The appliance of science – could neuroscience hold the key to optimising classroom design?


Environments influence how we feel and how we behave and learning environments are no exception. Over the last 30 years, scientists have learned how our sensory processes work and can now accurately predict how we will behave when presented with certain environmental cues.

This knowledge can be applied to the design of our surroundings in order to influence attention, behaviour and motivation. While this insight is often funded by the deep pockets of retail and leisure operators, we wanted to find out if we could take it out of a commercial context and harness it to improve learning environments. Rather than using neuroscience to get consumers to buy more, could we use it to encourage greater ‘buy-in’ to the learning experience?

After all, you don’t need a scientist to tell you that attention, behaviour and motivation are critical to successful learning. Could we optimise the performance of the classroom environment by improving our understanding of neuroscience and behavioural ergonomics?



We designed the Spaceoasis® Classroom drawing on our knowledge of how flexible environments and zoning can provide what we have long believed to be a superior learning environment to a traditional classroom. To assess whether this design succeeds from a neuroscientific perspective, we asked Dr Tim Holmes, Director of Research at Acuity Intelligence, an expert in understanding the factors that influence cognitive and emotional behaviour, to provide us with a critique which we then used to improve our ideas.
Keep reading to find out what he had to say.






1. Collaboration Spaces
Learning is an active and social process occurring as a result of observation and modelling. The brain can also learn vicariously by watching others.
The design of the collaboration space allows for both physical and cognitive collaboration allowing students to learn alongside and from each other.

2. Digital Space
Reminiscent of tech stores, students will associate the clean lines of the digital space with focussed research, while the touchdown still supports easy collaboration between adjacent workstations.

3. Group Gathering Space
Attention is a finite resource and we tend to ‘spotlight’ our focus on a single subject of interest at any moment in time. Our biases lead us down the path of least resistance so, if you want attention to be focused on a single speaker, it needs to be easy for the class to do so. Tiered seating provides clear lines of sight making it easy to concentrate on the teacher and for the teacher to spot questions, register confusion and monitor class response.

4. Contemplation Space
Our inability to suppress auditory input can be damaging to attention as it makes it difficult to suppress distractions – in other words we ‘can’t hear ourselves think’. A quieter space
for thinking, reading or even meditating can improve concentration simply by making it easier.

5. Storage Space
Enables decluttering, creating space and removing visual ‘noise’. The creation of space is important because it facilities movement, improving the flow of oxygen to the brain, which reduces fatigue and improves cognitive performance.

6. Flexibility = Ownership
Research shows that people are more invested in environments they create. A study out of the University of Essex looking at workplaces showed a productivity increase of up to 32% as
result of workers being allowed to arrange the environment themselves. The flexibility of the seating and table arrangements allows students to create personalised learning spaces for the whole class or groups they are working in.

7. Desk Territory
In classrooms with desks, students tend to choose the same spot every time they enter the room, which restricts social interaction and can encourage cliques. Removing desk barriers in this shared space will bring the class together to enhance discussion and shared learning.

8. Step Up
The removal of desk barriers makes it easier for students to step up  and present, share ideas and results and see how others respond – developing valuable presentation and communication skills.

9. Comfortable seating
Any discomfort or fatigue wrecks attention so encourage movement wherever possible and make sure your seating is comfortable for longer, more focused sessions.

10. Mobile Screen
Visual noise can distract as much as auditory noise and having what looks like a TV in the room could be a subconscious cue, priming students to think of something they’d rather be doing. Being able to store the screen when it’s not in use removes this potential distraction.

11. One Blank Wall
A blank wall enables you to continually change and refresh the look and feel of a space through decoration, lighting or projection. Keeping the space interesting makes people want to come back and allowing students to contribute to the look and feel of their space increases ownership. The imagery we are surrounded by at the time of learning helps anchor concepts and facilitates recall.

12. Writable Surfaces
Research shows that visual communication and the ability to explain ideas through sketching / scribing facilitates learning because it strengthens the neuronal pathways to the brain, providing additional routes to enable recall from long term memory.


You’re so predictable…

Scientists know how we’ll behave because people are predictable. 90% of what we do is unconscious: our brains automate our responses to relatively predictable events, based on prior experience, to free up resources for new learning and problem solving.




And finally…

Dr Tim Holmes, Director of Research at Acuity Intelligence, a neuroscience based marketing and design research consultancy and Honorary Research Associate, Royal Holloway University of London:

“For some time now, retailers have been leveraging ideas from neuroscience and psychology to effect behavioural change. Working with Spaceoasis® I’ve shown where these learnings are directly applicable to the design of education spaces. With good design classrooms can become more than just a place to deliver learning; they become a tool that can be incorporated in lesson planning and used to improve the education experience for both students AND teachers. These proposals communicate good design for all the reasons explained on pages 4-6, with distinct zones to support different learning experiences within a harmonious whole that triggers positive emotional responses.”