Learning Spaces: What Parents Should Look For

There is so much to think about when choosing a school. Curriculum, price point, location, the culture, staff and teachers – the list is long! But given that our children spend a huge chunk of their childhoods in their school environment, should parents give school design a higher priority? What makes a well thought out, effective school campus and how do we as parents evaluate a school’s architecture and design, beyond simple first impressions?
Learning Spaces: What Parents Should Look For
By Jenny Mollon
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Our aim at WhichSchoolAdvisor.com is to equip our readers with all the facts, opinions and knowledge you need to make the right decision when it comes to choosing a school for your child. How much should the design of the school factor in this decision? We spoke with Dubai based design experts Jason Burnside of architects Godwin Austin Johnson (GAJ) and Charlotte Borghesi of Kidzink Design as well as teachers from some of the UAE's oldest and newest schools about the impact design has on learning. 

Cover photo, the new Citizens School Dubai, designed by GAJ Architects.  

Mr Burnside: How would you describe how architectural design influences learning?

For me, so much of learning is about encouraging exploration of the space, and making it accessible for all kinds of uses. That is what good architecture can create.  

Corridors are also learning spaces at the new Raha International School, Khalifa City campus, a project by Kidzink Design
The spectacular entrance area at Arcadia School, JVC. Lead architect GAJ

Ms Borghesi, tell us about interior design in schools. What should parents be looking for and what makes a well-designed learning space?

Learning spaces must serve the needs of students, that is fundamental. Classrooms should allow space for children to work both collaboratively and independently. Good design would reflect the age of the students, the focus of the school or classroom (vocational, academic...), the curriculum as well as the defining values and ethos of the school. It’s most definitely not one size fits all.

No two designs should be the same, each should be in keeping with the unique 'personality' of each school.

The atrium at RGS Guildford Dubai, a project by Kidzink Design

Mr Burnside, you have been working in Dubai for almost 20 years. What has changed in school architecture in that time?

We are all much more aware of the need for sustainable design these days. It’s not that our clients come to us and say “give me a green school”, but I think everyone involved knows that new buildings create quite a big environmental impact. Despite that, we all need protection from the environment. We try to look at the local climate and employ a sensitive grasp of how local, traditional architecture has been able to work for thousands of years in the climate. 

As architects and as educators, we now know much more about how good design can help children with additional needs. Take acoustics: there are ceiling materials that can be used that will prevent children from missing a quite significant percentage of the words their teacher says. Imagine how impactful that can be for children with say, ADHD, who perhaps struggle with concentration and focus?

Ms Borghesi, is sustainability a key factor in school interior design?

Yes. As an industry, we’ve seen an increasing number of parents questioning sustainably in the design of their children’s schools. We’ve tried to help schools with this by building sustainability in to every step of our processes. When a tree is felled for use in our manufacturing facility, two more are replanted in its place. Sustainable manufacturing answers eco questions before a school even has to ask them.

What should parents look for in good school design?

Mr Burnside: Whenever we talk to teachers, students or parents, feedback always comes down to the quality of the light. And that doesn’t just mean in classrooms! Look at the corridors – are they wide, open, bright spaces with windows or long, narrow, dark walkways? Do the interior spaces feel welcoming or gloomy? Are the teachers having to use blinds so that students can see the boards in the sunlight?

Schools might look like they are buildings filled with square box classrooms, but subtle changes to the architecture can make a huge impact. Our aim is to give great teachers a space they can really make the most of. That said, while a new building brings huge benefits, I have a certain nostalgia for older schools, and there is so much more that goes in to the provision of a great education than just design.

Ms Borghesi: Our team spend so much time thinking about this! I’d suggest parents take a close look at the classroom furniture. Is it appropriately sized for the age of children? Can they access resources and tech independently? Of course, the impact of design goes deeper than that. Too many schools have all of their teaching with children sat in rows, facing a teacher at the front. That was the model for classrooms around the time of the industrial revolution!

Flexible learning spaces at Raha International School

When designing a learning environment, we need to recognise that different children thrive in different situations. Some can concentrate standing, some lying on their belly, some in a quiet corner, some in a group. The classrooms of today need to reflect that.

Whatever their age, your child is going to spend a lot of their waking hours in the school environment. Ask yourself, if the space was your office, would it be somewhere you would want to work, for several hours a day? Would you come out of a day spent there feeling energised and happy? I think that is the ultimate test.

Classroom Design - The Teacher View

At Raha Interntional School, Khalifa City, the design of the learning spaces has been particularly important and impactful for the Early Years Department.  Anna Lacey, Vice Principal and Head of Early Years explains;

"There is a tendency in schools to go big, bright, and very colourful. If not used in a meaningful way this can create lots of visual noise for children which makes it hard to concentrate. We planned the furniture, the walls, the whole environment to be as neutral as possible, this is to allow the children, the resources and their work to be the things that jump out at you.
One of our big focuses for the building was the idea of connection. Lots of natural light spilling through the many windows and doors connecting the children to their outdoor learning environment, the hub spaces and corridors, thus transforming the corridors into learning spaces too.  Because of this connectivity, learning is on display everywhere you look and there is an effortless fluidity between all the different learning spaces."

Harkness - where design creates a democratic classroom

Classroom design can be equally impactful in secondary schools.  At Dubai College, teachers have embraced the 'Harkness Method' with great success.  Harkness classrooms are simple in design and feature a single oval table, rather than the traditional classroom furniture many readers will remember from their own school days!  Harkness tables are said to help students explore their ideas as a group and develop the courage to speak, as well as improving listening skills and empathy.

A Harkness table in use 

Sarah Lambert, English Teacher and Specialist Leader in Education for Oracy and Harkness at Dubai College has spearheaded the use of the Harkness table at the school.  Mrs Lambert, who explored topic of Harkness for her recent Masters degree, explained,

"Having our students sit around an oval Harkness table creates a very different dynamic  than a traditional linear furniture configuration. We find that facing one another facilitates communication, eye contact and positive interaction. Our teachers use an app to ‘map’ the contributions of students during Harkness lessons, and the data produced from this is fascinating. Over time, we see that confident, vocal students (who perhaps previously dominated discussions) learn to step back and listen more. By contrast, the once less vocal students become much more likely to contribute and be forthright about their opinions. Harkness has been brilliant for facilitating communication, oracy, and equity in our lessons".

An example of a Harkness class 'equity map', as used at Dubai College

Harkness - the future of all our classrooms?

Mrs Lambert's passion for all things Harkness has seen her delivering oracy training in a number of schools as well as creating the Dubai Oracy Hub, in order to share the success of purposeful classroom talk across schools in the emirate.  Mrs Lambert explained,

"When we first began using Harkness at Dubai College, we started with the oldest students and a small number of subjects areas. As time has gone on, we have been able to expand the use of Harkness and a focus on oracy to a much broader range of subjects and to our younger students too.  We have plans to renew the buildings within the school in the coming years, and Harkness classrooms and other flexible spaces will be a significant feature in the design.

"Connecting with other schools is very important to us.  We now have a collaboration with Victory Heights Primary School. The team at VHPS place a similar emphasis on oracy in their curriculum, and each year send a number of their students to us at Dubai College for secondary school. It’s been a natural and useful partnership and sharing of expertise between primary and secondary”.

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