What makes a great learning environment? Maggie Barlow, Space Strategies

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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 Maggie Barlow, Director (Strategy), Space Strategies

What makes a great environment for learning, and why?

A great learning environment is more about culture than physical space.

A successful learning environment should be one which can be flexible enough to equip learners for a world of accelerating change and support  the development of skills such as:

  • Adaptive expertise to suit a trajectory of multiple careers,
  • Problem solving skills which are capable of crossing disciplines
  • The confidence and empathy to work collaboratively

It seems such an environment needs to be :

  • Learner focussed
  • Knowledge focussed
  • Community focussed

A great learning space should be accessible in its widest sense, creating an environment which can foster meaningful partnerships with parents, other professionals involved in supporting young people as well community and business.

If this proposition makes sense it would seem that the key to creating a great physical environment is the need for organisational flexibility. Re-imagining the physical environment can without a doubt support these approaches ensuring spaces for learning are:

  • Configured correctly considering different cohort sizes to allow for a rich variety of modes of learning to be facilitated including small group and collegiate teaching approaches.
  • Correctly configured, zoned and “deinstitutionalised” to encourage and facilitate wide participation whilst ensuring learner safety and security.
  • Kitted out suitably to enable learning (our premise is that the “stuff” in the space can be far more important than the actual space if innovative learning methodologies are to be optimally supported).
  • Managed flexibly shared approaches require new and alternative operating models to suit new cultures of “our work” and “our space” and how we manage space needs to be re thought if people are to embrace these (this applies to the physical space we inhabit as well as the virtual space).

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

  1. Strategic leaders who are willing to engage meaningfully and think beyond “what is” and towards “what could be”. If we are to create environments which are future ready, thinking about “what could be” there is a need to look beyond the horizon of inevitable change which is based on current policy and innovation. It needs innovative thinking and true innovation is not based on cutting and pasting what has been done before.
  2. Through strong leadership, evidence based links between Pedagogy demand, Technology demand and Spatial demand can be created so the strategies and solutions for the latter two are clearly validated again the vision for the former.
  3. A team who are capable of delivering against the articulated strong vision. Their skills should be used to democratise design by really listening and creating options which reflect engagement outcomes. Meaningful further engagement and early “option-eering” of concepts driven by these engagement outcomes (rather than architectural pre conceived models) will allow all of the above to be prioritised against affordability caps. The focus should be optimal quality of space rather than focussing on quantity of space. This requires early thinking with the demands of interior design and space planning informing architectural development.


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

They will need to be nimbler and more responsive. The opportunity of shared space will hopefully be embraced to allow new approaches considering:

  • Individual core space which is fundamental to identity and brand whilst also meeting the need to create a safe and secure environment for young people.
  • Flexible space which can easily respond to changing requirements on a yearly, or possibly monthly basis and could be shared use.
  • On-demand space which is bookable, as and when needed, and which can accommodate a wide range of other agency users and could accommodate specialist activities and occasional over-flow requirements.

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

Without a doubt there is an increasingly critical need to harness the pre-existing skills of learners in regards technology if learning is to be relevant and engaging. Technology and the internet is not innovation to current learners. It is being used by them in an natural and intuitive way in all aspects of life, with unfortunately the exception of education.

Ideally technology will facilitate and support learning environments rather than shaping them.

Hopefully there will be greater opportunity to make use of technology more flexible and able to overcome the current barriers where protocols are very restrictive in regards access to content. Shared digital space will hopefully be easier to manage securely across those planning and facilitating learning across all professional areas (including local government agencies, central government agencies, third sector partners, Higher Education, Further Education and partners within industry and business).

With greater flexibility in regards access the virtual campus will hopefully allow greater choice and variety of pathway options and will help afford necessary efficiencies that will fund a much more personalised approach to planning effective and meaningful individualised pathways.

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

The learning environments we have referenced are all focussed on using space differently. We have not visited any in person, but have come across them in our research activities and have studied them.

Examples are all focussed on supporting new ways of learning and working and the optimisation of physical resources. New cultures of shared space are part of the story.

In two of the examples given, new life has been given to existing redundant / underused spaces. All of this is very relevant in regards maximising the potential for our existing learning estate to respond to changing learning and working needs within affordable budgets and without having to build new buildings necessarily (on the theme of doing more with what we have).

The third example is particularly interesting in regards to the relationship between Pedagogy, Space and Technology and creating a model which allows investment to be focussed on the learner experience rather than overheads.


Example 1 : University of Melbourne learning laboratory (2007)

What is it?

The Learning Lab at the University of Melbourne is designed to support active group and collaborative approaches to teaching and learning, integrated with seamless access to information and presentation technologies. The Learning Lab is used by 1200 first year chemistry students on a weekly basis in cohorts of 40. These sessions are complimentary to formal lectures and allow group work and moderated peer explanation. The objective is to build students’ confidence to ‘talk chemistry’ in describing what they are seeing and learning. The physical facilities in the space have flexibility to support the student tasks which vary according to the strengths and experience of the staff and students and these variable tasks along with the need to vary group sizes (4 cohorts and 8 cohorts) informed the space planning. The technology allows students share their work within the group as well as present to the other zones in the space.

Why was it created?

Like many departments within universities the School of Chemistry were starting to promote problem solving through cross disciplinary team working. Attempts  to move into this new mode of learning was severely limited by the lecture theatre spaces in which these tutorial sessions were being held.

How was it created?

The space was created through a re-imagining of a 90 seat lecture theatre. The Learning Lab consists of  five zones, each with a swivel desk arrangement for flexibility in grouping size and each supported with a range of ICT and presentation tools. The space accommodates a class of up to 40 – arranged in  five groups of up to eight students, or ten groups of four.

 Collaborative learning requires more footprint area per student. Whilst the capacity of this space is reduced the university have afforded the space through the intensification of use/increased utilisation of learning spaces elsewhere across the their teaching spaces.

Faculty of Architecture, TU Delft, The Netherlands
Faculty of Architecture, TU Delft, The Netherlands

Exemplar 2 : Faculty of Architecture, TU Delft, The Netherlands (2009)

The demand for new accommodation and the realisation of the projec

The building housing the faculty burned down in 2008. A new home was needed quickly to ensure that existing students could continue their education and new students could be welcomed. This new home was visioned and created in little over a year. There was a vacant building on site which was available. It was 100 years old and had been adapted many times creating a Labyrinthine environment. It was considerably smaller that the previous footprint and clever thinking was required in regards how space use could be optimised.

The best knowledge and talents of students, researchers, staff, alumni and external agencies were brought together in highly intensive collaborative process. The tight timescale and the demand to create more with less catalysed appetite for future ready thinking and change in the way staff and students would work and learn in the new environment.

The re-imagined building

The existing building was remodelled to create both formal and informal spaces for learning and working. The spaces between the buildings were infilled and glazed over to create two “glass houses” which are at the heart of the faculty. These are dynamic spaces which can be reconfigured to suit a wide range of activities.

Every space is considered in terms of maximising potential use. Transition areas were used to create a range of informal learning and social spaces that also functioned as work and formal lecture spaces if needed. In one of the atriums a stepped platform style stair which links levels also acts as amphitheatre style seating for events as well as an exhibition space, and in addition creates an undercroft with is used for lecture theatres. Informal learning and social spaces also function as work and formal lecture spaces as and when needed.

The change journey

The project marked a move from a culture of allocated or owned space to one where students and staff are no longer allocated owned spaces but share a rich range of spaces and places to work and learn.


Exemplar 3: Minerva schools

What is it?

Minerva is a new approach to undergraduate education. There are no lectures. All the teaching takes place in intensive, interactive seminars, many conducted online using Minerva’s specialised video-conferencing system.

The residences

The business model is minimal in regards overheads which allows funds to be spent on the students learning. Instead of investing in maintaining the expensive buildings, campus facilities, and amenities found at other top universities, Minerva uses the vast resources of major world cities as its infrastructure. Residential buildings are leased with the focus of financial resources being used for small group learning as well as developing relationships with the businesses, government entities, and cultural institutions surrounding them. Students live together and work across the local environment using spaces and places to suit the task in hand. There are currently 7 residential campuses (San Fransisco, Buenos Aires, London, Berlin, Seol, Tapei & Hyderabad). The location of each of the residences is carefully considered to maximise the cultural and educational opportunity of the local environment. Experiential programs are expressly designed to extend learning into the urban context.


Global Experience and experiential learning at the core

The location of the residences is an extension of the learning environment. Students participate in challenging, site-specific programs which allow them to apply concepts learned in class to real-world scenarios in the cosmopolitan centers of residential life. The rich resources which exist in each city are exploited. Students attend work sessions, collaborating with civic organisations, and engaging with prominent cultural figures. This programming is designed to deepen understanding of academic material and reinforce practical skills while cultivating vital character traits like empathy, resilience, and accountability.


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