What makes a great learning environment? Paul Stallan, Stallan-Brand.

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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 Paul Stallan, Design Director, Stallan Brand

What makes a great environment for learning, and why?

Critical to learner development is a learning environment that allows you to be yourself, whether you are musical, expressive, studious or practical, shy, boisterous or disadvantaged in some way. A great learning environment is one that provides a myriad of spaces to support different types of play, social interaction, team working, space for quiet contemplation. An environment that connects with external landscapes and encourages community access. The paradigm shift in learning is in recent times is from teaching within the fixed settings of the classroom and department to much more creative spatial arrangements that prioritise socialisation and thematic learning that engages the individual student and pupils interests. New learning environments should provide a nexus of spaces that support different types of learner progressions starting with the early years through to employment or vocational and higher education destinations.

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

Presently there is only one overarching priority that architects and educationalist should prioritise in school design and the modern curriculum … ‘wellbeing’. A huge amount of work is still required to convey the significance of this requirement to both parents and teachers. Countries that prioritise wellbeing over attainment like Finland have demonstrated improved learner outcomes. Very simply happier students achieve more and feel better about themselves compared to students that are driven by a ‘fear of failure’ culture that prevails in the UK. The wellbeing agenda will be transformational in helping change outmoded pedagogy over the next ten years.


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

Three major changes in school design that will combine to create not only more resilient learners but more resilient communities going forward;

  • Schools will become ‘intergenerational places’ at the very core of community life.
  • New learning environments will encourage much greater community access by sharing amenities and key resources not just at weekends and evenings but at all times through the week; i.e. 24/7.
  • The new learning place will support vocational learning, business development, new enterprise and job creation opportunities for students opting not to go into higher education and for those in the community returning to education to learn a new skill.

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

Technology is and continues to explode the ‘classroom and department’ school typology to enable learning to happen at anytime and anywhere. Learning environments in a direct response to information technology are being radically reconfigured in much more casual and open ended formats that respond to individuals learner needs. Social spaces that encourage creative exchange, informal meeting, leisure activity and community access are opening up the traditional and closed institutional school building approach.

Have you seen approaches to learning environments which you think we could learn from in Scotland?

Stallan-Brand are presently working with Scottish Borders Council Education Directorate and The Scottish Futures Trust to deliver a model school that we hope will become the new sector exemplar. We are providing a civic architecture for Jedburgh that breaks the traditional school model, one that combines early years, primary school, secondary school and vocational learning in response to the five learning stages within the Scottish Governments Curriculum for Excellence guidance.

Key to the design is the deconstruction of out dated ‘departmental silo’s’ to provide studio environments for each of the learner stages; i.e. where the students reside and the teacher come to them. This studio school approach creates an environment for thematic and cross curricular learning activity. Learners will take greater ownership and responsibility for their studio to create a more nurturing, playful and dynamic place. No more trudging around corridors for pupils and an end to teachers having their own classrooms and off-limit staff-rooms.

Additionally our new school model removes its perimeter fences and barriers and invites the community into the building at all times. The design carefully manages security and safety of the pupils around their learning clusters leaving the specialist spaces to be shared with the wider community; i.e. games halls, gyms, IT suites, catering kitchens etc. The last important innovation the design addresses is the cliff edge that many pupils face who are not going onto higher education in Scotland opting for vocational opportunities. Spaces for enterprise whether workshops or co-working space for local business are to be provided to help transition from school to employment. These same spaces will also support adults coming back into education to learn new skills.

Together with the client team at Borders we have referenced international precedent. Finland has been a reference for the team both in terms of curriculum development and school building design. Actual school buildings that we studied we found in a publication by the Finish authorities. The schools we studied all re-choreograph the learner experience compared to the current school design models being promoted by local authorities in Scotland. We propose to learn from good precedent but contextualise each and every design relating it to its unique situation.

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