The best learning environments have these 5 things in common

The best learning environments don’t just look pretty. They meet students’ and teachers’ needs and drive better outcomes.

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_ What a student learns is just as important as where the student learns.
_ The best learning environments meet students’ needs in a variety of ways.
_ They also support the school’s larger goals around achievement and opportunity.

by Danish Kurani

Think of the best learning environment you can imagine. What comes to mind? Is it colorful with sunlight streaming through the windows? Are the walls papered with student projects? Is it quiet, or is it a space humming with the chatter?

The answer is all of the above and none of the above. The best learning environment is not necessarily a colorful one. Or a bright one. Or one with lots of decoration. There is no single design that is ideal. 

What makes a good learning environment depends entirely on what you want to achieve in that space, how you want teaching and learning to work, and what’s around that space. These considerations matter because humans are products of their environment. 

For a typical student, time spent at school is second only to time spent at home. That translates to more than 15,000 hours from the day they enter kindergarten to the day they graduate high school. For more than 50 million K-12 students in the US, these hours are a critical part of their overall growth. 

That’s why learning environments matter so much. When students are in better surroundings, they’re more likely to become better learners—and vice versa in poorer environments. For instance, classrooms with poor acoustics make students perform up to 20% worse on tests. Meanwhile, creativity jumps more than 25% when students learn under taller ceilings.

If you want your students to rise to the top, follow these five principles for creating a good learning environment.

1. Design for human beings

Everyone has a biological need to move, take breaks, have moments of quiet, and get enough natural light. Without these accommodations, our bodies and minds can’t function at their best.

But when you support students, faculty, and administrators with the fundamental things they need, they can do their best work together.

2. Meet students’ basic needs

Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You can’t reach self actualization unless the basics—air, food, shelter, water, sleep, clothing, etc.—are taken care of. Still, many schools struggle to fulfill those needs for students. 

For example, asthma is a leading cause of absenteeism, responsible for more than 20 million missed school days in the US per year. One study showed that after installing an electromagnetic air cleaner in classrooms, absenteeism dropped from 8.3% to 3.7%. After the air purifier was removed, the rate jumped up to 7.9%.

If students aren’t breathing well, they aren’t learning well. The same goes for hunger, hydration, and cleanliness.

3. Support the school’s pedagogy

Every school has (or should have) a point of view in the form of a particular learning model and pedagogy. This could be project-based learning, inquiry-driven learning, Montessori, or something else. 

Over time, you’ve likely adapted these models and added your own twist to them. Each model calls for teachers and students to behave and interact with others in a different way. Your learning environment should make it easy for them—encourage them, in fact—to do that.

4. Nudge people toward their goals

Do you want more intergenerational learning? Or to move students from being passive consumers to active creators? Whatever type of change you want to see, a good learning environment is designed to create it—that is, changing the students and teachers in positive ways. 

For example, since learners are more creative when working under a high ceiling, you could create tall spaces to change how creatively students think. These changes are great because they are set-it-and-forget-it: You make them once and can trust they are quietly influencing you in the background.

5. Provide for diverse learners

Most of America’s learning environments were built in the 1950s and 60s, to turn baby boomers into factory workers. Back then, the education system didn’t care that people were different. They wanted everyone to be the same: a productive employee.

But, we know that people have different preferences and work and learn their best in different ways. 

Ask yourself: Does my learning environment accommodate these differences so every student is comfortable and feels supported? Does my learning environment allow educators to personalize learning for students?

If your environment can meet these five criteria, each student—and teacher—stands the best shot at reaching their full potential.