Click to enter complete search
Designing learning spaces that encourage creative and collaborative behaviours
Ben Somner
24th April 2019

The core skills of reading, literacy and maths have long underpinned the educational approach of schools the world over.

They are the basic building blocks that allow us all to properly function as part of society while the humanities, arts, languages and science provide children with a critical knowledge and understanding of how the world around them works.

But when preparing children for the challenges presented by the 21st century, knowledge is no longer enough.

According to the World Trade Organisation, it is creativity, alongside critical thinking and problem solving, that will soon be the most important attributes for job seekers and learning environments must respond accordingly.

One of the key recent pedagogical changes in recent times has been the advent of flipped learning and this has allowed us as designers to reimagine learning environments with a specific focus on nurturing creativity.

Flipped Learning

In a flipped classroom, the ‘instructional’ content or the lecture, is delivered ahead of the lesson, online on a laptop or tablet. This results in classroom time being more focused on understanding the content through face time with a teacher and engaging in group discussion and social learning – moving from the ‘sage on the stage’ to the ‘guide by your side’ if you will.

Flipped learning is nothing new – it is a concept that has been discussed and implemented for more than two decades – but the classroom has been slow to adapt.

The flipped classroom, and the larger learning environment, needs to respond by providing a range of different spaces – and a variety of scales. Where some are more active and dynamic, some are more focused and quiet, catering for large discussion groups, one-on-one sessions with a guiding tutor or quiet individual study or contemplation.

“Flipped learning is nothing new – it is a concept that has been discussed and implemented for more than two decades – but the classroom has been slow to adapt.”
Ben Somner, Director of Architecture, Broadway Malyan

In the past, ‘break-out space’ has often been realised by simply providing over-sized corridors but these spaces are unable to cater for different levels of focus and provide the dynamic and flexible environments required by 21st Century learning.

For our Dulwich College ‘Dehong’ School in Shanghai, we took a cluster of what would have traditionally been up to eight classrooms and have provided just four fixed class spaces, resulting in an array of ‘other’ spaces from group rooms to a large lecture space and individual learning pods.

Nexus School Singapore pushes the theory to the limit, where there are almost no ‘traditional’ classrooms and clusters of up to six classes work together in one volume. Here, there is a huge amount of pressure on smart furniture design, floor and ceiling finishes, and acoustic interventions to help divide the space into different learning zones.

Both of these examples have been driven by flipped learning, and have therefore also flipped the idea of ‘break-out’ to become ‘break-in’, where the majority of a students’ time is spent in the flexible environment, but they can break-in to a traditional classroom space when more focus is required.

Encouraging CREATIVITY

Our ‘Dehong’ and ‘Nexus’ models have been developed in response to flipped learning to create different and more flexible environments while it is the scale and nature of the volumes that can have a significant impact when it comes to encouraging creativity – a subject close to every designer’s heart!

The Cathedral Effect talks about the relationship between the perceived height of a space and types of learning within. According to The Cathedral Effect, the perception of high ceilings enables creativity and free-thinking, whereas low ceilings enable more focus for attention to detail and rational thinking.

At our Nord Anglia school in Wenzhou, we use double height spaces for group collaboration zones, where creativity is most valued, but retain a number of ‘book nooks’ and smaller focused areas for individual study.


Our proposal for Chengdu Westminster School includes the Learning Resource Spine, which physically connects all teaching zones of the school, but also acts as the school library.

At 300m long, it may be the longest school ‘library’ in China but more importantly, it provides an array of different collaborative spaces that bring together students of different ages, and teachers of different specialisms in an exciting and dynamic environment where dialogue, discussion and collaboration are actively encouraged. Enclosed reading rooms and book archives are included alongside project rooms and group working zones to accommodate all learners.