Environmental Considerations for Learning Styles

According to the theory of multiple learning styles, students have a multitude of distinct ways in which they optimally absorb and retain information. The combination of several individual attributes is unique for each child, but there are prevailing themes that make it possible to accommodate a number of students’ learning styles in the same learning environment. Since the beginning of time, teachers have known that each student learns in a unique manner. The research has finally caught up to this insight and has provided enough data to support this idea. Now that we know individual learning styles have huge implications on the quality of education, it is time to translate this knowledge into the structure and function of the physical environment.

Sound, lighting, temperature, and seating are four environmental aspects that have been repeatedly shown to affect students’ learning processes. These variables apply to all places that learning may occur, but this article will discuss them in reference to the K-12 classroom. The good news is that these characteristics are easily controlled and changed in the ideal situation. The bad news is that there are often regulatory concerns that can create a roadblock if not acknowledged and dealt with appropriately.

Sound — There are numerous articles available that relate to decibels in classrooms. There are variables, in terms of background noise, that are created by mechanical vents or outside factors that influence these standards. Best practices can be investigated through educational standards or consultation with design engineers. Be sure to check that the jurisdiction in which you are designing does not have regulatory restrictions.

Lighting — There is significant data that proves that lighting can enhance or impede learning. According to the Dunn and Dunn model of learning styles, there are variations among students regarding the amount of light that is needed for optimal learning to occur. Therefore, it is important that there are multiple levels of lighting in the same classroom. One way that this can be accomplished is to use natural light in creative and functional ways. It has become increasingly important for students to have the opportunity to see outdoors rather than simply installing skylights. This can sometimes present a problem with existing schools that do not have enough perimeter walls to support all classrooms with outside views. Providing interior courtyards can give the ability to have visual access to the outdoors.

Light levels can be controlled with various remedies, such as lighting rheostats or automatic louvers. Variations in lighting will be needed for the operation of audiovisual equipment, Smartboards, etc. Ensure that the appropriate footcandles are available to support various learning styles. The type of light that is being used over a long period of time has also been shown to have an effect on students learning and health. In one study, it was found that supplementing ultraviolet light into the classroom increased student performance and attendance. Again, different jurisdictions may dictate certain standards, so beware.

Temperature — Everyone has experienced an office where some people tend to be warm and others tend to be cool. The school environment is just the same. Learning styles research tells us that when people are uncomfortable based on the temperature they cannot think properly. Temperature variations can be augmented using fans, etc. Bear in mind that mechanical codes dictate quantities of make-up air, and the design professional will need to pay attention to this issue in regard to proper temperature control.

Seating — Contemporary learning solutions stress flexibility in spaces. Attention should be given to the number of students programmed to occupy the space and the seating required for the occupancy. Care should be taken that flexibility and occupancy programmed for that space are sufficient. In existing facilities driven by budget restraints, creative solutions may be necessary. They may include utilizing volume in smaller spaces and the creation of mezzanines in elementary situations to allow for small, intimate activities. Again, fire egress regulations may temper some of these efforts, so be careful.

In dealing with regulatory authorities, it’s important to know how to apply for either a waiver of regulations or seek alternative compliance approval. It is very important to work with regulatory officials to devise solutions that keep children and adults safe without compromising the effectiveness and excitement of the learning environment.

Nancy Myers is president of The Myers Group, an educational facility planning firm. She can be reached at nancy@themyersgroup.com.
Sue Robertson is president of Planning Alliance, an educational facility planning firm. She can be reached at srobertson@planning-alliance.com.