7 Steps to Create an Innovative Learning Environment

By Aaron Jobson

Aaron Jobson (right) of Quattrocchi Kwok Architects was one of the Geniuses at our Learning Space Genius Bar at SXSWedu 2018. This week, Aaron shares with us some of the major themes he encountered at the Genius Bar and in workshops and discussions.

Most teachers and administrators want to implement modern learning environments. But where do they start? Here are seven design principles that came out of my Genius Bar conversations and time at SXSWedu.

  1. Flexibility and Variety. These are two common buzzwords with different practical meanings.

Jayna Duke of O’Connell Robertson Architects gave a great definition of flexibility — the ability to use one space in different ways at different times. If you can design a space with two different uses in mind, you will find even more ways to use the space over time.

Cupertino High School’s Student Union Library space can be configured as two separate spaces and connected to the reading area beyond to serve a variety of functions.

Variety, on the other hand, is the ability to use a space in different ways at the same time. I discussed this with an educator from Brazil where the current design for a new school included only traditional classrooms. We looked at simple changes to the layout — different types of furniture, varied lighting — that could take a row of classrooms and transform them to a variety of connected learning spaces.

The Cove Elementary School has different types of connected learning spaces for small group, presentation, group work and projects.

2. Transparency: Once you have variety, you need transparency to connect the varying spaces. This is not only critical for maintaining supervision, but also to support the sharing of ideas and collaboration between students and teachers. Transparency also promotes views of the outdoors and daylight, both of which improve learning.

The glass walls at High Tech High allow a visual connection so that teachers can supervise students in both indoor and outdoor workspaces.

3. Big ideas can start with incremental changes. One district leader I talked with from California shared how he successfully achieved flexibility by replacing 8 student workstations at a time within a classroom. By slowly experimenting with the furniture, teachers were able to observe the impact on learning. Start with educators in your school that are willing to embrace it first. They can try it out and prove that it works to others who prefer the wait-and-see approach. Incremental change can lead to a lasting change.

The desks at Westwood are arranged in “workstations” so students to collaborate on assignments or work independently.

4. Light, Sound, and Air. More and more evidence connects the physical environment to learning outcomes. This Clever Classrooms study demonstrates that well-designed learning environments improve learning by 16 percent. Light, sound, and air make up almost half of the improvement.

Incorporating natural light into schools, like Stanford d.school, is crucial in helping students learn more effectively.

Increasing daylight and views, improving air quality (especially reducing CO2 levels), and reducing background noise can greatly benefit students and teachers. If students are uncomfortable in one of these areas, it takes away from their brains’ ability to learn. You can start small and still see huge benefits — open your blinds and windows and take students outside even for short periods of time.

5. Variety of conditions: Light and sound comfort zones vary with each individual. It is important to provide a variety of spaces that have different conditions in each of these areas to meet different student needs. Teachers can zone the classroom according to different activities and learning needs.

6. Keep special needs in mind. One of the best sessions I attended at SXSWedu focused on designing spaces for students with Autism. My biggest takeaway is that although all students are sensitive to environmental stimuli, students with Autism are especially sensitive to light, air and sound.

Hazelwood School is designed with maximum natural light and bright colors for the needs of young people with severe and highly complex needs.

7. Allow students to control their own learning environment quality. I strongly think that students themselves can have a significant role in assessing, monitoring and improving their learning environments. After chatting with Timothy Reidel from the University of Texas at Austin about where to begin engaging students in the process, I’m excited to start working on building light and CO2 sensors with my own kids. Maybe someday there will be an army of students evaluating their classrooms and making changes to get more fresh air, better daylight and to improve their learning environment. If so, I’m sure it will be discussed at a future SXSWedu!

When possible, help students redesign their classroom by having them sketch out where to put the furniture and let them explain the reasoning for these choices.

So, how do you build your dream learning environment? Stay tuned for more articles from our Geniuses experts on understanding the design process and new trends in the design industry.

Aaron Jobson is a Partner at Quattrocchi Kwok Architects. He comes from a family of educators and has a passion for creating dynamic and sustainable learning environments. His philosophy includes pursuing extensive community outreach and participation, allowing for client-and community-responsive design. He is known for his innovative projects, including American Canyon High School, which is one of the highest scoring Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) verified projects in California. He is also one of the creators of Folia, a classroom building solution that dramatically reduces design, permitting and construction time on projects to market. His work, passion and advocacy has garnered his reputation as a thought leader on how school facility design directly impacts academic success — a subject on which Aaron spoke about at SXSWedu, among other national education conferences.

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