Listening to an episode of The Design Dimension on Radio 4 recently, I was struck by an interview with neuroscientist, Dr Tim Holmes.  He explained that a lot of our behaviour “is automated and is processed through the senses; we’re not consciously aware of it”. Referring to the environment he was in, he added: “So through these sensory inputs, they’ve already started to change your behaviour, disrupt your plan and get you to work on their terms.” He wasn’t talking about the design of learning spaces though, but retail environments as he gave a narrative of the design details John Lewis had employed in their Oxford Street store.

“This is not an accident. This is something which is the result of a lot of extensive research” he went on “So the science tells us we can manipulate. We can change mood; we can change behaviour.” And of course John Lewis are far from alone – retailers throughout the world have long known that environments affect behaviours and outcomes, and it’s exactly the same with learning, only without the thousands of pounds worth of research or widespread dissemination of data.

It strikes me that as a society we’re doing little short of robbing the next generation when we know this, employ it in leisure, retail and work spaces as well in as our own homes, but ignore it in education. When you set foot inside a school building, odds are you’ll be met with eggshell magnolia paint (because the caretaker finds it easy to clean, and it’s cheap) possibly accented with the school’s crest colour on the door. There’ll be a mis-matched array of rectangular tables and chairs bought 15 years ago from a catalogue all arranged in a row, and a few broken blinds hanging limply at the windows. It’s as if there’s a specific “schools aesthetic” that is absent in any other walk of life. How many headteachers, for example, buy a print in an art gallery and go home thinking, “I know, I’ll get some sugar paper and a roll of scalloped-edge corrugated card and pop this up on the sitting room wall?”

Stephen Heppell recently mused that it must have been like this in 1928 when Alexander Flemming discovered penicillin. As a few doctors started using this new drug, many dismissed the discovery and continued to use leaches. So too with learning spaces, because whilst empirical data is hard to come by, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence that supports the premise that well designed learning spaces have a positive affect on learning outcomes. The following list (please feel free to suggest additions) points you in the direction of those who share this view. And of course, it's got to start with my old pal, Stephen!
The Third Teacher is a must-read book
Greg Miyanaga's blog is both entertaining & informative
Ken Robinson Proving you can learn whilst laughing, Ken Robinson’s sense of timing makes the serious subject of how we’re going to educate our children accessible. And if for no other reason than the great animation, you can see Ken here or, if you've got the best part of an hour see his excellent Sunday Sermo