorities have a fantastic opportunity to work collaboratively across departments and create integrated communities with education facilities at their core.

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

The question of teaching technology in the school environment is a pertinent one.  The UK is now entering what is known as Industry 4.0, with virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence becoming part of standard working practice.  Scottish companies are already leading the way here, such as the Soluis and Carbon Dynamic, Innovate UK funded, Augmented Worker project and the miniaturised satellites produced by Clydespace. There will be an expectation for both current and future pupils to be conversant in these technologies in order to maximise their potential.

Pilot studies are beginning to explore the spatial implications for teaching multi-platform collaborative team working.  The Scottish Futures Trust funded pilot at West Calder Secondary is well worth learning more about. This indicates a future where not only on site collaborative work is encouraged, but shows a route to inter-authority and international collaborative working.

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

We have recently embarked on a body of research into international early years provision.  There have been an array of striking examples, from the repeating playroom modules of Berriozar Nursery in Spain to the beautifully crafted finishes of the shipping container extension at Oguru Asahi Nursery in Japan.

Of the many international examples we have reviewed the most striking still remains Fuji Kindergarten in Japan, by Tezuka Architects.  The approach at this nursery school illustrates a fundamentally different approach to perceived risk.  Children can run laps of the roof, climb on cargo nets draped around trees that pierce the roof, reinvent their spaces with stackable furniture and move between friendship groups and staff supervision throughout this oval, open plan, 500 pupil facility. This nursery provides a great opportunity to reflect on the responsibility we give to children and how we manage risk while giving them the best possible educational opportunities.


Muirkirk Primary School and Early Years Centre_detail

Muirkirk Primary School and Early Years Centre, Anderson Bell + Christie.

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