A new partnership between two major universities has been launched to study the impact of learning spaces and how schools, teachers and students can best use them.
The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Edith Cowan University (ECU) and the University of Melbourne will see the ECU join UniMelb’s Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN) group, an initiative which unites international experts from diverse disciplines and sectors to “investigate, imagine and improve physical learning environments”.
“This collaborative network has conducted research into the impact of school spaces on teaching and learning for more than a decade, seeking to maximise alignments between learning and the physical environment,” Current Directors of LEaRN, Associate Professors Ben Cleveland and Wesley Imms said.
“LEaRN@ECU is the first hub to be formed outside the University of Melbourne, joining LEaRN@Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning and LEaRN@Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Together, we look forward to broadening our research activities across Australia and internationally.”
Executive Dean of ECU’s School of Education Professor Caroline Mansfield said establishing this new MoU was “an exciting milestone with the potential to collaborate on creative thinking and research in the innovative learning environments space.”
“This partnership presents great opportunities to broaden the scope and potential positive impact of this innovative research,” Professor Mansfield said.
The impact of flexible spaces on student outcomes
Imms said LEaRN’s research has found spaces that are flexible in their design are associated high-impact teaching, measured by Professor John Hattie’s ten characteristics of quality teaching, and John Biggs deep learning characteristics.
“A LEaRN survey of over 800 school leaders across Australia and New Zealand found a linear correlation – the more flexible the space was, the more high-impact teaching and greater deeper learning occurred,” Imms told The Educator.
“Open-plan spaces did not rate as highly as more flexible, configurable spaces, but they still outperformed traditional spaces in terms of these two measures.”
Dr Julia Morris, Senior Lecturer and Higher Degree Coordinator at Edith Cowan University’s School of Education, and an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne, has partnered in LEaRN’s work in recent years.
She said that in terms of learning outcomes, few studies attempt to find a causal relationship between learning spaces and learning outcomes, but noted that one LEaRN PhD found increases of up to 17% in scores in English, science and mathematics scores within more flexible spaces compared to traditional classroom designs.
“Outside LEaRN, a UK study of over 2,000 students found similar results. The story is different with learning outcomes involving more student-centred learning outcomes such as engagement, problem solving, creative thinking and the like,” Dr Morris told The Educator.
“The Biggs data mentioned above is one example of emerging evidence. But our work is focusing on widening the volume of quality evidence on such topics; while we are getting good evidence, we need more.”
Dr Morris said this also includes understanding the impact of traditional space designs on such issues.
“There is remarkably little research on traditional classroom designs despite them being the norm for a century.”
Good design and practices must work in sync
Imms said while the research highlights that the types of spaces used for teaching can influence various learning outcomes, a particular space cannot, by itself, create a result in student learning outcomes.
“LEaRN has adapted and developed the OECD’s position that good learning only happens when we get good designs and good practices in spaces in sync. This can apply equally with traditional and more flexible spaces,” he said.
“However, we can identify correlation – a demonstrable link between certain spaces and certain outcomes; this is what was discussed above, where more than 800 principals believed better teaching and better learning occurred in more flexible spaces.”
Dr Morris said a local example is LEaRN’s furniture research, in which the teachers in the study used more teacher-centred, didactic approaches in traditional furniture settings, and were observed to be more student-centred in flexible arrangements.
“Teachers felt ‘efficient’ in a traditional setting, but identified that greater control in terms of delivering content came at the expense of student autonomy and agency,” she said.
“Teachers consistently noted students became less adventurous in the traditional setting and relied more on teacher guidance compared to the flexible furniture setting. But again, this was a small study and we need much more data to confirm if these findings are robust across different schools, students and spaces.”
Global initiative to assess learning space designs
One of LEaRN’s current studies is the Innovative Learning Environments and Student Experience (ILESE) study. Dr Morris noted that while two years of work has gone into ILESE’s planning by more than 250 world experts in 19 countries, the full study isn’t scheduled to begin until 2024.
“ILESE is keenly interested in collecting evidence on all learning space designs, from the traditional right through to the fully open plan, so we can assess the impact of these on student learning outcomes, their participation and engagement, their well-being and inclusion,” she said.
“This large evidence-gathering initiative is being supported by industries, education systems and academics in about a dozen countries, such is the need for this information.”
Dr Morris said it is noteworthy that given Australia’s investment in school infrastructure, so little evidence exists about their impact on these qualities of student experience.
“We are hopeful that this study will help us to answer the questions we have about what characteristics of school design support our students best.”