I’ve designed learning spaces for over 10,000 students. I keep seeing the same 4 classroom design mistakes.

Most of the time, poor classroom design comes down to bad lighting, excess noise, too much decor, and physical discomfort.

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_ Typical learning environments are cluttered, poorly lit, noisy, and uncomfortable.
_ This combination makes it near impossible for students to perform at their best.
_ Look out for these four red flags to create a more effective classroom design.

by Danish Kurani

People are products of their environment. You, me, your staff and students. All of us. Students, in particular, spend more than 15,000 hours inside a school from kindergarten through high school graduation. Shouldn’t we go to great lengths to make sure those 15,000 hours are shaping kids in the right ways, through smarter classroom design?

This is seldom the case. Most schools are relics of a bygone era, which means they don’t serve the school’s desire to instill students with creativity, flexibility, resilience, or other soft skills. This is a problem. Children in poorly designed schools may develop 25% slower, year over year, compared to students in better designed schools.

Of course, most education leaders have good intentions. Nobody sets out to sabotage their students. So the problem here is one of ignorance. Usually, school leaders have no idea what effects their classrooms and schools are having on students

Having designed learning spaces for over 10,000 students, I’ve picked up on four main problems of classroom design. There are plenty more, but these four have the biggest short- and long-term effects:

  1. Poor lighting
  2. Too much decor
  3. Noise pollution
  4. Discomfort

Let’s unpack the consequences for each one, and see how to get them right.

1. Poor lighting

How well a classroom is lit depends on a couple factors: light intensity and light temperature. If you strike the wrong balance for either, the room won’t support the kind of attention or activity you desire.

Intensity is the brightness or dimness of the light. Temperature is the warmth or coolness of the light. The lighting in any room falls somewhere along these two sliding scales. For instance, your dentist office is probably brightly lit and cool in temperature. Meanwhile, your evening fireplace is dim and warm.

Notice how different you feel in both of those examples. Dentist’s office: alert, energized. Fireplace: calm, relaxed. These moods are products of signals in your brain, when the light hits your eye. And generally speaking, these signals regulate your body’s internal 24-hour clock—your circadian rhythm.

The bright white lights in this space are harsh and fluorescent, and are likely to cause students eye strain.

If you want a classroom design that energizes students, lean more on brighter blue lights, which simulate sunlight. If you want a calmer space, lean toward dimmer, warmer lights, which trigger restfulness. In any case, what’s important is thinking about what activities you want students doing in the space, and what type of lighting would support them in doing those activities.

And whatever you do, make sure students get natural sunlight. Students perform far better when they have access to natural sunlight over any kind of artificial light. One study showed the difference in test scores could be up to 26% in reading and math, just from the change in light source.  

Without focusing on giving students the right lighting, they’ll never be able to do what’s expected of them—at least not without getting a headache in the process.

2. Too much decor

Decorated classroom walls may seem like a good idea. But often, they just make learning harder.

A lot of research that shows how learning environments with too many posters, graphics, drawings, and displayed projects actually inhibit students’ focus and absorption. Basically, it’s distracting. If your walls are cluttered and loud and in students’ faces, they will have a harder time concentrating on the work or test in front of them. 

Imagine you were a student in this class. How easy or difficult would it be for you to focus on the TV screen?

This error is one of the most common we see. Teachers, understandably, think that displaying students’ work or tacking an inspirational poster to the wall will create a better learning environment. In small doses and tightly curated, yes. But in this case, less is best. 

Fight the urge to decorate by thinking about what work students are doing in the space and what visual cues or tools on the wall would help them. Will an overabundance of decorations help them achieve those goals? Probably not. But a kanban board visualizing their progress along a project may do the trick.

3. Noise pollution

Consider this: A study of more than 1,000 second-graders in 29 German schools found that aircraft noise exposure at home was associated with small but significant increases in headaches and stomachaches. Noise hurts students.

Separate research has found that poor acoustics in classrooms causes students to perform up to 20% worse on tests. Clearly, when students have to tolerate noise, it impairs their ability to focus and learn.

Often, this is because classroom designs don’t dampen or control noise. The room is made of cement and hard tile, has noisy HVAC systems without proper acoustic lining, and it’s up to teachers to manage their classrooms or cause students to suffer the consequences. 

And there are consequences: One study found poor acoustics led to worse “speech intelligibility,” meaning students couldn’t hear up to 25% of the words being said. How are students supposed to learn and perform if poor design causes them to miss a quarter of the lesson?

Hard floors and cement walls reverberate sound when they should help dampen it.

To improve a classroom’s acoustics, use soft, sound-absorbing surfaces and objects into the space—for example, carpet, soft seating, and a ceiling fixture called a “baffle.” These are more effective than trying to create different “zones” to contain the noise, which still tend to be disruptive.

4. Discomfort

So far, each element we’ve discussed feeds into overall discomfort. But physical discomfort, in the form of hard floors, rigid chairs, cramped desks, high CO2 levels and the feeling of stuffiness, and a general feeling of confinement, are also common problems. 

Notice how cramped and uncomfortable this classroom design is, and consider how well you’d be able to learn in such a space.

Obviously, you don’t want students so comfortable that they fall asleep. But I’ve found a sweet spot of engagement between homeyness and the space feeling like an inhumane prison. 

Students need cozy nooks to find privacy, so they can study or read in peace. They also appreciate cushions that let them sit comfortably, in their own space, on the floor. And regardless if they’re finger painting in kindergarten or doing science experiments in high school, students need enough work surfaces that let them spread out and not feel confined.

When we designed Khan Lab School, in California, we made sure to combine natural light, comfort, noise control, and minimal decor.

Whether you do it yourself or hire a great designer to create solutions for you, focusing on these four elements of classroom design will create a space that doesn’t strain students’ eyes, ears, or brain. Instead, it will help them stay comfortable, energized, and focused

Across 15,000 hours, your choices could make all the difference.