Learning environment

THE Dreaming Spires conjures images of boating, stiff Pimm’s and the incredible buildings at Oxford University which inspired Victorian poet Matthew Arnold to create the epithet.

It remains the most sought after university for students in the UK and beyond and it is no surprise that it currently occupies the top spot in the Times Higher Education University World Rankings 2017 list.

But is it the aforementioned ‘dreaming spires’ which inspire academic excellence or the bald fact that most students there are amongst the academic elite?

Most people would be persuaded by the latter. In fact if you look at other universities in the TES Top Ten, including the California Institute of Technology and Cambridge, Harvard, Princeton and Stanford universities – each in its own way has buildings which could inspire excellence, were excellence probably not going to happen in any case.

It’s perhaps much more apposite to look at less elite establishments and at education at a pre-tertiary level.

A few years ago a pilot study was carried out in seven Blackpool LEA primary schools, where 34 classrooms with differing learning environments and age groups took part.

The study took two lines of enquiry. The first was to collect data from 751 pupils, such as their age, gender and performance level in maths, reading and writing at the start and end of an academic year.

The second evaluated the holistic classroom environment, taking into account different design parameters such as classroom orientation, natural light and noise, temperature and air quality. Other issues such as flexibility of space, storage facilities and organisation, as well as use of colour were evaluated.

This holistic assessment included both classroom design and used factors to identify what constituted an effective learning environment.

The result? A well-designed classroom environment improved the academic performance of primary school pupils by 25 percent.

Moving further south Kingsdale School, a south London comprehensive, was given an architectural makeover when an underused courtyard was converted into a new heart for the school covered by a glamorous roof made of the same stuff as the Eden Project in Cornwall. By every measure, Kingsdale’s performance improved.

Newer schools have certainly moved away from the stark, intimidating structures of the Victorian age and afterwards, but certain countries are more enlightened than others.

‘Kingoskolen’ (the Kingo School) in Denmark is a good example of an aesthetic educational environment. Here, consideration has been given to a good indoor climate, sustainability, and a fine spatial organisation.

The smell of wood welcomes you when you enter the school and all floors are covered with white pigmented planks of the wood Kerving Yang instead of linoleum which is still chosen in most newly constructed school buildings largely because of cleaning considerations. Along one of the corridors, small balconies are placed at the first floor level. Here the pupils can read a book or have a conversation with other pupils among the top of the big palm trees which reach the balconies. Big plants decorate the corridors of the school and all over it is clear that the construction of each single room as well as the entire school has been carefully thought through. There are niches and corners everywhere, or areas which have been lowered in order to make the stay there cosier. There is variation in the conditions outside and inside, and there is a nice processing of daylight and the use of artificial light.

The school is the result of a very close collaboration between the municipality, the school management and staff, and a firm of architects. The architectural idea was to create a school where there is a functional clearness in the main disposition. In other words, it should be easy to note the different parts which the school consists of as this provides recognition and safety and at the same time a room sequence and room processing which is eventful for pupils and teachers.

The construction of the school was planned around an artificial lake with carp. The lake is placed in the middle of the school and it is a nice architectural element which provide atmosphere and influence the senses. From most of the central corridors, it is possible to see the water. There is access from these corridors to terraces at the lake where pupils and staff take lunch on sunny days.

Sometimes, inspirational ideas applied to buildings can aid the learning process.

In South-east Asia Dutch-Indonesian architecture and design firm Shau constructed an incredible microlibrary in the city of Bandung in Indonesia that features a cooling façade made up of over 2,000 recycled ice cream containers made of plastic.

The library was constructed using a simple steel structure of I-beams in combination with concrete slabs for the floor and roof. As the building is located in a tropical climate, creating a pleasant indoor climate on a tight budget without the use of air conditioning was essential to the brief. The architects thus looked for a locally available façade material that was cost efficient and could shade the interior, while also allowing daylight to pass through and enabling sufficient cross ventilation.

Shau initially looked at the possibility of using jerry cans with their bottoms cut open to form a breathable façade. Ultimately however, jerry cans in the required quantities were not available. Instead, they opted for ice cream containers, which they bought online from a seller. It turns out to have been a good move as the design team are of the opinion that ice cream containers have a more positive image and further to this, these plastic containers were easier than jerry cans to cut open as part of achieving the necessary cross ventilation through the façade.

The illiteracy and school dropout rate in Indonesia has remained high over recent years, with interest in books and reading declining. A major aim of this project was thus to rekindle interest in books by offering a dedicated place for reading and learning.

The result is a library like no other that is helping to encourage local passion for books and reading while also providing a community centre where people can socialise and read together within a truly delightful environment.

Bad buildings with all their accompanying structural problems can certainly cause serious issues. And good buildings clearly can lead to better performance. Buildings, and the care of them, ergo are important educational barometers.

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