Classroom furniture

Written by: HTU | Published:

Education furniture specialist Trevor Gillman examines recent research linking classroom design to improved performance in schools and offers his tips for creating the optimum learning environment

Psychologists have been researching how light and colour can influence how people perceive the areas around them for many years. It is therefore surprising that, until recently, no conclusive studies have explored the impact of such environmental factors on pupils’ learning in schools.

According to a recent study by the University of Salford – A Holistic, Multi-level Analysis Identifying the Impact of Classroom Design on Pupils’ Learning (Barrett, Zhang, Moffat, Kobbacy) – well-designed learning environments can improve pupils’ performance by as much as 25 per cent. I was fascinated by the findings, as 24 years working with education furniture has taught me that headteachers are under increasing pressure to ensure that any budget allocated to refurbishment works is fully accountable.

Researchers conducting the year-long pilot study examined 751 students in 34 classrooms at seven Blackpool primary schools. All of the primary schools were required to meet the following criteria – purpose-built public schools for primary education, a physically distinct site area with clear boundary condition, dedicated indoor and outdoor facilities, and standardised tests taken by all pupils. Each of the seven schools was visited twice. The first visit included a thorough interview and tour with the school’s head, following which seven classrooms were selected for the research. The second visit consisted of a three-part assessment of the learning environment, which evaluated classroom orientation, flexibility, layout, colour, noise, natural light, temperature and air quality, in addition to interviews with each teacher focused on the sensory comfort of the learning environment (glare, noise, storage space, etc). Student data was also collected, including performance levels in maths, reading and writing.

The study found that five out of the 10 environmental factors assessed positively affected a pupil’s learning progression – colour (18 per cent), complexity (17 per cent), flexibility (17 per cent), light (12 per cent) and choice (10 per cent). In terms of colour, the colour of furniture, wall and floor areas were all considered as part of the initial study, which stated: “Warm colours may complement the young pupils’ extroverted nature, while cool colours enhance the ability to concentrate on learning later.”

What I found particularly interesting was the importance of high-quality, comfortable and familiar furniture, fixtures and equipment and the impact these have on the learning and teaching environment, which was analysed as part of the environmental factor of “choice”.

In far too many school development and refurbishment projects I have worked on, classroom furniture and storage is an afterthought, with budgets often determined by what is left in the pot, where it should be an integral consideration in the planning process. Creating inspiring, comfortable learning and teaching environments requires careful planning and specialist design. I would recommend considering the following factors:

Acoustics: the Department of Education is currently revising its standards on acoustics for school buildings which, when published, will ensure that the design and construction of new school buildings provide acoustic conditions that enable effective teaching and learning. If you are looking to refurbish an existing learning space, evaluate the acoustics in your classroom by assessing how well pupils can hear teachers speaking and whether there is any disturbance from outside noise.

Colour: pupils’ ages and classroom use are both important considerations when choosing which colours are most appropriate for walls, floors and furniture. For instance, we recently installed furniture at a special school for autism education, where the headteacher specified a cool, refreshing colour scheme to help create a calm environment where pupils could both learn and play.

Furniture: high-quality furniture that is comfortable and familiar can aid pupils’ learning. With pupils spending more than 1,000 hours per year in the classroom, loose furniture, such as chairs and tables, must be comfortable and selected according to the age and size of the pupils using them.

Heating: flooring type and the heat from the sun can both affect the temperature of a room, so it is vital that any heating systems installed have a thermostat fitted to maintain a comfortable room temperature in the summer and winter.

Lighting: the level and distribution of natural daylight differs significantly throughout the year and room orientation and other factors can affect the amount of natural sunlight that penetrates a particular classroom. Opting for LED lighting will provide additional light when required while minimising energy usage.

Storage: scientists have found that physical clutter negatively affects humans’ ability to focus and process information, which is why adequate storage in classrooms is paramount. Storage must be fit-for-purpose for the activity in the classroom. For instance, an art classroom may benefit from mobile storage trays offering easy manoeuvrability and access to supplies, whereas IT facilities may require secure, lockable storage for high value equipment.

• Trevor Gillman is managing director of David Bailey Furniture Systems.

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