Judging a book by its cover…

or a building by its exterior.

I spent last week in Melbourne. One of the first things I noticed was how happy many of their buildings are. The one in the image above is home to an architectural practice, and as I sipped coffee at the cafe across the street I wondered if they were responsible for some of the other colorful building I had noticed around the city.

I tried to imaging what it felt like to look out onto the world through this quirky exterior—how the shadows cast by this colorful exoskeleton altered the quality of light on the inside, which lead me to think about the relationship between the outside of a building and what goes on inside? More specifically, what should the outside of building designed to accommodate learning say to us as we pass by, and how does its form shape the learning it accommodates?

I was in Melbourne to speak with people teaching in the new home for the Faculty of Arts—Arts West—at the University of Melbourne. Having entertained these thoughts over coffee, my first impulse was not to stop and consider its exterior, but to climb the stairs and find a vantage point from where I could look out onto the world beyond. But I’m going to present you with the ‘cover’ first. Because, if I were to judge this particular book by it’s cover I’m not certain I’d have picked it up to read, let along be so willing to admit to being entranced by the perspective it gave me on the world. So, the wavy metal on the left, in the image below, is the exterior of the new Arts West building.


Below is one of the views from inside. From this perspective it all makes perfect sense. This ornate exterior is a giant diffuser, creating learning spaces flooded with natural light and a gentle sense of movement across the views of an ever-changing landscape.


Many of the people I spoke with mentioned the abundant light in these teaching spaces, and I spent hours thinking about how the landscape changed as I climbed the stairs to the sixth floor. I have to admit to becoming slightly obsessed with my ability to navigate the inside of this building based on what I could see outside—how much of the clocktower, trees or various buildings were visible as I rounded a corner or emerged from a secluded informal learning space.

But what does any of this have to do with learning, and why should we care about light or expansive views onto the world outside—when this is a space for learning?

The University of Salford’s, HEAD (Holistic, Evidence and Design) Project, lead by Professor Barrett (2013), demonstrated that 16% of the annual variation in progress of 3,766 primary school students could be attributed to the physical characteristics of their learning environments. Stated another way, if one were to move an average student from one of the least effective classrooms to one of the most effective classrooms, this change in learning environment could be expected to contribute to an advancement of 1.3 sub-levels per student, per year. Taking into account that the typical student in this study made progress equivalent to 2 sub-levels per year, this change is marked. And, whilst no single factor was dominant in this muli-level model, it is interesting to note that of the seven most significant factors (light, temperature, air quality, flexibility, ownership, color and complexity) it was light that ranked highest.

In the Clever Classrooms (Barrett et al., 2015) summary report, the researchers note that “Good natural light helps to create a sense of physical and mental comfort, and its benefits seem to be more far-reaching than merely being an aid to sight.” They also make a series of helpful recommendations about how to create learning environments that make the most of naturally available light.

But I want to know how light makes a difference to learners in any given learning space. Is it sufficient to assert natural light as a basic human need? And, if so, how do we balance this need with the needs of the digital classroom? Or more broadly speaking, how do we make decisions that take in the learning whole: set design (designed environment, tools and texts), social design (roles, divisions of labour and community) and epistemic design (task) and the learning theory that underpins it (Goodyear & Carvalho, 2014)?




Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Davies, D.F., & Barrett, D.L. (2015). Clever Classrooms: Summary report of the HEAD Project. Retrieved from University of Salford Manchester website: http://www.salford.ac.uk/cleverclassrooms/1503-Salford-Uni-Report-DIGITAL.pdf

Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J., & Kobbacy, K. (2013). A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning. Building Environment 59, 678–689. doi:10.1016/j.buildenv.2012.09.016

Goodyear, P., & Carvalho, L. (2014). Framing the analysis of learning network architectures, in: L. Carvalho, & P. Goodyear (Eds.), The Architecture of Productive Learning Networks (pp. 48–70). New York, NY, Routledge.


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