What makes a great learning environment? Henry McKeown and Ian Alexander Design Directors, JM Architects

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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 Henry McKeown and Ian Alexander Design Directors, JM Architects

What makes a great environment for learning and why?

A combination of things; a good teaching team with an inspirational leader can create an atmosphere and a positive learning culture. Having this kind of leadership as part of a design team is invaluable, usually their powers of persuasion is often the reason some more traditional teachers change their minds.

In terms of architectural spaces that challenge traditional models of learning, space in which pupils can see other pupils learning and see learning being delivered in new ways, taking learning out of the classroom into a more flexible, less formal teaching setting with contemporary furniture and a more workplace kind of environment.

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

  1. Spacial flexibility: is essential for modern learning and teaching the ability of the building to be used in a variety of different ways. Spaces that support individual/group learning outwith the traditional classroom format. Spaces that are furnished in ways that also support more independent learning.
  2. Technology: The role of technology in education today and for the future is vital, school buildings will change dramatically in the near future as more and more new technologies and devices are developed. Demand for space will drop in lieu of more individual/smaller group type learning.
  3. The correct ambience for learning and teaching: The mood of a space can dramatically impact on the quality of teaching and learning. A badly lit room with standard school furniture and finishes, and a standard forward facing format is no longer an acceptable model for learning and teaching. Learning in a less sterile space with good lighting and less formal furniture is much more conducive to learning in a more everyday life like environment – like a good coffee shop.

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

Technology will lead to a decline in the demand for space, schools are notoriously space greedy, usually due to historical conventions and teaching practise.

The use of technology as both a learning and teaching tool will steer school design more and more toward a much more workplace like model, where mobility and flexibility are essential; where agile learning and teaching will become the norm. Hot desking, multipurpose spaces will replace classrooms. Libraries as we know them will disappear and will be replaced by fast speed data spaces for knowledge retrieval.

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

As mentioned before technology will have a dramatic impact in how learning environments will be shaped in the future.

Remote learning will become more and more the norm. This is already the case in the western isles of Scotland where children and teachers exchange lessons and homework online.

As technology evolves there will be a lesser demand for space in the formal, traditional sense. Spaces will become more neutral and flexible, more like a high tech workplace than a grouping of traditional classrooms.

Buildings are expensive to build, space utilisations in our schools can be low; as a result pressure is applied onto already limited budgets. To keep these spaces warm even when not in use, to design buildings for maximum utilisation, will result in new kinds of learning facilities being developed.

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

I think we have all referenced exemplar school environments from abroad, mostly Scandinavia and Japan. The problem is we revere these countries, their educationist and designers for what they do, but our culture, our mind set and our reserve prevent us from truly learning from other countries because we default to generic school models that merely repeat local trends and conventions.

When is the last time you saw a school plan that is circular? That is one room deep and has full sized glazed screens on the inner and outer elevations, that have a playground on the roof, and a secured circular courtyard at the ground floor.

Where children are free to climb up and down stairs at will onto the roof at will.

This school exists in Japan – Fuji Kindergarten by Tezuka Architects


JM Architects-Central Space, Image © Keith Hunter Photography_detail

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