“The physical environment is the third teacher”: Why thoughtful design is crucial for young learners

Just as work is changing for good, so too is the learning process & teaching methods. And these changes are buoyed by a raft of research highlighting how good design can help young minds better connect with educational materials through their physical learning environments. 

Research has shown that flexible study environments make a real difference in learning outcomes and student engagement. In other words, it’s not just what we learn – the raw content or syllabus – but also the environment in which we learn it. That’s what creates curious, engaged, attentive students. Beautiful minds require beautiful spaces.

“The classroom is sometimes called the ‘Third Teacher’,” says Dr. Fiona Young, Studio Director and architect and researcher in the field of learning environments at Hayball. A longtime Koskela collaborator, Young’s research focuses on the affordances of innovative learning environments and classroom layouts. “The first teacher is adults, the second teacher is other children, and the third teacher is the physical environment.

“It’s based on an approach that emerged in Italy called Reggio Emilia, which says that children are innately curious human beings, and that the learning environment should be developed to enhance that curiosity.”

Dr. Young’s work and research has helped inform design decisions at Koskela for some time – from creating furniture that can be reconfigured easily by teachers and students, to designing them with natural-looking materials and colours based on the Australian landscape. Dr. Young’s influence can be found across large swathes of our ‘Learn’ range. 

“Schools have evolved from traditional classrooms,” admits Dr. Young. “As architects, we often talk about the 100 languages of children, because there are so many different ways of learning, from didactic teaching to hands-on, self-directed exploration. What we need are spaces that offer diversity and connectedness for collaborative learning. I’ve been designing these for the last 20 years.”

Dr. Young’s embodies a thoughtfulness and purpose in learning design that we’ve embedded into our own school range and design of school furniture. Every piece of Koskela school furniture goes through three years of painstaking research and development, including real-world testing and collaboration with educators.

The result of that hard work is flexible furniture for hybrid classrooms that actually facilitates better outcomes – for students and teachers. And that dual role is important, because despite the hierarchical structure of traditional classrooms, all learning is really a dialogue. It works best when it flows both ways. 

“You have to bring teachers along for this journey,” says Dr. Young, “Because you can build beautiful things, but they won’t work if they’re not aligned with the philosophy of the school. If we're designing these spaces, we need to support teacher transition in order for them to work in these much more collaborative learning environments and connected ways.”

children are innately curious human beings, and that the learning environment should be developed to enhance that curiosity - Reggio Emilia Approach

As Koskela, there’s nothing we love more than being able to put these design philosophies into practice in learning spaces. For recent school project Abbotsleigh, on Sydney’s north shore, Koskela provided several catalogue items and custom-made furnishings, including slim desks for the art and science classrooms. Each of the desks featured bag hooks and a special bolting system, allowing multiple layouts and configurations, depending on the lesson and the desired learning outcome. The brief was as much about function as form.

Koskela also supplied a range of school furniture including a variety of ergonomic chairs, school chairs, student desks, sofas, stools and tables, all of which could be arranged and rearranged to create an almost unlimited number of classroom spaces. We even managed to find a home for our Gulima Junior bean bags in the library: what better environment for a snug lunchtime reading session?

“Beauty is important for learning,” Dr. Young says. “The use of natural materials, the way in which the pencils are laid out, the way the light comes through the window, that connection to the outdoors. Good classrooms have an openness that allow children to express themselves.”

It’s also important for designers, and schools, to embrace the notion of circular economy. Instead of replacing classroom furniture over time – an expensive and incredibly wasteful exercise – all of Koskela’s products can be serviced to keep them looking and working like new. Nearly all our components are repairable or replaceable, and in most cases, this maintenance work can happen on-site, which reduces disruption, delays and cost.  

Dr. Young says that better design in schools and modern classrooms is crucial if we’re going to prepare the next generation for a rapidly changing world. “This world is shifting dramatically, and it’s happening at an exponential rate,” she says. “The jobs we expected for our children might not exist in the future. And so we need to teach young people how to learn, and keep on learning. To navigate the world in a much more agile way. And that approach begins at school.”