Innovative learning environments and our ‘Heschong Mahone moment’

An education market think tank proposes a radical research concept for evaluating learning environments.

January 22, 2018 |
DLR Group Insights Blog
Joplin (Mo.) Interim High School, designed by DLR Group. Photo courtesy DLR Group

Joplin (Mo.) Interim High School, designed by DLR Group. Photo courtesy DLR Group

In 1999, the oft-cited Heschong Mahone study revealing the importance of daylighting was published. The research correlated the prominence of daylighting to improved elementary student test scores, pushing the pendulum away from artificial into natural light, setting the stage for the sun-lit schools we find common today. At scale, the world shifted its reliance on intuition to depend on evidence supporting the integration of daylight above perceived energy savings or minimizing distractions. I wonder if a sea change around the broader design elements of a school is imminent.

The Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change (ILETC) research project of the Learning Environments Applied Research Network at the University of Melbourne recently hosted a think tank at Steelcase in Grand Rapids, Mich. Part of a three-city international tour, the North American think tank represented five U.S. school districts, the Association for Learning Environments, the National School Board Association, the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education, and several universities.


Empirical data is difficult to obtain in schools due to an inability to control all variables, and to achieve a large sample size. The Heschong Mahone study was conducted through a sample of more than 2,000 classrooms and test scores of some 21,000 students. The results were deeply significant. The ongoing ILETC project has the potential to influence this type of scale, but, as it currently resides in Australia and New Zealand, its potential sample sizes are much smaller.

‘Academic test scores are not the ideal metric. We must instead think beyond and measure areas innovative learning environments support most successfully: student engagement, soft skills, and wellness.’

However, scale is just one way to satisfy the needs of generalizability. Another is control, which spawned a bold idea in the think tank session. Why not create a “living lab” disguised as a typical public school, purpose-built for experimentation? The goal would be to rigorously test the things we have seen work anecdotally–space variety, agile furniture, transparency, technology integration–within typical constraints, such as public education school district standard accountability metrics, for increased generalizability. This scenario would also allow for systematic testing of various professional learning initiatives and tool kits in the transition to innovative learning environments.

What would such a school look like? One school leader in the room gave an example of a school consisting of identically designed wings, each with an assortment of operable partitions allowing for various configurations of the spaces and the degree of openness. One wing could resemble a traditional, single-cell classroom model, another a nearly completely open model, and others falling somewhere in between. 

In this environment, we could investigate a range of space variety, connectivity, and openness. Teachers from one wing may be given purposeful training regarding the use of space, while others adopt more organic approaches to the transition. Wings may implement different pedagogical approaches or curricular structures. Timetables could even vary to identify the amount of time needed to fully utilize opportunities provided by the space. 


Those in the ILETC think tank agreed that academic test scores are not the ideal metric. We must instead think beyond and measure areas innovative learning environments support most successfully: student engagement, soft skills, and wellness. 
Many organizations are already developing such measurement tools. DLR Group is one of those, with the ongoing development of its Student- and Educator-Engagement Indexes.

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