The school is both the micro and macrocosm of the entire community. Its primary focus is expanding the network between persons and the world through its learning spaces and technologies.
Richard Fleishman, Richard Fleishman Architects



A school's physical learning spaces are an educator's first technology. Educators and students spend a majority of their time within a 900 square foot classroom setting. The characteristics of these physical spaces have a strong impact on what learning will take place. A 1995 report from the U.S. Congress Office of Assessment found that two in three schools in the United States are either unsafe or unsuitable for student learning. Over 74% of the K-12 school buildings in the United States were built prior to 1970. A well known futurist states that a teenager's bedroom is technologically more sophisticated than the average K-12 classroom. Chances are good that a K-12 educator in the United States will be involved in at least one construction project during the course of their career. This module is aimed at helping educators understand issues related to physical learning spaces and learning.



  • Students will understand at least three relationships between physical learning spaces and student learning.
  • Students will draw a classroom floor plan that supports a variety of learning experiences and exhibits understanding of materials from this module.
  • Students will describe at least four points that need to be considered when planning and developing school facilities for the next 30 years.

Suppport Materials

- Class reader: School Facilities section

- World Wide Web Resources

Online Lesson

This module contains a rich collection of materials from the World Wide Web. Taken together with materials from the reader, students should see that: 1) physical spaces are a teacher's first technology; and, 2) classroom learning environments play a crucial role in supporting or undermining academic achievement.

How how do physical environments support learning? Gary T. Moore responds to this question in article titled, "Learning and School Environments." Gary is a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and the Director of the Children's Environments Research and Design Group. This article is presented through Edutopia- the newsletter of George Lucas' Educational Foundation.

Consider the following questions as you examine this article:

  1. How does school size affect learning?
  2. What affect do such architectural features as windows, heating, and air conditioning have on students and teachers?
  3. How do my personal experiences as a student and teacher support/refute Gary Moore's research?


Learning and School Environments
by Gary T. Moore, Ph.D., Professor

Children's Environments Research and Design Group
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


It is no secret that there is a crisis inAmerica's school buildings. One urban district, for example was recently found to have more than 10,000 fire code violations in its schools. A separate inspection in the same district found fire doors that didn't work, classroom doors that didn't close, broken toilets, crumbling plaster, potholed playgrounds, and malfunctioning heating systems.

Nationwide, 74 percent of school buildings were built before 1970 and 12 percent are considered inadequate, because they are too old, too small, have deteriorating mechanical systems and/or seriously need window replacement.(1)

The urgency of the situation is obvious. Our school facilities are a tangible symbol of our commitment to education, and the message is not lost on students. Student attitudes about education are a direct reflection of the quality of their learning environment, according to a Carnegie Foundation study.(2)

Many professional educators and others understand that the physical characteristics of schools can directly influence learning, while some don't even think about them. Despite the importance of the issue, there is relatively little hard research on the topic. What evidence there is counsels us that the quality of the physical environment of educational facilities does matter to the process of learning and to educational achievement.


Consider a few examples:

Small schools are better. Relative to large schools (1,500 or more students), smaller schools (around 500 students) offer more opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities and to exercise leadership roles.(3) Student satisfaction is higher, participation in student organizations is greater, crime levels are lower, and student misconduct is less serious in small schools.(4) Other things held constant, more classes are taken per student, math and verbal ability is higher, and overall student achievement is higher in smaller schools. Smaller schools benefit African-American and urban students in particular.(5)

Smaller class sizes and lower class density are better. Another feature on which there is considerable evidence and which has powerful architectural implications is class size and density. As class size decreases, voluntary participation increases, classroom management improves, student attitudes improve, teacher stress decreases, and teachers are more likely to try innovative teaching techniques.(6) Conversely, high density conditions have been found to lead to increased aggression, decreased social interaction, and greater noninvolvement. In addition, as class size decreases (e.g., around 15 students with 1 teacher), students outperform matched groups of students in larger class sizes (over 20 per class) on all subjects, but especially in reading and mathematics (average improvements of 15%). These results are the same even when the larger classes have the additional benefit of a full-time teacher aid. The findings are consistent for all K-3 grade levels and in rural, urban, suburban, and inner-city locations.(7) Follow-up studies have shown that students in smaller class sizes in the early primary grades still have significant advantages two years later. Performance gains in different schools ranged from 11-34%, with the greatest gains being for inner-city schools and minority students.(8)

Other architectural features affect learning. There is empirical evidence about a range of other architectural factors affecting education. For example: [1] Thermal factors affect task performance, attention spans, discomfort, and student achievement.(9) [2] Short-term noise and poor acoustics are linked to classroom distraction and to lower student and teacher morale.(10) [3] Long-term noise from nearby streets leads to significant increases in blood pressure, decreased concentration, increased errors on difficult tasks, and greater likelihood of giving up on complex tasks.(11) [4] Spatial density and crowding increase behavioral problems, aggressive behavior, and distraction on complex tasks, and decrease satisfaction.(l2) [5] Classroom furniture layouts influence persistence, participation, and attitudes toward class and other students.(13) [6] Windowless classrooms lead to more negative student and teacher attitudes.(14) [7] And private or secluded study spaces reduce visual and auditory interruptions, increase privacy, contribute to longer attention spans, lead to more student questions, make learning materials more accessible, and increase literature use.(15)

In summary, there is mounting evidence that many characteristics of the physical, designed environment of schools can and do affect attitudes, behaviors, and academic achievement. Some of these effects result from a direct impact of built form on education, while others are indirect linkages between architectural characteristics and intervening psychological, physiological, and behavioral factors like cognitive fatigue, distraction, motivation, emotional affect, anxiety, or communication.(16) The bottom line is that a well-designed and well-maintained facility can, and do, make a difference in our children's lives.


1.Schoolhouse in the Red: A National Study of School Facilities and Energy Use (Arlington: American Association of School Administrators, 1992)

2. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, An Imperiled Generation: Saving Urban Schools (Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1988).

3. R.G. Barker and P.V. Gump, Big School, Small School (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1964).

4. W.J. Fowler, Jr., "What Do We Know About School Size? What Should We Know?" Paper presented to the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, San Francisco, 1982.

5. J. Garbarino, "Some Thoughts on School Size and its Effects on Adolescent Development," Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 9 (1980): 19-31.

6. Fowler, op. cit.; H. Pate-Bain, C.M. Achilles, J. Boyd-Zaharias, and B. McKenna, "Class Size Does Make a Difference," Phi Delta Kappan, Nov. 1992: 253-256. See also review in B. Miner, "Students Learn Best in Small Classes: Tennessee Study Follows 6,500 Children for Four Years," Rethinking Schools January/February 1992: 15.

7. B.A. Nye, J. Boyd-Zaharias, B.D. Fulton, and M.P. Wallenhorst, "Smaller Classes Really Are Better," American School Board Journal May 1992: 31-33.

8. C.M. Achilles, "The Effect of School Size on Student Achievement and the Interaction of Small Classes and School Size on Student Achievement," Unpublished manuscript, U of North Carolina-Greensboro, Sept. 1992.

9. C.W. McGuffey, "Facilities," in H.J. Walberg (ed.), Improving Educational Standards and Productivity (Berkeley: McCutchan, 1982): 237-288.

10. G.W. Evans and S. Cohen, "Environmental Stress," in D. Stokols and I. Altman (eds.), Handbook of Environmental Psychology (New York: Wiley, 1987): 571-610.

11. G.W. Evans, W. Kliewer, and J. Martin, "The Role of the Physical Environment in the Health and Well-being of Children," in H.E. Schroeder (ed.), New Directions in Health Psychology Assessment" (New York: Hemisphere, 1991): 127-157.


13. C.S. Weinstein, The physical environment of the school: A review of the research, Review of Educational Research, 1979, 49: 577-610.

14. S.B. Ahrentzen, G. Jue, MA. Skorpanich, and G.W. Evans, "School Environments and Stress," in G.W. Evans (ed.), Environmental Stress (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982): 224-255.

15. G.T. Moore, "Effects of the Spatial Definition of Behavior Settings on Children's Behavior," Joumal of Environmental Psychology, 6 (1986): 205-231.

16. See rev. by G.W. Evans, "Learning and the Physical Environment," in I. Falk and L. Dierking (eds.), Public Institutions for Personal Learning: The Long-Term Impacts of Museums (New York: American Association of Museums, in press). See also G.T. Moore and J.A. Lackney, "School Design: Crisis, Educational Performance, and Design Patterns, Children's Environments," 1994, 10(2), 99-112.

Extending research into reality, what schools are there that model some of the best practices described in materials from the reader? The School Facilities chapter of Learn and Live, a book by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, contains a sampling of some national school facility models.

Places for Learning- Snapshots
Learn and Live

George Lucas Educational Foundation

Consider the following questions as you explore this material:

  1. How do you think schools and communities garnered support for these projects?
  2. What elements do these schools have in common?
  3. How would teaching and learning be different for you in these schools?


School Facility Web Resources
Please visit the following sites which offer new perspectives on school facilities for the 21st century:

Reinvigorating Our Schools
American Institute of Architects


Prototype School Design Clearninghouse
North Carolina State Department of Education



Checking for Understanding

The check for understanding for this lesson is a quiz.

Click Here to Go to the Quiz


Discussion Area Question

Consider either of the following questions in the interactive discussion forum:

How does form support function in your current school? How would you improve your current learning space? What improvements would you suggest for the larger school environment?


Describe the characteristics of a school in your neighborhood that has been either remodeled or newly constructed in the last five years. How does form support function? How did architects involve educators in the planning process?


Project Extensions

What would an exemplary physical learning space look like for your project? Consider issues related to:

  • large group, small group, and individual learning activities
  • storage of teacher materials and student work
  • access to electronic learning resources including computers, video, and personal digital assistants


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