Progressive classrooms

CID speaks with industry experts to study the recent developments stirring in the education sector

There is a Chinese proverb that says: “Do not confine your children to your learning for they were born in another time.” Education is slowly shifting from the traditional style we are all familiar with to incorporate different styles, a major one being interactive learning. And with this gradual transformation comes the need to adapt the learning environment itself.

“The traditional classroom layout of 20 to 30 pupils is becoming a thing of the past,” says Kathryn Brown, senior interior designer, Godwin Austin Jonson (GAJ). “With configuration and sizes varying throughout the day, we believe that space should be flexible with moveable walls to create large spaces for several classes together, combined with smaller separate areas for private study [sessions] or small groups.”

Technology is also playing a major role in this radical shift of education facilities, aiding in the innovative learning technique entitled “active learning”. According to Brown, the new development in internet technology makes remote working an option.

Speaking of present day universities, Eric Pelliser, Steelcase’s strategic account manager of higher education in the Middle East, comments that the changes taking place on campuses are extraordinary.

“Amidst all the changes in education, both educators and designers of learning spaces are rethinking classrooms, libraries, hallways, common areas and others in between. Learning spaces must now incorporate user-friendly technology, flexible furniture and other new tools that support active learning.”

He continues: “When space, furniture and technology readily adapt to the pedagogies and learning styles of each semester, and the classroom effectively supports how instructors teach and students learn, classroom planners and designers [will] have made a significant contribution to the educational process.”

Drawing up a list of requirements to ensure active learning in new educational environments, Pelliser explains the important ideas a new learning space should integrate.

“A hard working learning space [should] support fluid transitions between multiple teaching modalities- from passive to active and back; allow freedom of movement for the instructor to visit peer groups; [be] designed for sharing, leveraging both vertical and horizontal surfaces for display using projection and interactive surfaces [as well as] have zones for assessment and mentoring.”

His list continues to include the importance of new media including personal and in-room technology, offering equal access to information; a design that provides visual and physical access, giving every student “the best seat in the house” while allowing the instructor and student access to one other, and ultimately, allowing classrooms the ability to adapt to different users and varying class requirements.

Steelcase offers a variety of furniture that allows these crucial elements to exist including Verb, an eco-system for active learning featuring an integrated mobile collection of classroom furniture. There’s also the Node, designed for quick and easy transitions from one teaching mode to another.

Such trends are catching up in the Middle East with the help of Steelcase’s portfolio of education projects including the American University in Beirut, the largest female university in the world Princess Nora University in Riyadh, King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, International Horizon College in Dubai, as well as the Higher College of Technology in Abu Dhabi.

Moving on to the design structure of schools, Brown proclaims that all schools must have a space that operates similarly to a heart. The heart, Brown explains, is “usually an entrance atrium which buzzes with activity. All classrooms radiate from this space or from an adjoining ‘street’.”

She also mentions that when designing for younger children, the presence of graphics and imagery should be present to provide visual stimulus in order to keep young minds alert.

While the actual layout is quintessential, materials often make or break the plans. Hence, when it comes to educational design, Roderick Wiles, AHEC Director for Africa, Middle East and Oceania explains: “Architects and designers must balance the reality of limited financial resources with the desire to provide students with an exceptional learning environment that is warm and enriching.”

As a result of this, he says, many are choosing to use wood as both structural and finishing material. Wiles adds that demand for education is growing while budgets for new educational facilities are shrinking, forcing many to consider wood-frame construction for its cost-effective quality.

“However, they’re also finding that, in addition to less expensive material costs, wood offers other advantages such as speed of construction, design versatility, and the ability to meet green building goals while creating positive learning environments and meeting all code and safety requirements,” adds Wiles.

AHEC’s scope of education projects includes Al Bateen Secondary School, Zayed University and the upcoming New York University, all situated within Abu Dhabi. This wide range of projects serves as a testament to the wide use of American hardwoods in the Gulf.

Beyond material, the issue of sustainability weighs heavily at the forefront of modernising education facilities. Brown notes the significance of new standards which make for safer environments through Estidama pearl ratings in Abu Dhabi and LEED accreditation, by saying: “finishes and furnishings need to be carefully selected.”

She adds: “Paints and adhesives must now have low VOC emissions, floors must have high slip resistance [and] furniture for smaller children [must] have buffers to stop them from trapping fingers.”

Brown also states that finishes now generally reflect natural environments with timber, stone and a neutral colour palette for permanent features. “Bright painted feature walls and graphics provide colour and can be changed easily in the future,” she says, adding that with sustainability so high on the agenda, water consumption and energy saving systems are integrated into the building strategy.

Continuing the topic of sustainability, Wiles mentions a study completed by McGraw- Hill Construction in 2007, stating that the education sector was the fastest growing market for environmentally-friendly building practices.

“Widely recognised for its environmental attributes, wood is well positioned to help schools meet their green building requirements,” Wiles explains. “Wood is also the only major building material that is both renewable and sustainable over the long term [as well as being] the only material with third-party certification programs to verify that products being sold originate from a sustainably managed resource.”

He continues: “Independent life cycle assessment (LCA) studies show that wood has significantly less ‘embodied energy’ than materials such as steel and concrete,” explaining that embodied energy is the energy needed to extract, process, manufacture, transport and maintain a product.

“Wood also outperforms other materials in terms of air and water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and offers more efficient resource use,” he adds. “And because wood continues to store the carbon absorbed by growing trees, it’s an important tool in the fight against climate change.”

Alongside technological innovations, new learning styles and sustainability, the education sector is a booming part of regional design at the moment.

Brown informs that in the UAE, 25% of total federal government spending is allotted to education, adding that “investment in the sector is obviously given a very high priority.”

“It’s an exciting prospect and a highly rewarding sector to be involved in,” Brown says. “The pupil’s are not the only ones benefitting from the successful design process.”

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