Neuroscience in School Design

Recent research on the relationship between the physical environment of educational facilities and its impact on students has shown that design can definitely affect learning. Different design features, such as daylight, temperature, acoustics and color have the most influence on students, and when designed correctly can positively impact the learning process. However, little has been published on the effect architectural design can have on learning, by studying how it affects our brain. This is now changing as neuroscientists have found that the moment we walk into a space, our brain is engaged and activated, sending electrical currents to thousands of brain cells. Given that learning activities rely on engagement, using a building’s architecture to activate learning can further enhance the learning experience in schools.

Emotional arousal helps the brain learn, according to John Medina, author of “Brain Rules.” Medina adds that we “absorb information about an event through our senses, translate it into electrical signals, disperse those signals to separate parts of the brain, then reconstruct what happened, eventually perceiving the event as a whole.” Architectural elements such as light, sound, texture and shape can affect us immediately, triggering an emotional reaction that can affect how we retain information. These attributes provide external stimulation that can activate certain brain areas, making it more receptive to learning. The opposite is true if these attributes are neglected during design. A windowless classroom with rows of front-facing desks can actually turn off a student’s interest in the material being discussed.

When designing learning environments, architects and designers should strive to achieve a design that can help activate the brain. Continued research by neuroscientists is being conducted in this arena, but we can arrive at certain designs based on what we know of how the brain absorbs information. Our senses are essential to how we perceive information, so building environments that activate our senses is a good start. We are also aware that in order to design successful learning environments, we need to know the users, and understand that we all learn differently, so it is imperative that the learning environment be personalized. Lastly, creating environments that are safe and comfortable allows the brain to be engaged and activated in learning activities, instead of distracted by feelings of danger and discomfort.

Activate the Senses

Humans have five basic senses: smell, hearing, touch, taste and vision. Some of the senses are better at triggering old memories, like the sense of smell. Medina writes that our senses “have evolved to work together, which means that we learn best if we stimulate several senses at once.” However, according to neuroscientist Eric Kandel, the brain prioritizes vision, and “half of the sensory information going to the brain is visual.”

Understanding this, as architects we must design sensor-rich environments that first appeal to our vision and then activate our other senses. One way of accomplishing this is by carefully using light, color, texture and shapes. 111e traditional factory model classroom neglects these by creating a repetitive, rectilinear pattern that results in hallways with a very institutional feel that can be sensed as negative and impersonal. Humans have a bias towards curves, and curvilinear spaces and objects have been associated with positive emotions and a sense of safety, according to a study conducted in 2013 by psychologist Oshin Vartanian.

For example, Woodard Elementary School in Cypress, Texas responds to our neural preference for curves, creating an engaging, non-threatening pathway through the building. The space is further activated by the use of natural light and color on the glass, which triggers and activates our sense of vision. The different materials in the space, from the smooth walls, to a textured stone column bring together all the senses to create a sensory stimulating environment. Another example is Valley Oaks Elementary School in Houston. In this case, our senses are engaged with the use of graphics that assist with wayfinding, and introduce circular shapes into an otherwise rectilinear space.