Why physical design of learning environments matters

November 12, 2014 by Urska Zrinski

In my recent blog post on Leaders of Learning I talked about Professor Richard Elmore’s Modes of Learning framework which helps individuals identify their disposition toward learning or personal learning theory. Understanding one’s own theory of learning is consequential for an individual’s theory of leadership; and furthermore, based on our own learning theory we structure our learning environment.

CEF Classroom “Bled”

CEF Classroom “Bled”

One of the big lessons I learned from Professor Elmore’s HarvardX MOOC was that once learning organizations alter their learning theory, it is important that they also alter their physical environment.

“The best way to learn what a theory of learning is in an organization is to go look at the physical design, because the physical design actually probably represents the best indicator of how people in the organization think about, or are programmed to think about, the kind of learning that goes on there. And when you change the theory, you have to alter the physical structure and its relationship in the future to the digital environment,” says Professor Elmore.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has a special unit – Centre for Effective Learning Environments (CELE) – dedicated to research on effective learning environments. CELE focuses on how learning environments, including the physical learning environment and technologies, “translate into improved education, health, social and well-being outcomes, leading to more efficient use of education resources”. Their work builds on the evidence of the impact of effective learning environments on improving education and other outcomes.

The OECD* research shows that the physical learning environment is an influential element in the complex and highly contextualized nature of learning, characterized by dynamics and interactions between the learner, knowledge provider, content, equipment and technologies (OECD, 2013). The OECD defines the physical learning environment as “the physical spaces (including formal and informal spaces) in which learners, teachers, content, equipment and technologies interact”.

British charity JISC** that carries out research in the appropriate design of learning environments suggests that any learning institution that aims to alter its learning environment should strive to make an environment that will be:

  • flexible – to accommodate both current and evolving pedagogies
  • future-proofed – to enable space to be reallocated and reconfigured
  • bold – to look beyond tried and tested technologies, pedagogies, and ideas
  • creative – to energize and inspire knowledge seekers and knowledge providers
  • supportive – to develop the potential of all learners
  • enterprising – to make each space capable of supporting different purposes


As the opportunities for learning are expanding, critical thinking of what knowledge hubs can do to stimulate learning and growth of leaders of learning is crucial – and this includes altering or adjusting physical design of learning environments. As individuals are no longer restricted to a particular set of learning modalities, learning institutions need to be able not only to offer different learning solutions but also to alter their physical environments to accommodate innovations in learning. Some people prefer to work in small groups, others like to engage in one on one consultation with experts, again others believe in a power of peers – and it is important that a learning institution can incorporate all these different preferences.

In case of the CEF one of the biggest things we aim to do for our participants is to offer an environment that makes them feel relaxed, motivated to learn, stimulates them to think differently and enter the world of learning that is not only demanding but also challenging and fun. The space of any learning institute, right from the entrance, needs to motivate learners, promote learning as an activity, and support collaborative as well as formal practices.

I have only recently started paying attention to this fascinating area of learning environments where learning theories, architecture, psychology, and interior design intersect. I suspect many institutions have quite a bit of space for improvements in this respect. I am sure that it also takes courage to alter the learning environment and stand out a bit, especially if you provide learning solutions in an area that is believed to be more conservative or more technical and less creative. But I think it is important to start thinking about the role of physical design of environments, and see how even small changes can make learning more stimulating and fun.


Note: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the CEF.


* OECD. 2013. Innovative Learning Environments. Paris: OECD Publishing.

** JISC. Designing Spaces for Effective Learning: A Guide to 21st Century Learning Space Design. http://www.jisc.ac.uk/uploaded_documents/JISClearningspaces.pdf