A Smarter School Design for a Brain-friendly Learning Environment

WOW Aug 05, 2019

“As humans, we are exquisitely designed to be sensitive to our environment", shares Eric Jensen in Environments for Learning. Jensen further states that “well-planned and enriched learning environments stimulate learning and reduce discipline problems. When orchestrated with other sound teaching strategies, brain-friendly learning environments strengthen neural connections and aid long-term memory, planning and motivation (2003).” Enriched Environments refers to orchestrated environments for learning; it encompasses the students, teachers and activities that contribute to the total learning context.  Schools need to be designed with the whole community in mind including safety, cognition, curiosity, economics, mood, attendance, ecology and other social factors. Aesthetically pleasant, attractive, colorful, comfortable and engaging to the senses is brain-compatible.  Jensen predicts that more and more, traditional classrooms will give way to multipurpose “learning studios” or “zones” --places where children can engage in specialized task-specific activities together.

Components of a sustainable school include protecting the environment, channelizing daylight into classrooms to minimize the use of artificial light, using recycled products and material and incorporating the school’s design into the academic program. It gives teachers a host of meaningful resources to illustrate lessons in math, reading, writing and especially science. “The school design has not only enhanced the environment for learning, but it’s also a part of it” says Jensen. Moreover, schools need to be “socially smart, cognitively supportive, emotionally safe and environmentally friendly.

What feeling do students get when they walk into your room?

Caring attitude from a teacher is accepting of diversity: culture, gender, race, and class

Scientists know that the learning brain does not respond well to real or imagined threats of harm. Such environments trigger the amygdala (the brain’s fear and emotional response center)”. Maximum attention ought to be given to creating an engaging, interesting and safe environment.

Peripheral displays impact students on the subconscious level. Motivational posters are great.

Be aware and try to repair - “Schools with shattered windows, broken-down restrooms, leaky roofs, insufficient lighting and overcrowding have a significant negative impact on cognition. Such conditions are frequently found in many of our nation’s schools and unfortunately, far too many children, especially those in rural or poor urban areas, are schooled in dilapidated, crowded facilities”.  

Staff Areas – Teachers and other academic personnel need comfortable spaces where they can get away from the hustle and bustle, to think, relax, plan and reflect.

Further Tips:

(The following points have all have been sourced from the research of Eric Jensen’s  Environments for Learning 2003)

AROMA & ODOR – Research suggests that peppermint, basil, lemon, cinnamon and rosemary enhance mental alertness while lavender, chamomile and orange and rose calm nerves and encourage relaxation. “Alan Hirsch (1993), a Chicago neurologist, found that certain floral odors increased subjects’ ability to learn, create and think”. Unpleasant odors , on the other hand are known to inhibit learning. Olfaction (the neuroscience of smell) influences our moods and levels of anxiety, fear, hunger, depression.

COLOUR – Color can enhance moods, emotions and behaviors – and possibly cognition. Our reaction to color is a complex combination of biology, physics and psychology, (Trussel, 1997)

CLUTTER-FREE – clutter-free may be the way to be according to Zen or even contemporary minimalist design. We do however know that too much clutter is bad. How would one concentrate on a messy desk or disorganization filled environment. Your classroom should convey a feeling of confidence, joy and curiosity. Make sure any learning environment is physically neat before each learning session.

IONIZATION – When the electrical charge in the air is too positive, it can cause you to feel groggy, lethargic, sleepy or depressed.  On the flipside, do you remember feeling fresh and energized just after a shower, by a waterfall, atop a mountain or when you have stepped outside after rainfall?  These would be the benefits of negative ionization. Unfortunately, in areas of higher population, the atmosphere’s healthy balance of positive to negative ions can be disrupted. “Human activity, it seems, destroys negative ions and ultimately reduces the amount of oxygen in the air. Smoke, dust, smog, pollutants, electrical emissions, heating systems, coolers and traffic exhaust are all culprits. The air becomes too highly electrified (too many positive ions) and the human reaction is counterproductive to learning”.  Ionizers are available in the market.

LIGHT – Unfortunately, the amount of our exposure to outdoor light has diminished over the last century.  As we know, research states that ultraviolet light, present only outdoors, activates the synthesis of vitamin D, which aids in the absorption of essential minerals such as calcium (MacLaughlin, et al. 1982). Natural sunlight is best for learning. Fluorescent lights have been shown to increase cortisol levels, a change likely to suppress the immune system. Low light makes close work difficult on the eyes and nervous system

NOISE – Noise may have physiological implications. Children in nosier areas have been found to have higher blood pressure, heart rates and elevated stress levels – factors that aren’t conductive to learning. Scientists know that excessive chronic stress causes the brain to release abnormal levels of cortisol, a hormone that finds receptors in the hippocampus, a brain important to memory and learning”.  

PLANTS – Not only do plants provide a green aesthetic touch, they also help filter the air of toxins and increase oxygenation.  Jensen suggests the learning environment should include four-eight plants. In a study, the US Federal Clean Air Council found that plants raised indoor oxygen levels and increased productivity by 10%. A single plant can increase productivity in 100 square feet of space! On the other hand, stale air starves the brain. For optimal learning, provide your learners with fresh, uncontaminated, highly oxygenated air.

POINT on POLLUTION – Pollution combined with urban noise and overcrowding also causes stress and other physical symptoms and may impact cognition. “Research is revealing that these invisible toxins can have a detrimental effect on cognition in young learners.

SENSES – Opportunity for sensory stimulation – things to hear, touch, see and smell is essential.  “When it comes to creating the optimal educational environment, we can learn a lot by giving a thought to what students see, hear, feel, smell, breathe and taste in the places dedicated to their learning” says Jensen.

About our guest author-

Anjum Babukhan has successfully carved a niche for herself in multi-faceted areas and is respected for her high level of professional integrity, scholarly articulation and commitment to the cause of Education, Enrichment and Empowerment. Professionally, she is a member of YPO Hyderabad Chapter, has previously served as Chairperson for women’s wing of FICCI and was Education Chair of CII.

Recently, Anjum has authored a book, ABCs of Brain Compatible Learning and produced a Youtube video series on the same. Over the last two decades, she has developed an innovative and a creative educational ecosystem across all her institutions that focus on “cherishing the experience called childhood” and create “learning places that are nurturing spaces.” Anjum has set up Edvantage Teacher Leadership Institute and has designed modules that have trained thousands of teachers and parents over the years.

It is a pleasure to share that our group of institutions have pioneered the application of brain-compatible learning since the late nineties while having keep up with the latest brain research, continuously upgrading it. After years of success, it was a milestone to launch ABCs of Brain-Compatible Learning as an actionable guide for both teachers and parents so that we prepare our digital natives to be future-ready in the 21st century. We aspire to make Glendale Academy a role model school in transferring research-backed pedagogy for increasing brilliance in education! - Anjum Babukhan

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Sunil Sathyavolu

Edupreneur | Eco Activist by Passion | True Hyderabadi | Movie Buff | Music Lover | Chess and Cricket