A significant effect on children’s progress and development

by Fellowship Agency May 3, 2017

There is now evidence, both anecdotal and empirical, that the learning environment can have a significant effect on children’s progress and development.

 Now it’s time to move from discussion to implementation, argues Murray Hudson, Managing Director and Chairman of Gratnells; from 2012 – 2016 Chairman of the British Educational Furniture Manufacturers’ Group and the inspiration behind the Gratnells Learning Rooms project.

17 years ago, when I first came into this industry, there was a general awareness of the educational benefits of a well organised school and the contribution that good systems made to teaching practice.  Having teaching materials readily available and easy to find were of obvious value to teachers, while for pupils a properly planned classroom with storage, display and personal space all made the school day a more pleasurable experience.

Far-sighted educationalists, however, were already beginning to challenge the formality of basics such as rigid, geometric desking arrangements, arguing that learning and creativity required a more flexible and individual approach.

Let me quote you from a recent document written by Professor Peter Barrett,

Emeritus professor, University of Salford; Honorary Research Fellow, University of Oxford, and a regular consultant to our business.

“Although everyone knows it in their bones, it has been surprisingly difficult to actually evidence that the design of a classroom impacts on the learning rates of the pupils in it. It was not until 2015, after eight years effort by a team of researchers at the University of Salford, that clear evidence was finally pinned down showing that differences in the physical characteristics of 153 classrooms accounted for 16% of the variation in the learning progress of the 3766 children in those spaces.”

In creating learning spaces fit for purpose now, we need also to consider the pace of change and what the world may look like tomorrow, not just to children but to teachers.

For years, we’ve been amongst those suppliers contributing to good order and to creating a learning environment that was open, colourful and stimulating.  Our own learning process, listening to our customers, looking at the work of progressive movements such as Montessori and being influenced by inspirational figures such as Sir Ken Robinson, enabled us to recognise that we need to look at the whole of the learning environment to maximise our value.

Learning Rooms is the outcome of that philosophical sea-change and it’s an approach which we, working alongside a range of partners and collaborators, are now helping to implement.  We believe the case is proven and that it’s time to apply these ideas through the application of digital technologies, in the performing arts, in outdoor learning, in all the places where teachers teach and children learn. As Professor Barrett says:

“The more novel ‘individualisation’ design parameters of flexibility and ownership are, respectively about offering options to pupils and teachers and the opportunity to engender a personal connection with their classroom.  Some of this is about the spaces created within and adjacent to the classroom. These can support a variety of activities, which is especially important for younger children where the pedagogy is typically more play-based.  So, even in a rectangular room, learning zones (e.g. for reading, art, role-play) can be established with the creative use of furniture.  Without this infrastructure, it is hard for teachers to deliver the curriculum in an interesting and engaging way.”

We recently published the first edition of our Learning Rooms book, entitled “Enhancing the Learning Environment”, in which we explore some of the themes and developments which are landmarks on the education map.  We drew on the experience and legacy of processes such as The Third Teacher Collaborative Project, and the Clever Classrooms report.  We also took inspiration from the likes of Marshall McLuhan, Sir Ken Robinson, Lou Aronica and Louis Malaguzzi, founder of Reggio Emilia’s educational philosophy.

Our intention is to contribute to the weight of informed opinion about ways forward in education and “Enhancing the Learning Environment” is already in its second iteration, will soon be available as a hardback edition and shows in a wealth of photographic and illustrative material how to move from the conceptual to the real in school and classroom design.

In our own domain, we regularly confer with acknowledged experts such as Dr. Katherine Forsey, who works as a consultant to our business, creating diversity for schools and colleges, filling the new environment with rich learning material and helping teachers deliver stimulating content.  Much of this work is quite fundamental and practical in nature, encouraging children to see, touch, identify and explore the natural world around them.  Dr. Forsey’s material offers kits and plans for exciting visits into school grounds and gardens, to ponds and rock pools, on field trips and other excursions to woods, rivers and meadows. It adds a further dimension to the learning landscape and is well worthy of its place in “Enhancing the Learning Environment”.

Whilst we have decades of experience working in the sector,  however, we try not to become complacent about what we know and what we still have to learn.  Our collaborative approach with others includes working alongside such major corporates as Dulux and Lego, absorbing the knowledge they are happy to share about essential elements of the learning space such as colour, texture and form.

Much of this process involves looking at other systems, cultures and approaches, so I spend a good deal of my time travelling, to get that understanding at first hand.  Currently we have major projects in Dubai, in China and in the USA, all of which will add significantly to our own fund of knowledge and most important to our ability to help implement necessary changes in our learning space.

Running a business in the education sector is, of course, a responsibility but it is also a privilege.  Together we as suppliers have an opportunity to influence the future of our children by intervening in the learning spaces they occupy.  The talking is over and now is the time to act on what we know.  It’s a prospect that is both exciting and challenging.