Clever Classrooms

A colleague and I were discussing whether or not classrooms could be over-stimulating. During some follow-up work, I discovered the recent research on learning environments carried out by the University of Salford. This is much broader than my original question but it has something to tell us and I think there are some important messages here.  I have prepared a summary of the research report and I hope you find it interesting. Here it is…

Clever Classrooms – summary report of the University of Salford Holistic Evidence and Design (HEAD) project) Feb 2015


This will be of interest to teachers wanting to maximise their learning environment. The HEAD project[1] considered classroom environments at a previously unexplored depth. While some of the outcomes relate to building design, there are important considerations for classroom teachers. This paper is a digest of the summary.

The Research

153 classrooms were studies in a sample of 27 schools located in Hampshire, Ealing and Blackpool. The research was based on:-

  • Architectural measures
  • Classroom environment, layout, colour, heating controls etc.
  • Spot meter readings for humidify, CO2 and acoustics.
  • Pupil questionnaires from half boys, half girls from Y1-6.


The factors found to be significantly influential on learning, in order of influence were:-

  • Naturalness: light, temperature and air quality – accounting for half the learning impact.
  • Individualisation: ownership and flexibility – accounting for about a quarter.
  • Stimulation (appropriate level of): complexity and colour – again about a quarter.


  • Of all the design parameters considered, lighting has the strongest individual impact.
  • Poor air quality in the classrooms studied was often noted during our visits.
  • Teacher / Classroom control of temperature was found to be the most important factor in this category.
  • Although sound does seem to have some effect on learning it was competed out in importance by other factors. This could be because noise disturbance is very tangible, so tends to be sorted out and so is less evident in practice. It could be classrooms are generally only moderate in size and teachers can make themselves heard.
  • Links to Nature may be more important for the creative process of Writing and for pupils in heavily urban environments. 



  • Breakout space: Classrooms with clear breakout zones or breakout rooms attached were found to impact positively on learning. Breakout zones within corridors and separate from the classroom do not appear to be effective.
  • Storage: Good and accessible storage is important in classrooms but too many cupboards can take up useful learning space. Placing storage in corridor spaces is a good solution, eg cupboards, coat pegs, so long as it does not impede circulation.
  • Learning zones: Younger pupils, who spend a lot of their time engaged in play-based learning, benefit from a larger number of different learning zones. For older pupils who spend more time engaged in individual formal learning or group work fewer learning zones are needed.
  • Room shape and area: Rooms with varied floor plan shapes provide greater potential for creating different activity areas for younger pupils. For older pupils squarer and larger rooms work better in facilitating their learning opportunities.
  • Wall area: Large, accessible wall areas provide flexible opportunities for the display of information and of pupils’ work.


  • Room design: A Classroom with a distinctive room design, or particular characteristics making it instantly familiar.
  • Room display: Pupils’ work is displayed on the walls. Other elements such as shared display tables.
  • Elements that are personalized by the pupils: such as coat pegs, lockers and / or named drawers.
  • Furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E): Well- designed furniture that creates a learning space that is child centred.
  • Chairs and desks: Desks and chairs that are comfortable, interesting and ergonomic to the pupils’ ages and sizes.


  • Corridor width: wider corridors allow ease of movement in crowded conditions and open up possibilities for relieving congestion in classrooms by providing auxiliary storage.
  • Orienting corridor: Orientation around the school can be aided by large and visible pictures, landmarks and abundant daylight with plenty of outside views along the corridors.



  • Visual diversity of the floor layout and ceiling: Enough to stimulate the pupils’ attention, but presenting a degree of order.
  • Visual diversity of displays: The displays on walls are well designed and organized, probably covering up to a maximum of 80% of the available wall area.


  • Wall colour and area: This core aspect is curvilinear. Large, brightly coloured areas rated poorly as did white walls with few colour elements. The intermediate case with light walls generally, plus a feature wall in a brighter colour was found to be most effective for learning.
  • Against this relatively calm backdrop, additional colour elements in the classroom played a complementary, stimulating role. For example, relatively bright colours on the floor, blinds, desk, chairs and adds extra highlights and flashes of colour.

Checkpoints for teachers / leaders

Given that teachers and leaders are not going to be able to influence building design once the school has been built, the following checklist will help to maximise the environment for its impact on learning



  • Keeping glazing clear, by minimizing occlusion of the windows can maximise environmental benefits from natural light.
  • Access and active use of the blinds/curtains is needed to address problems with glare.
  • Careful siting of high power projector to minimise need to close blinds.
  • Shrubs or planters placed outside south-facing windows can reduce glare.

Air Quality

  • A typical classroom with thirty pupils will normally need active ventilation within a 1-hour lesson. Avoiding obstructing access the window openings is important.
  • Excess CO2 can cause drowsiness and inattention and a CO2 meter in the classroom can give teachers an indication of an air quality problem.


  • If local temperature control is possible (using a thermostat) the classroom should be kept cool, but comfortable, for optimum learning conditions.
  • If sun heat gain is a problem and there is no external shading, then active use of blinds and ventilation is essential to mitigate the problem.

Sound (secondary factor)

  • The effect of adding sound-absorbing treatment to rooms is significant. Soft furnishings and posters are good sound absorbers.
  • Rubber feet on movable furniture can buffer any noise generated, if maintained.
  • Small carpeted can make a positive difference to noise attenuation.

Links to Nature (secondary factor)

  • If local temperature control is possible (using a thermostat) the classroom should be kept cool, but comfortable, for optimum learning conditions.
  • If sun heat gain is a problem and there is no external shading, then active use of blinds and ventilation is essential to mitigate the problem.
  • Views through windows of green areas, thought to be of benefit, can be hindered by occlusion by window displays and furniture.



  • Well-defined and age appropriate learning zones are important to facilitate learning.
  • Younger pupils need several well-defined zones for play-based learning activities.
  • For older pupils simpler space configurations support more formal teaching.
  • Lower height furniture provides more wall area available for varied displays.


  • A classroom that includes pupil-created work in displays will provide a sense of ownership.
  • A classroom that is distinctly different (using displays) creates a sense of familiarity.
  • Allowing pupils to personalise aspects of the classroom, such as lockers, coat pegs or drawers, creates a sense of belonging.
  • Quality ergonomic furniture and equipment can be used to create a child centred space.

Connection (secondary factor)

  • Ideally corridors should be kept sufficiently clear for ease of circulation.
  • Distinctive displays outside the classrooms or at junctions create orienting landmarks and avoid an institutional-style effect.
  • “Corridor libraries” are both orienting and a good use of wide corridors spaces.

 Stimulation – Appropriate level of


  • Choices in the shape and form of the classroom floor plan can be used to create visual interest.
  • A balance between a space that is too boring and too complex is needed while considering the functionality of the space.
  • No more than 80% of the available space covered.


  • Light walls with a feature wall, highlighted in a brighter colour, create an appropriate level of stimulation.
  • Bright colours on furnishings, e.g. floors/carpets, shading coverings, desk and chairs can be introduced as accents to the overall environment.

[1] Barrett Peter, Zhang Yufan, Davies Fay and Barrett Lucinda (2015) Clever Classrooms – Summary Report of the HEAD project University of Salford


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