Studied Spaces – Designing Impactful Learning Environments

Words by Millie Thwaites
Photography by Emily Bartlett, Peter Bennetts, Derek Swalwell

There is a certain responsibility that comes with designing any type of building, irrespective of its intended purpose. However, creating a space for education – a space of learning, development, inspiration, creativity and engagement – holds particular significance. In response to new technologies and changing pedagogical methodologies, a refreshing landscape of educational architecture and design is emerging, pairing essentials such as light, temperature, air quality, colour and haptics with an understanding of the principles of learning.

Melbourne architecture practice Kennedy Nolan acknowledges the complexities involved in working within the education sector, and its award-winning work in the field is compelling. Principal and Founding Director Patrick Kennedy says the first step is to discuss the “pedagogical aspirations” of a client. “We like to understand how space can best support the teaching methods and philosophies of the institution.” And this goes further; he emphasises the importance of reflecting the specifics of the place and client, so that the resulting spaces feel “familiar, relevant and appropriate even when they are visually new and exciting.”

“The opportunity to move around these spaces – to interact with peers and teachers and to use physical tools and props – allows the student to embody their learning experience,” explains Meaghan Dwyer, Partner at John Wardle Architects.

Compelling examples of engaging, functional and visually exciting educational spaces are emerging in response to new technologies and changing pedagogical methodologies.

Kennedy Nolan’s modernisation of Research Primary School on the outskirts of Melbourne beautifully demonstrates these principles and sentiments. The architects selected a colour palette that connects to and reflects the surrounding landscape. “The colours were drawn directly from the bush, but we were careful to ensure that they were also exciting and playful enough to engage the imaginations of primary school-aged kids,” Patrick explains, adding that, “we also used natural timbers wherever we could – a durable material [that] ages well and feels friendly, familiar and domestic to these bush kids.”

Meaghan Dwyer, Partner at John Wardle Architects, supports the notion that the basis of good design in this sector begins with an understanding of the institution’s existing philosophies. As such, the firm engages in “deep conversation with the educators to create a space that simultaneously translates the desired pedagogy and promotes cognition.” Meaghan believes that a variety of settings and compelling spatial experiences serve to engage the senses. “The opportunity to move around these spaces – to interact with peers and teachers and to use physical tools and props – allows the student to embody their learning experience.”

Co-Director of Baracco + Wright Architects Louise Wright says “noise, ‘busy’ design and monodirectional light all create cognitive overload, which makes it hard to learn. On the other hand, there needs to be a certain type of stimulation – one that is flexible, inviting and playful.”

Kennedy Nolan’s modernisation of Research Primary School aims to engage the imaginations of young kids while acting as a familiar and welcoming environment through its connection to, and reflection of, landscape.

Creating a space that is rich and energising but that also facilitates learning through safe, calming or quiet areas is essential. Co-Director of Baracco + Wright Architects Louise Wright says “noise, ‘busy’ design and monodirectional light all create cognitive overload, which makes it hard to learn. On the other hand, there needs to be a certain type of stimulation – one that is flexible, inviting and playful.” For younger students, she cites elements such as niches, low windows at children’s height, and creative places to sit and work instead of traditional desks as key to an interactive and thought provoking learning environment.

This flexibility and looseness can be applied to spaces intended for adults, too; John Wardle Architect’s Learning and Teaching Building at the Monash University Clayton Campus features formal learning and teaching areas as well as informal learning hubs across an engaging and dynamic space. “The four-level building can be easily traversed by stairs, and natural daylight falls from the modular skylights all the way to the ground surface below,” Meaghan explains. “Students can move easily between formal classroom settings and informal learning spaces that are set within a highly figured and vigorous interior.” Looking ahead, Meaghan believes we’ll see a greater focus on hybrid spaces that support both face-toface as well as remote learning, and a greater investment in social spaces that encourage physical and virtual collaboration.

The belief that design can positively impact learning is resounding, and the idea that design can play a role in not only day-to-day learning but in an ongoing sense is encouraging. As Patrick says, “we love the idea that educational spaces can set a benchmark for sustainability and comfort that inspires students to go into the world and insist on a better standard of design, informed through having experienced the benefits of it.”