Improving learning spaces by empowering school users

By Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

During a trip to Finland in the middle of winter, I visited a school where all the students left their snow boots in the school lobby and walked around in their socks for the rest of the day. I had a similar experience in New Zealand, where barefoot students are a common sight in warmer months. In each case, the students clearly felt as comfortable in their schools as they would in their living rooms. While fundamental, we need to do more than just ensure the comfort and safety of students in schools. The bigger challenge is to foster an effective learning environment that supports students in building the portfolio of knowledge and skills they will need to thrive in the 21st century.

When visiting schools all over the world, I’ve witnessed many instances of students and teachers re-arranging their physical environment – both inside and outside school buildings – to suit their learning objectives and teaching practices. In some cases, the school building and its grounds had clearly been designed to be responsive to changing user requirements. Too often, though, it was apparent that the needs of students, teachers, staff and school leaders were simply an afterthought.

The potential impact of user-centred design is substantial if we pause to consider that by the time students in OECD countries reach 15 years-old, they will have spent on average over 7,500 hours inside a school building. The same holds true for their teachers and school leaders who are regularly obliged to adapt to existing layouts in schools, rather than being empowered to actively shape them.

We often overlook the importance of building and renovating physical learning spaces in a way that positively supports –  rather than actively impedes – the introduction of innovative pedagogy, curricula and technologies.

Schools are more than just places of learning for children – they are workplaces, too.

Schools are more than just places of learning for children – they are workplaces, too. The adults who breathe life into a school building and have chosen to spend their careers building a vibrant learning community within its walls are under increasing pressure to meet ever-rising expectations from parents, school districts and society at large. Responding adequately will require the teaching profession to devote more time to peer-learning, mentoring and professional development, which is largely conducted on-site and grounded in their daily work. So school buildings also need to offer appropriate spaces for teachers to collaborate, learn and innovate together in multidisciplinary teams – yet they too often fail to meet this expectation.

Today, we are pleased to launch the OECD School User Survey: Improving learning spaces together, which gives voice to those who use schools on a daily basis. This unique OECD tool consists of three self-assessment questionnaires designed for students, teachers and school leaders. They can be used to collect and triangulate evidence on the actual use of learning spaces, and to solicit user perspectives, as well.

The OECD School User Survey focuses on five areas related to the learning spaces in schools:

  • Physical environment and its use
  • Use of technology
  • Comfort and safety
  • Perceptions of learning environments
  • Overall satisfaction with the school facilities

Survey results can be used at the school level to support continuous improvement and the intelligent use or refurbishment of educational facilities. They can provide deeper insights into how physical learning environments shape teaching practices and affect students’ learning outcomes and well-being. They can also contribute to monitoring the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goal (4.1.a.) on the quality of the physical learning environment in schools.

We hope that this tool will be useful to school leaders, teachers, local authorities, school facilities managers and national governments around the world as they seek to maximise the educational impact of their investments in building and refurbishing physical learning environments. By making this survey tool freely available in the public domain, we would like to encourage schools around the world to experiment with, learn from and share their survey results with their peers.

Our next step will be to explore options for making the OECD School User Survey available online in multilingual versions. For ultimately, our goal is not just to make better use of limited education resources and existing school buildings – it is to improve the learning outcomes and well-being of students everywhere.

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