EdTech & Design, Teaching, Well-being

What is Effective School Design?

The physical design of a school communicates messages about the purpose and nature of education. In the past, schools were designed to support the delivery of rote, standardized instruction. Today, however, the goal is for students to become critical thinkers, problem solvers, and meaning makers. Effective school designs reflect this change in educational philosophies and goals. For example, they include flexible, learner-centred spaces that encourage active, cooperative, and community-based approaches to teaching and learning.

Research on school design increasingly shows that students’ learning environments can have both positive and negative effects on their social behaviours, engagement, well-being, and academic achievement. The following specific school design elements are correlated with positive student behaviours and attitudes, as well as enhanced achievement:

Positive social behaviours
  • small school size
  • wide, clearly defined “pathways” (rather than locker-lined corridors) connecting learning spaces and facilitating the movement of all students, including those with special visual or physical needs
  • inviting outdoor spaces, including trees, gardens, learning and gathering spaces, and connecting walkways
  • a welcoming entry, signaling the school’s function as a community space and reflecting the local culture
  • aesthetically appealing interiors, with inviting colours and textures • dedicated spaces for displaying student work and storing materials
  • inviting public areas and meeting areas of various sizes that support collaboration and informal learning
  • a quiet location away from busy streets and traffic noise
  • natural lighting from windows and skylights, complemented by artificial (glare-free, adjustable, full-spectrum) lighting
  • good indoor air quality, with adequate ventilation and a comfortable temperature
  • good acoustics, with sound buffering between classrooms
Academic achievement
  • small but uncrowded classrooms that can be easily reconfigured for different teaching methods and learning experiences
  • private study spaces, both in and out of the classroom
  • an integrated technological infrastructure that includes a wireless network, support for mobile devices, and shared (and preferably also mobile) projection screens
  • teacher workspaces for research, meetings, and collaborative work

Effective school designs create safe, innovative learning environments that motivate students, support teaching and learning, and provide a centre for community activities. Experts agree that the most effective and innovative school designs emerge from a careful consideration of both educational goals and local needs. They also concur that effective school design is participatory and inclusive, involving a collaboration among architects, engineers, school administrators, teachers, learners, and the larger community.


Architectural Design Guidelines for Schools. (2012). http://www.infrastructure.alberta.ca/Content/docType486/Production/ArchitecturalGuidelines.pdf

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (1999). The design of learning environments. In J.D. Bransford, A.L. Brown, & R.R. Cocking (Eds.), How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy of Sciences. http://cet.usc.edu/ 

Oblinger, D.G. (Ed.). (2006). Learning spaces. EDUCAUSE. http://www.educause.edu/research-and-publications/books/learning-spaces 

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (2010). Creating excellent primary schools: A guide for clients. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110118095356/http:/www.cabe.org.uk/files/creating-excellent-primary-schools.pdf


Brkovic, M., Pons Valladares, O., & Parnell, R. (2015). Where sustainable school meets the “third teacher”: Primary school case study from Barcelona, Spain. ArchNet-IJAR: International Journal of Architectural Research, 9(2), 77-97. 

Harrison, A., & Hutton, L. (2014). Design for the changing educational landscape: Space, place and the future of learning. London: Routledge.

Moore, G.T., & Lackney, J.A. (1993). School design: Crisis, educational performance, and design applications. Children’s Environments, 10(2), 99-112.

Tanner, C.K. (2009). Effects of school design on student outcomes. Journal of Educational Administration, 47(3), 381-399. 

Taylor, A. (2009). Linking architecture and education: Sustainable design of learning environments. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Upitis, R. (2004). School architecture and complexity. Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education, 1(1), 19-38.

Van Note Chism, N., & Bickford, D.J. (Eds.) (2002). The importance of physical space in creating supportive learning environments. New Directions for Teaching and Learning No. 92. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Woolner, P. (2010). The design of learning spaces. London: Continuum.

Woolner, P., Hall, E., Higgins, S., McCaughey, C., & Wall, K. (2007). A sound foundation? What we know about the impact of environments on learning and the implications for building schools of the future. Oxford Review of Education, 33(1), 47-70.

Meet the Expert(s)

ellen rose

Ellen Rose