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A unique opportunity occurred where researchers were able to study whether environmental design does actually improve learning: Within the Houston area, Texas, VLK Architects had the chance to design two replacement elementary schools at the same time. Both schools were designed on the existing site, and the attendance boundaries of the schools remained intact. Therefore, the same staff, and the same students were moved from the existing school to the replacement school. Although the academic achievement levels in both schools were already high, the team wanted to study the impacts of the new designs on student engagement. To fully comprehend the impact of the new environments, the researchers gathered the perceptions of students via focus groups, and teachers via an online survey.

Findings: Students’ Perceptions

Student focus groups yielded three significant themes:

  • The new spaces and the impact they have on students’ overall school experience
  • The impact going to a new school had on their engagement in learning
  • The changes in their teachers since moving to the replacement school

These three themes were then organized, based on the students’ perceptions in a way that articulated their beliefs. Students shared their strong beliefs about more “room to learn and explore” in the new schools, citing feelings of “freedom and comfort” (Oliveras-Ortiz et al., 2017), due to better circulation within the campus, feelings of openness from the deliberate natural light, and the spaciousness of their new classrooms. Students now feel as if they can learn in a variety of spaces within the building. Specifically, they talked about the collaboration areas that extend their learning environment in a variety of ways, making them capable of working on group projects, or with partners in ample space for shared materials.

Students were acutely aware of their commitment to doing work, and their increased levels of engagement in the new schools. They reported that it was more fun to learn in the new buildings, they could spread out their materials, and they had connections to specialized spaces such as maker-spaces and science labs, where content specific tasks helped them, and even made them feel special. Writeable, magnetic white walls, designed to allow students to use the classroom as an instructional tool, were preferred by the students. They felt the classroom design supported their interest in assigned tasks and allowed for maximized instructional time.

Lastly, students reported that their teachers were happier since moving into the new buildings. They perceived teachers smiled more, and they attributed much of this happiness to the teachers’ ability to better organize their materials due to increased storage. They were also appreciative that all teachers had a room to call their own.

Findings: Teachers’ Perceptions

Teacher surveys revealed their perceptions of students’ engagement levels and habits using a Likert scale. The top three statements with the most support of agreement are detailed below in a table. Teachers found that since moving to the new schools, students were “more engaged in learning,” “spend more time working collaboratively,” and “are prouder to be part of our school” (Oliveras-Ortiz et al.,2017).

Study Conclusions

This research indicates that design does positively impact student engagement in learning. Specifically, three main themes emerged that should function as critical attributes for designing replacement elementary schools.

  • Firstly, “purposefully designed learning spaces” (Oliveras-Ortiz et al., 2017) should scaffold the process with every space designed for learning.
  • Secondly, schools should be created with “spaces designed to foster student engagement” (Oliveras-Ortiz et al., 2017) which requires an understanding of teaching and learning, curricular intentions, and student preferences for personalizing their learning.
  • Lastly, architects should “design to support teaching and learning,” which necessitates a deep understanding of curriculum and instruction, as well as child development, and current teaching methodologies.

This groundbreaking study is important to the future of education, as educators and architects should be working on a design team together, influencing one another. Our built environment has the potential to impact learning and engagement. “Without engagement…there is little likelihood that students will learn that which it is intended they learn (Schlechty, 2001, p. 64).

Case Study References

Oliveras-Ortiz, Y., Bouillion, D., & Asbury, L. (2017). The impact of learning environments on student engagement. (Research Report). Retrieved from Schlechty, P.C. (2001). Shaking up the schoolhouse: How to support and sustain educational innovation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

About this Research and Methodology

State of the K-12 Market 2018: The Impact of Learning Spaces on Student Success, is based on an online survey conducted by MDR, with a nationwide sample of K-12 public school educators. Teachers and librarian/media specialists were sent an email invitation to take the survey and 1,685 completed it. Data collection occurred from May 24 through June 17, 2018. Respondents were asked if their school had undergone a construction or renovation in the past five years, or if their school has a renovation planned in the near future. If neither was the case, they were asked if their school is in need of a renovation. Throughout the report, how the respondents answered this question will be referenced for perspective. Nearly one-fourth of the respondents work in schools planning a renovation, over one-third reported construction took place recently, and nearly two-thirds believe their school needs construction or a renovation in the next five years. This points to the importance teachers place on having modern, updated learning spaces in which to teach. Learn more about MDR Education reports at