The engaging learning environment: does the physical learning environment facilitate Future Work Skills?

A school in the Finnish city of Espoo has been touted as the ‘School of the Future,’ due to a synergy of modern architectural design and pedagogy. The Saunalahti School was opened in 2012, employing a pedagogical approach whereby the physical learning environment mediates learning.

The school architecture of open spaces, high ceilings, and large glass windows to maximise the natural light, combined with increased community involvement; non-traditional classrooms set up to encourage teamwork; and wide hallways that enable students to work in groups or to sit and study engages students to learn in ways that best suits them.

Children are welcome to sit where they wish, and to move around the classroom during classes.

The University of Helsinki has also changed the learning environment for new teachers at university, with students learning new teaching approaches at the Minerva Plaza learning lab, an innovative ‘transformable’ learning space. The space is separated by a large glass wall and can be split into smaller and larger spaces as required, connected by tablets and smartphones to a main screen. Aspiring teachers learn new teaching methods, working in teams to teach each other, and connect with other teaching groups in other labs. One group can teach another located in a separate space, as all screens in each space are connected, and all students can edit the content.

But are these new learning spaces really critical to the development of Future Work Skills? There are three decades of research about the link between the physical learning environments and education outcomes. While the built environment is not the only mediating factor in educational outcomes, it has been found to be critical in the development of valuable skills, specifically: ‘personalised learning, individual pathway planning, team teaching, inquiry approaches, teamwork, [and] problem solving’ (Blackmore et al, 2011). An OECD review of the research into physical learning environments found that for many teachers, just having access to more space offered them the flexibility to independently redesign their teaching practice toward group-based learning and teamwork-focused activities (OECD, 2013) and away from teacher-directed activities.

The physical learning environment is one essential, but sometimes overlooked element of engaging students to develop Future Work Skills: creativity, problem-solving, teamwork. The Saunalahti School and the Minerva Lab learning spaces encourage learning outside traditional educational approaches for students and teachers alike.

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