How to create inspirational learning environments

This fall, my high school senior is headed off to college (wow, that happened way too fast!). Being in the furniture industry, I always notice the type of environments she’s learning in, and they are boring. I showed up at parent-teacher conferences and saw out-of-date, lifeless, uncomfortable furniture in neutral color palettes that seem to be the norm in traditional classroom settings. I thought, How can students be motivated to learn and teachers motivated to teach in an environment like this?

Fortunately, contrary to the K-12 spaces she is used to, college campuses typically do a better job of providing educational environments designed to motivate students to learn and support a variety of different teaching styles.

When designing an educational environment, it’s important to accommodate these three learning/teaching approaches:

Direct instruction
The general term that refers to the traditional teaching strategy that relies on explicit teaching through lectures and teacher-led demonstrations.

Inquiry-based learning
A teaching method that focuses on student investigation and hands-on learning.

Cooperative learning
Refers to a method of teaching and classroom management that emphasizes group work and a strong sense of community.

Every student has their own way of effectively learning, and every teacher has their own way of effectively instructing, so it’s crucial to create an environment that will work for the variety of styles. This can be challenging with so many different students and teachers, but there are some best practices for designing inspirational spaces that will motivate both:

Incorporate color
There’s no rule that says classrooms need to be beige and gray with a few posters on the wall. Contrary to the belief that color is distracting, a bit of color on the walls and in furnishings will create a livelier, more inspiring room. Colors like orange and yellow encourage enthusiasm, and purples and grays are said to be motivating and inspirational.

Use comfortable and inviting furnishings
While you don’t want students falling asleep on a huge, cushy couch – hard, cold desks aren’t doing much for them either. Similar to the importance of being ergonomically-correct in the office, it’s important to be comfortable in the classroom, otherwise students will be fidgety and distracted. Find middle ground with furnishings like a firm seat covered in a soft fabric, or user-controlled pieces like chairs with tablet arms that allow students to use it in a way that’s comfortable and effective for them.

Promote collaboration and participation
It’s important to create an effective environment for group activities and students who learn better in numbers. Rather than encouraging students to simply shape their desks into circle (which isn’t very effective for collaboration because you can’t stand, closely interact, etc.), create small collaboration areas or move around flexible, double-duty furniture to form informal spaces for group learning.

Incorporate technology
Students these days grew up with technology and hardly recognize a difference between the digital world and the real world. They use technology to learn at home (or anywhere, really), and classrooms need to keep up with the fast-changing times if they’re going to remain effective places to learn. Incorporate technology solutions to help students learn in a way that they’re used to.

Provide access to daylight
It’s no secret that natural lighting is better than artificial lighting. Lighting has a significant impact on productivity, with statistics showing that proper lighting can decrease errors by 30-60 percent and increase productivity by 10-50 percent. Boost students’ mood and keep them awake and alert by keeping blinds open and arranging desks near the windows.

Kudos to schools that already do a lot of these things and are providing an environment that motivates students to learn and inspires teachers to instruct. For more information about designing educational environments and to learn about ISCG’s work at schools like The University of Michigan, Oakland University, and more, please reach out!


Header image via

Design, PeopleJoel Miller