Space as change agent

university lecture theatre

© 2016


Can space effect student learning?

Are changes in the built environment enough to effect student learning outcomes? Woolner, Hall, Higgins, McCaughey and Wall (2007) report on a literature review conducted in the UK which examined the evidence around the impact of environments on learning in schools. The authors review the literature to measure firstly,  if there is empirical evidence to justify justify change to learning environments. Secondly, the authors goal is to identify conflict, inconsistency or complexity in evidence around the impact of space on learning (Woolner, Hall, Higgins, McCaughey & Hall, pp.47-48). The review at the outset distinguished between “various kinds of impact” on learning under the headings:

attainment: (improvement in curriculum attainment)

engagement: improvement in levels of attention

affect: improvement in self-esteem for teachers and students

attendance: reduction in lateness and absenteeism

well-being: physical impacts on self (p.49)

The review concludes that there is not enough empirical evidence to evaluate the value of design initiatives given “this is not a simple matter of architectural determinism” (p.60). The authors are not advocating that investment into redesign should not take place, instead they emphasises the complex relationship between people and the environment citing changes in the environment are likely to result in an “involved chain of events” where positive changes beget positive changes in a “virtuous cycle” (p.61). Specifically, the environment in a school is part of a whole ecosystem which includes pedagogical, socio-cultural, curricular, motivational and socio-economic factors. For example, the reorganisation of desks in a classroom from a traditional layout to a more open plan setting may also reflect a change in pedagogical practices (p.61). The authors recommend further research into the effect of design processes on teachers and students and the need for user engagement in designing and resolving design problems.

However, this is not the end of the matter. What about creativity? How does environment effect our capacity to learn, create and innovate? While the relationship between space and people are complex, there is

…you go into this environment and you are very stifled…

We are at a tipping point (Gladwell, 2000), the challenge of designing spaces to meet the ever-evolving needs of learners is possible when interdisciplinary teams “allow the user a greater say in determining how things unfold.” (Brown, 2009, p.134).


Gladwell, M. (2000). The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. Boston: Little, Brown.

Seelig, T. (2014). The 6 characteristics of truly creative people [Video file]. Retrieved from 

Woolner, P., Hall, E., Higgins, S., McCaughey, C. & Wall, K. (2007). A Sound foundation? What we know about the impact of environments on learning and the implications for building schools for the future. Oxford Review of Education, 33(1), 47-70.

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