How modular classrooms can optimise pupils’ experience of learning

With teaching space at a premium as a result of rising pupil numbers, how can provision be expanded and design utilised to create an engaging, positive and optimised learning environment? Gareth Barber of The Stable Company looks at the evidence base

The school environment has often been called ‘the third teacher’ – and a learning environment can have more impact on learning outcomes than you may think. It sounds obvious, but we should be using materials that are conducive to learning. Many teachers find that timber modular buildings provide something different from the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom. Timber is a material at the forefront of evidence-led design, and its use has been scientifically shown to present a series of physiological benefits to users, including reduced blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels. As one 2012 study in Japan put it (‘Behaviour Changes in Older Persons Caused by Using Wood Products in Assisted Living’), wooden wall panels “had an emotional and natural impression upon humans”. Another study notes the impact of classroom furnishings on our behaviour, observing a marked increase in social interactions between participants when in the presence of wooden products – tables, chairs and tableware – as opposed to plastic. The subjects were more talkative, open and willing to engage. A further study, published in 2015 in the journal Building and Environment with the title of ‘The impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning’, had the finding that “classrooms with wooden furniture display a bivariate correlation with the pupils’ learning progress”.

Lighting, lighting, lighting!

Minimising artificial light is a good guiding principle for any learning environment. Additionally, where artificial lighting does exist, it needs to be of a good quality. The study titled ‘The impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning’ also found that “poor quality of electrical lighting causes headaches and impairs visual performance”. Because of their standalone nature, timber modular buildings can be carefully designed to maximise the amount of natural sunlight. Strategic window placement and light sensor technology are popular design solutions adopted by a growing number of schools. Other types of ‘smart lighting’ are able to dim lighting according to the level of natural sunlight present within the building, subsequently conserving electricity. In this way, technology can assist in not only providing an eco-friendly, but also a money-saving bonus for building owners and users.

Comfort: part of an optimised learning environment

It’s important to provide children with a comfortable environment in which to learn – this means maintaining a suitable temperature, adequate acoustic insulation, as well as air quality. A study published online in 2011 in the journal HVAC&R Research ‘The Effects of Moderately Raised Classroom Temperatures and Classroom Ventilation Rate on the Performance of Schoolwork by Children’ found that at 10-12 years old pupils performed better on numerical and language test speeds when temperature was reduced slightly and ventilation increased. Timber is hygroscopic – improving indoor air quality by moderating humidity, and it’s no secret that timber’s natural qualities make it ideal for helping to keep its inhabitants cool. Despite already being a natural insulator, further artificial insulation can assist wood’s low thermal heat transfer, keeping everyone cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Minimising noise disturbance is a no-brainer. Modular buildings, often set away from busy areas and able to incorporate acoustic insulation to stop disturbance from adjacent rooms, tick the boxes.

Choosing a building that allows schools to ‘take learning outside’

For some time, educational focus has been shifting in favour of providing more outdoor learning provision. Modular buildings are typically stand-alone, sometimes situated on a previous disused site, but often bordering school playing fields. Many schools are discovering that design features – such as sliding doors – can ‘bring the outdoors in’, providing a truer, more readily-available sense of escapism in the pursuit of outdoor learning objectives. One such school who took advantage is Keelman’s Way School on Tyneside. Their timber classroom, affectionately nicknamed ‘The Hide’ by school children, has access to the school playing fields via large sliding, folding doors and decked ramps. As a Special Educational Needs facility, the extra space and freedom afforded by the building’s convenient placement is highly valued. Sliding doors make it far easier to take teaching outside, when weather permits. To benefit the learning experience, make the most of what modular buildings have to offer: a chance to increase teaching space, boost outdoor learning provision and provide an inspirational, adaptable learning environment of optimised comfort.

Gareth Barber is managing director of The Stable Company