12 learning environment terms every educator needs to know

From “evidence-based design” to “utilization,” these learning environment terms should become common vocab for every educator and leader.

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_ Knowing how spaces affect students matters just as much as what they learn.
_ At Kurani, we use science and research to inform how we design schools.
_ These learning environment terms can help any educator better support their students.

Educators are well-versed in classroom lingo: curriculum, rubric, assignment. The list goes on. But how familiar are you with evidence-based design or the cathedral effect?

These terms come from architecture, and they may not show up as often as typical educational verbiage. But in terms of their importance for helping students learn, they are just as vital. 

At Kurani, we’ve seen time and again the benefits of infusing science and research into our school designs. And we’ve deployed many concepts in making schools more functional and supportive of their needs and goals.   

Below we’ve compiled 12 learning environment terms that every educator needs to know. Whether you’re redesigning an entire school or just rearranging a classroom, you’ll be glad you have these tools at your disposal.

Space planning

The design process should start with a close examination of the needs (and aspirations) of teachers and students. Once an architect understands that, they will take this context to conduct “space planning.” 

This is the process of determining which spaces you need and testing different versions of the floor plan (“test fits”) to determine which layout will best serve everyone’s needs and create the type of experience, relationships, and outcomes you’re looking for. Think of it like taking the building blocks of your space and arranging them to find the optimal layout.

This process is essential because it determines what the spaces are, their shapes and sizes, orientation, and how they relate to one another. It creates the space.

Evidence-based design

There’s a long history of using evidence, research, and data to design places that are good for people. Hospitals were some of the first places. Researchers turned to data on health outcomes to intentionally design buildings that could heal people faster

In education, look for designers who can practice evidence-based design and intentionally create a learning environment scientifically proven to help your students and teachers perform at their best. 


This is a 3D illustration that a designer generates to show you how your space will look once it’s built. When you’re planning and funding a new learning space, it’s important to look at detailed renderings so you know what you’re getting. 

Because it’s hard to understand a design by just looking at a 2D floor plan, we like to show you multiple renderings in each space. That way, you can see every wall and corner of the room and fully understand the design. It helps to see designs in 3D with colors, lighting, furniture, materials. In fact, we can even show 360-degree renderings so you can use VR goggles to tour the space while we’re designing, and give feedback. 

A rendering of the Connected Rural Classroom, a project Kurani designed to help rural students access quality education.
Cathedral effect

This is a phenomenon that happens to you when you’re inside a room. When the room has a tall ceiling, like a cathedral, you tend to feel a sense of freedom and openness, which research has shown can boost creativity by up to 25%. When the room has a low ceiling, you feel more focused. 

Take advantage of the cathedral effect by choosing your ceiling height carefully, based on the type of work you want to be doing.

Sociopetal vs. Sociofugal

These two terms are opposite sides of the same coin when referring to how spaces are arranged.

Sociopetal arrangements encourage people to interact with one another. Like chairs arranged in a circle facing inward, so it’s easy for people to talk to one another. That’s a sociopetal layout. Now imagine that same circle, but the chairs are facing outward. No one faces one another, like how airports arrange their seating. That’s sociofugal, and it makes it more difficult for people in the chairs to interact. 

Use this concept to your advantage whenever you want to create the condition for people to interact or not. 

Sociopetal layouts encourage discussion and interaction, while sociofugal layouts discourage both.
Light temperature 

The temperature of a light is how cool or warm its color looks. Most people have a warm light temperature (around 2700 Kelvins) in the lamps in their home. Meanwhile, many offices have a cool temperature (usually 5000K or 6000K) for the ceiling lights. 

In learning environments, the temperature of lighting affects how well students learn and focus

Warm, dim lighting, for example, makes schoolkids less fidgety and aggressive. Researchers have also found that cool light is ideal for performing tasks that require intense concentration, and warm light is better for enhancing creativity. This is because cool light signals to our bodies that it’s daytime, so under that light we’re most alert.

Vendors and Dealers

Beware of professionals with the title of vendor or dealer; for example, furniture vendor or furniture dealer. They are salespeople whose goal is to sell you products, not necessarily to support your learning goals. 

Vendors and dealers often offer you a free “design”—furniture vendors say they’ll design your learning space—but in reality they are not giving you a thoughtful or complete design. Their design is optimized to sell the maximum amount of product, so they can profit, while also only paying attention to the type of product they represent. 

Letting a furniture manufacturer or vendor/dealer sell you on design is like asking a big pharma company to diagnose you. You’re unlikely to get unbiased answers and they’re going to steer you towards their products, whether or not they’re right for you.

Speech intelligibility

Many classrooms feature a speech intelligibility rating of 75% or less, according to research. That means students with functioning hearing can understand only 75% of what teachers and peers are saying. 

The acoustics in a classroom “have a direct effect on the speech intelligibility of students,” researchers wrote in a 2014 study. “Noise contributes to a decrease in their understanding of information presented orally, which can lead to negative consequences in their education.”

Kurani spaces are designed for maximum speech intelligibility, so no one has any trouble hearing.

When you take into account nights, weekends, and summers, the typical school building is used only 20% of the time. It has a utilization rate of 20%. That remaining 80% should be a sign that our school buildings are vastly underutilized

Ideally, utilization is high, so that the space can help as many people as much as possible.

As an education leader, how else can you think about making use of this resource? What can you provide for the community on campus? 

Didactic architecture

Given didactic means “to teach something,” didactic architecture is intentionally designed to teach people and get them thinking about how their space is made and works. 

In the case of a school or learning environment, this could be something like intentionally exposing the ceiling so students can see the pipes, wires, ducts, and conduit that are keeping the building running. 

Seeing these internal structures prompts students to start looking more critically at the world around them, as well as cultivate a sense of wonder. 

The Code Next lab, in Oakland, CA, features an exposed ceiling to teach students and encourage curiosity.
Design opportunity

“The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently,” said anthropologist David Graeber. That’s true of the places where education happens. 

Spaces are never complete. They can always improve and evolve to meet the changing needs of people who use them.

When you look at the design of a classroom, that’s not necessarily the best version of a classroom. It’s a design opportunity and could become better. Once you recognize it, you can make a change.  


Buildings and spaces talk to people just by how they look. This is called “signaling.”

In one study, for example, environmental psychologists found that students who attended class in high-quality buildings—those that were clean, bright, well-ventilated, and well-maintained—not only performed better academically but also were more confident in their own ability to succeed then those who spend their days in dark, dirty, run-down buildings. 

A “good” school building sends students the message that they matter; a “bad” one does the opposite. 


Stimuli are the external inputs students see, hear, feel, and take in through their senses. They should be thoughtfully considered.

A 2014 study found that young students were more distracted by the visual environment, spent more time off task, and demonstrated smaller learning gains when the walls in their classroom were highly decorated than when the decorations were removed. 

Teachers may have good intentions when putting posters and educational decor on the walls, but it can quickly become “sensory-rich,” as researchers describe, in a way that hurts students’ performance. 

A teacher may have little difficulty ignoring a wall full of decorations, but young students may find themselves unable to look away and focus on a lesson.

How would you minimize the distractions in this classroom?
Putting the terms to use

These 12 learning environment terms don’t comprise every tool we use when designing schools—far from it. But as a starting point, they can help you give students a richer learning experience that you can trust.

For instance, if you’re designing a maker space you can draw on insights from the cathedral effect to raise the ceiling and set up conditions for creativity. Or if you’re creating a coding lab, you can draw on the research on visual stimuli to minimize distractions and help students focus.

Each term is important, but the real magic happens when you combine them. That’s how you arrive at a space that truly benefits your students.