• August 24, 2023

By rethinking how schools are designed to benefit students, educational space can be reimagined in ways that tangibly improve students’ performance, support their ability to collaborate, and inspire their journeys as lifelong learners.

Over the last few decades, multiple studies have not only shown that the qualities of a learning space play a strong role in motivating students to study and progress, but that there are direct links between a school’s design and a student’s ability to engage with what they’re learning. When attentively designed, learning spaces that optimize variables like light, sound, temperature, colours, textures, and air quality while using elements that encourage choice, flexibility, and connection have been shown to improve academic performance by as much as 25%.

New approaches which adapt traditional school designs centered on standardization and efficiency—designs that educational discourses have deemed ‘industrial era schools’, ‘factory models of education’, or ‘cells and bells’ models since the early 20th century because of their foundations in mass public education—reveal how much of a positive impact this design departure can have on students.

School designs of the past have shown us that formulaic and one-size-fits-all approaches haven’t been nearly as effectual as originally intended. Instead, we see that creating space which allows us to communicate and move freely while being productive according to our own learning styles has benefits worth exploring.

So, if we want to break from traditions to support students’ learning and collaboration, how should schools designs take shape moving forward?

Design and its effects on learning

As architects and designers, we’ve seen the impacts that space can have on our ability to form connections to one another and to a place firsthand. The strength of these relationships is in proportion to what a structure gives back, creating space to grow.

Environments factor heavily into our sense of comfort, and that comfort comes from aspects such as how well-ventilated and heated a place is, its level of air quality, acoustics, lighting in space, biophilia, and indoor-outdoor connectivity. When designed optimally, environments can help everything from our circadian rhythms and improved moods to greater productivity, lowered fatigue, and a general sense of satisfaction. These are especially important in schools when climatically adapted to their contexts, as they can positively affect students’ health, which in turn affects their ability to learn.

In a detailed study of 153 classrooms in 27 primary schools across three UK regions, researchers wanted to see if design of educational space had any impact on students’ learning. They found that physical design aspects of learning environments explained 16% of the variation in the progress of students. This meant that space had far greater of an effect than previously thought.

It comes down to three factors: Naturality, individuality, and stimulation. As the presence of nature improves cognitive function, the degree to which space is student-centric helps to facilitate learning, and as color can benefit moods, mental clarity, and energy levels, thoughtful architecture without excessive complexity can lead to less distraction and off-task behavior.

The possibilities of an environment’s effects on learning drove the design of new high schools like the Chambly Secondary School: Designed in accordance with the landscape around it with central greenspace, both common areas and classrooms are laid out to welcome natural light in a variety of spaces, levels, and atmospheres which encourage learning and curiosity while adapting to instructors’ teaching methods.

Illustrations of students and school stuff, lemay, Architecture, design

A framework of interconnection

Education isn’t just about what we learn, but the contexts in which we learn. Whether it’s one-on-one or in groups, collaboration is important for schools and their students’ high-level thinking, our ability to communicate and work with others, and relationship building that influences how engaged we are in what we learn.

Accommodating different working and learning styles can prove to be a difficult balancing act, however: In designing educational environments that include everything from libraries and workplaces to primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools, each must make room for both the need for focus and the need to interact to be truly effective and supportive. That’s how space can address the dynamic nature of how human beings work and learn from one another.

“Our history of conceptualizing educational space has shown us that design, especially that of schools, must find a medium between being completely open concept and being completely industrialized with utilitarian approaches,” explains Eric Pelletier, Lemay’s Design Principal, noting that models of the past can be retrofitted in the present.

“Interconnection, now, comes first; we need to break away from past school designs synonymous with notions of capture and confinement and augment them with open and conducive to collaboration.”

Balanced school designs don’t come from demarcating a school’s spaces according to their functions, but by blending and interconnecting them. This idea avoids the struggles that come from completely open models while still using designs that help students learn and collaborate effectively.

It’s being applied to larger schools like Laval Secondary School, where gathering and community life for students defines the core of the school with large indoor and outdoor common spaces, but its size provides greater room to punctuate floors with multifunctional collaborative areas which classrooms can use.

“By giving students space to connect, we can meet their needs,” Eric says. “Whether it’s inside or outside classrooms, or with smaller concentrated workspaces, these high school models aren’t entirely different from our previous workplace designs, where collaboration occurs at different scales to accommodate different learning styles, objectives, and futures.”

Designing for belonging

Belonging is another key factor in school design, and creating space which supports socializing and community and leads to belonging. For students, the degree to which they experience belonging makes immense impacts on anything from academic performance, behavior, and motivation to the ability to decrease absenteeism while increasing school completion rates.

“We designed each of these schools as places of belonging,” Pelletier says of the four new Quebec high schools designed by Lemay, Leclerc, Prisme, in consortium. “That was key: the more students feel like they belong in a school, the greater their sense of ownership. Our designs sought to change the dynamics of schools through space, and changing the model changes how we learn.”

One of the key drivers behind our teams’ work was employing a student-centric approach to design. Each new high school takes a different path to achieve this, but they share the same goal of creating space which is seamlessly interconnected and permeable, encouraging community development and collaboration at the heart of their architecture.

For example, the classes and activities of a school can converge on naturally lit atriums that open out onto greenery to create true public squares, or primary and secondary schools can take inspiration from their post-secondary counterparts by using campus-style models mediated by central circulation hubs to encourage gathering.

This notion of interconnection extends beyond the schools by building links with the places students truly call home: Their cities. Visually and experientially, these new designs break from gating schools off from local businesses and streets and reintegrate them with broader communities.

“High schools built decades ago followed a traditional pattern where their buildings were segregated or isolated from the surrounding communities, which in turn segregated the school grounds,” explains landscape architect Marie-Ève Parent.

“These designs have been rethought through connectivity of space, interlinking schoolyards and the community activities they can accommodate with the urban space they’re a part of.”

This blend of school and broader city space creates public plazas complemented by green landscapes, Marie-Ève says, to allow students, faculties and communities to gather and interact with each other while providing a sense of community and belonging.

For education, collaboration, and community

By designing in ways that benefit the education offered by schools as much as they do the development of community, schools become institutions with renewed definitions grounded in positive benefits. They become more than just places for learning—design can also have a halo effect which promotes collaboration, openness, and a sense of pride and belonging for students as well as teachers, administration, and visitors.

“We should be able, as a society, to put effort into our educational architecture,” Eric says. “The more consideration that is given to students, the more they give back by reaching their potential and making choices which make them happier and healthier.”

“This is what architecture can do, and if it doesn’t do that, it’s just construction.”


Learn more about how people and community-centered architecture, landscape and design reinforce the value of education and connection: This is how we’re creating learning spaces for the future.