Schools: how materials can help with learning
Whether they provide thermal, acoustic or visual comfort or indoor air quality, materials can now play a key role in schools, to optimize the environment in which children learn. Schools really can be places where the health of pupils and teachers is a key priority.
Our journey takes us to northern Europe, to a small town near Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, which has a school for pupils aged 3 to 12. At first glance, this 3,800 m²/41,000 sq. ft building looks like any other school in the West. But the building was designed to combine energy efficiency, environmental performance and… quality of learning. It’s what’s known as a “healthy” school, in which the four dimensions of pupil well-being are taken into consideration. These dimensions are physical health, quality of social relationships, sense of security and cognitive development. On top of that, the pupils get to work in a sustainable and ecological environment! Here’s how.
While the choice of materials in terms of a building’s energy performance is no longer up for discussion, the matter of how they can impact the quality of learning is often less of a consideration.
Does a healthy mind need a healthy environment? Yes, because a poorly insulated, poorly soundproofed or poorly ventilated classroom can have a negative effect on pupils’ well-being and, ultimately, on their grades. That’s why in recent years, decision-makers in education have started taking notice of these new learning and social issues. Their main focus has been how to create schools of the future which will have to meet the pressing challenges of energy and ecological transition… but also the challenges of how to transmit knowledge in a more suitable framework, how to ensure that children learn well and understand better.
The number one reason for complaints in school: noise! Overcrowded classrooms, a noisy outdoor environment, poor acoustics in canteens, and much more. Pupils, teachers and other school employees are increasingly exposed to prolonged noise pollution. For young children, this overexposure to noise has consequences on their academic success. In a nutshell: the noisier the classroom, the lower the grades! Omnipresent noise can even lead to delays in language acquisition, concentration problems, and of course, stress. In theory, the noise in a classroom should never exceed 50 dB. In reality, noise levels are too often much higher.
What can be done about this incessant din that prevents clear messages from being shared? Master of the “art of silence”, Saint-Gobain has developed materials with proven acoustic performance. Its anti-noise solutions include triple glazing of course, as well as insulating panels that absorb sound from wall to wall, and suspended or unstructured ceilings (by Ecophon or Eurocoustic). And they work! Our Dutch elementary school managed to reduce noise by up to 45 dB while improving speech clarity (by 4 to 8 dB) after fitting these acoustic ceilings.
As well as noise, thermal discomfort is another enemy of learning. Classrooms are too hot in summer and too cold in winter; children simply cannot concentrate properly when temperatures fluctuate so radically. According to experts, 20-21°C is the ideal temperature for effective learning. That’s why it is important to insulate walls and partitions properly. To stimulate children’s minds without overheating their brains, some schools choose outside insulation that is natural and ecological, such as the products proposed by Weber, a Saint-Gobain brand. Others opt for the warmth provided by wood, which generates an immediate feeling of well-being and guarantees optimal comfort. Elsewhere, particularly in hot countries, Placo® mineral wool plasterboard is the best option, because it has four times less thermal conductivity than brick.
Wherever they are on the planet, our adorable pupils are now ready to get their heads down and work in a quiet, well-insulated environment that is conducive to learning. Well, almost. Because in a classroom, dim or excessively bright lighting can be just as harmful as noise. Fortunately, there are some simple solutions to improve visual comfort for pupils. It starts by replacing old neon lights that have been there for generations with modern light sources such as LEDs. On the windows, solar control glass (such as those developed by Saint-Gobain) is also useful to encourage or block out light or heat penetration, depending on where you are in the world.
Indoor air quality
One final thing to watch out for in an optimal learning environment: air quality! Yes, it has been proven that by regularly renewing the air in a classroom, children aged 10 to 12 benefit from a significant increase in their cognitive abilities. A study of 100 primary schools in the US shows that students score 2.9% higher on maths and 2.7% higher on language with an increase in ventilation of 1 L/s per person*. Yet many schools still struggle with poor ventilation, with the added bonus of potential sources of humidity or mold. One of the key challenges at a school is therefore to provide pupils with healthier air, both to help them learn more effectively and to limit the spread of viruses.
There’s some good news: some Placo® or Gyproc® solutions (plasterboard, ceiling tiles, etc.) using Activ'Air® technology, a product of Saint-Gobain's research, help to purify indoor air by absorbing certain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde, which can be found in the particleboard of furniture. Combined with good ventilation, they promote better air quality, and in turn, better learning!
Open to the world
To provide an optimal teaching framework, the school of the future must therefore focus on the “5 senses” (hearing, sight, touch, smell, taste) and choose materials that promote better vision, attentive listening, and unobstructed breathing.
While schools are for learning, they also have the important role of shaping future citizens. In this spirit of openness to the world, the schools of tomorrow must offer flexible and modular spaces so that pupils can interact in small groups or as a whole class. These spaces must focus on the social and psychological well-being of pupils, and combine teaching and “living spaces” that are well-lit and welcoming.
Here is a school that has been refurbished and is now conducive to creating future citizens. It’s more “attentive” to its pupils’ learning abilities, as well as being more comfortable, more sustainable, and more respectful of children and the planet. The key is to reduce the carbon footprint, cut down energy costs... and leave pupils more fulfilled.
* Allen J.G. et al. (2017), Foundations for Student Success: How School Buildings Influence Student Health, Thinking and Performance, Harvard, T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Photo credit : Studio Romantic/Shutterstock