Clever classrooms: summary report of the HEAD project

HEAD project: Holistic Evidence and Design
Design Classrooms Building retrofitting Evaluation Well-being Schools United Kingdom

Based on the results of the HEAD Project (Holistic Evidence and Design), funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, clear evidence has been found that well-designed primary schools boost children’s academic performance in reading, writing and maths. Differences in the physical characteristics of classrooms explain 16% of the variation in learning progress over a year for the 3766 pupils included in the study. Or to make this more tangible, it is estimated that the impact of moving an ‘average’ child from the least effective to the most effective space would be around 1.3 sub-levels, a big impact when pupils typically make 2 sub-levels progress a year.

This is the first time that clear evidence of the effect on users of the overall design of the physical learning space has been isolated in real life situations. Specific aspects have been studied in the past, such as air quality, but how it all comes together for real people in real spaces has proved to be a knotty problem.

In this context the researchers on the HEAD project worked for the last three years, carrying out detailed surveys of 153 classrooms from 27 very diverse schools and collecting performance statistics for the pupils studying in those spaces. The success of the study comes from taking into account a wide range of sensory factors and using multilevel statistical modeling to isolate the effects of classroom design from the influences of other factors, such as the pupils themselves and their teachers.

Three types of physical characteristic of the classrooms were assessed: Stimulation, Individualisation and Naturalness, or more memorably the SIN design principles. The factors found to be particularly influential are, in order of influence:

  • Naturalness: light, temperature and air quality – accounting for half the learning impact
  • Individualisation: ownership and flexibility – accounting for about a quarter
  • Stimulation (appropriate level of): complexity and colour – again about a quarter.

The twenty-page core of this report takes each of the individual aspects above and provides more detail on the results, linked to practical advice for designers and teachers. Within this it is interesting to note that the aspects linked to the appropriate level of stimulation for learning is curvilinear – neither chaotic, nor boring, but somewhere in the middle.

Surprisingly, whole-school factors (eg size, navigation routes, specialist facilities, play facilities) do not seem to be anywhere near as important as the design of the individual classrooms. This point is reinforced by clear evidence that it is quite typical to have a mix of more and less effective classrooms in the same school. The message is that, first and foremost, each classroom has to be well designed.

A very positive finding is that users (teachers) can readily action many of the factors. The suggestions included show that small changes, costing very little or nothing, can make a real difference. For example, changing the layout of the room, the choices of display, or colour of the walls.

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