Designing learning spaces of tomorrow

Sunday July 1, 2012

http://thestar.com.my/education/story.asp?file=/2012/7/1/education/11567927&sec=education

BY TAN EE LOO
educate@thestar.com.my

Classrooms need to be redesigned to provide a better teaching-learning experience for all.

A CHALKBOARD, a wastepaper basket and notice boards, apart from the desks and chairs, are typical items that are to be found in most classrooms of government schools.

For additional comfort, many of them do have a ceiling fan and curtains to keep out the heat and the sun’s glare.

Ideal learning groun d: Visitors hanging out and reading at the children’s section of Perpustakaan Raja Tun Uda in Shah Alam, Selangor. The colourful layout of the area provides a conducive environment that encourages young people to read.- SIA HONG KIAU / The Star

Absent from these classrooms are computers, laptops and iPads — tools of today — to engage students and teachers in modern technology and the new age learning process.

Now that the Education Ministry is embarking on a journey to review the national education system and human capital development, it is imperative that it looks into the physical aspects which include the actual designs of schools and, in particular, its classrooms. The ministry should ensure that the classrooms are a centre of learning and technology.

A better and richer teaching and learning space should no longer be seen as a form of “luxury” reserved for only private school students, but a necessity for all educators and students to grow and strive for excellence in the 21st century.

Many studies have linked student achievement and behaviour to a building, its design and surroundings. It is found that a well-designed learning space can have a positive impact on our feelings, thoughts and demeanour.

Adequate lighting, appropriate colour choices, and good ventilation are some of the environmental factors that could increase concentration and develop better study skills in class.

The authorities will only be able to effect change but transform the education system with the right learning space and conditions. Without a conducive learning environment in our schools, it will be difficult to nurture young minds to be creative, competitive and critical thinking individuals.

Drawing plans: When designing a school, many factors such as lighting, ventilation and even choices of wall colours have to be considered. – AZMAN GHANI / The Star

Love it or loathe it, school is a major part of every student’s life. Whether it is inspiring or otherwise, is a subjective matter. However, a survey carried out on teachers and students who spend no less than seven hours in class on a school day, has shown that many of them are uninspired by their teaching and learning space.

“Uninteresting” and “plain” is how many students have described their classrooms.

A fifth former says his classroom reminds him of a colourless square.

“What I’d like to see is something more contemporary … the authorities can perhaps start by replacing our existing desks and chairs with furniture similar to that of colleges,” he says. Another teen from Petaling Jaya, Selangor, says that she and her friends feel somewhat “disconnected” from the “outside” world whenever they enter their classrooms.

She says that her friends find their learning space “dull and boring” and would prefer to have computers in class so that they can work on their projects while seeking information through the Internet.

Sturdy structure: The bamboo classroom project designed by Eleena was built in Camarines-Sur of the Bicol Peninsula in the Philippines

In reality, authorities have for so long only prioritised furniture and buildings that are durable. They have taken precedence over the design of the learning space.

When the learning space with over 40 students does not compare to the comforts and facilities that they get at home or elsewhere, students are obviously not going to enjoy school nor score the desired grades. The same applies to most teachers who feel they cannot deliver their best under such conditions. This is the reality and the authorities should take note of this.

Taylor’s University School of Architecture, Building and Design dean Tony Liew says it is high time to re-examine the design of the classroom to reflect the current state of teaching and learning. With a touch of creativity, different classroom configurations can promote better teaching-learning experience and encourage interactions during class time.

“This is in tandem with the technology and new teaching approach which calls for attention on aspects such as the class size. There are things that we can do within our constraints … re-configure the desks, the chairs, and replace the blackboards with smartboards or incorporate videos to increase students’ interest in learning.

“Comfort in terms of the ergonomics is very important, especially in our warm and humid climate. While the furniture should be durable, it should also be comfortable. The furniture in our schools are very functional and are meant to last but they may not be comfortable,” he says.

In the case of furniture, he says, a one-size-fits-all approach should be avoided because schoolchildren grow at different rates.

“Everybody has a different threshold of comfort and it is not possible to please everyone. We have to think about accommodating both children and adolescents,” he says.

The One Academy of Communication Design interior design school head Eric Leong says steps must be taken to solve the issue of overcrowded classrooms.

“The classroom is a platform for students to learn, express, and inspire one another so it is very important that it is designed to achieve the objectives,” he says.

Embracing change: Students chat in the open area during recess at SMK (P) Air Panas Setapak, Kuala Lumpur which was recently renovated.

Leong says he is going to launch a community project to help selected schools to transform their classrooms into more pleasant and conducive learning environments.

The interior design guru says it does not need to cost a bomb to redecorate the classroom. Giving the walls a fresh coat of paint, for example, is an easy and inexpensive way to “update and upgrade” the look.

“A change of colour can redefine the entire look and feel of the learning space which is critical in the teaching and learning process. It will also help create a sense of belonging among the students,” he says.

He says it is also a good idea to appoint lighting specialists to check if the lighting in the schools is adequate.

RENG Design Group Sdn Bhd managing director/chief executive officer Richard Eng says the private sector should take the initiative to convince the Government to transform the national schools.

Eng, who is an architect, says national schools could learn and emulate the innovative learning environment at private schools.

“There are things that we can do to make the national schools an attractive option for parents and students. I am sure most of the parents are happy to send their children to national schools because children can socialise with students of other races,” he says.

He cautions that traditional classrooms may not work well for digital natives or those who have grown up using the latest technology gadgets. He says that there are children who from the age of three have been exposed to using computers or an iPad, so a traditional classroom may not be the best environment for them to learn and develop their creativity.

Wishful thinking aside, what can be done to change the design of schools right now?

For architect Eleena Jamil, it is about pushing forward ideas in whatever little way she can. Having designed a secondary school currently being built in Desa Park City, Kuala Lumpur, she shares her experience of working within the existing limitations.

“It’s mostly the small things really, like including ‘fins’ by the side of building and having an extended roof to minimise heat,” she says.

“There’s also a feature in the school to allow for rain water harvesting. The major thing for me was tweaking the layout to minimise isolated corridors; I think it’s extremely important for school environments to have a sense of openness.

“This idea of the entire school being a common space, for everyone to be able to see each other, would help in terms of safety and discipline.”

She adds that even pushing for small changes can be an uphill task at times.

“I think our original layout scared them (the authorities) a bit, because the arrangement of the school blocks was completely different to what they were used to,” she says with a laugh.

“We (architects) shouldn’t be given a blank sheet for designing schools, but it would be productive to have a bit more room to experiment with new things. The education system itself keeps changing … so we need to be thinking about designing schools that are flexible enough to adapt to the future.”

A school project that Eleena had plenty of space to exercise her creativity on was her design entry to the Millennium Schools Design Competition in 2008.

Organised by My Shelter Foundation, the competition called for a low-cost school structure made of sustainable materials that could withstand the strong typhoons that affect the Philippines.

Eleena’s winning design, using bamboo, a traditionally woven-reed ceiling and a raised concrete platform, was built in 2010.

“Bamboo was a great choice because it is inexpensive, durable and flexible. As long as you shield it from direct exposure to outside elements, and treat it well, it can last from 10 to 15 years – this is about the same lifespan as Grade Two wood we use in construction here,” she explains.

At a more local level, Eleena hopes to one day build her idea of an architecturally perfect school.

“I would love to design a primary school, because I feel like I could play around more with the design. For children of that age, it’s about creating a space that encourages play and exploration — non-linear pathways, using materials of different textures, and injecting more colour. Many people think that the ideal school would be away from the city with wide open spaces, but I think there is room for schools within the city – it’ll just be a different challenge to design them well,” she says.