The challenges of designing schools for the 21st century by Kathryn Brown, GAJ


Kathryn Brown, Senior Interior Designer at Godwin Austen Johnson writes about the challenges of designing 21st century learning environments and adapting to new learning techniques.

I recently read a Facebook post from a neighbour of one of our school projects that we did in Jumeirah Village Triangle, a residential community in Dubai. They lived across the road and had just been to the opening of the school, and wrote: ‘For those of us who have suffered for the cause of the new school, it was well worth it. We have had a visit round the school tonight and Wow! What they have done is unbelievable. A lot of thought has gone into the school.’

They went on to list the new facilities, the pool, football pitch and basketball court, that the whole community can use and the offer from the headmaster that all are welcome to look around.



Building a large new school in the middle of a residential area was always going to cause some form of disturbance, but knowing that the result would ultimately pay back the community and the pupils is why designing for education is so rewarding. What other sector does that? Carrying out the project cost effectively and within a tight programme for the client is the goal ‘on paper’ but creating a heart of the community and a place that contributes to the future lives and development of the people who use it I think are equally important.

As an interior designer, I have always been fascinated by how people react to their surroundings; how this can be controlled to increase wellbeing, creativity and even a sense of identity. Nowhere is this more important or apparent than in a school environment where the shaping of young minds happens with every interaction. Whether in the corridors, in class either large or small, playing sport, playing music or painting, the surroundings play a huge part in encouraging creativity and the feeling of safety and support.


We all know education has moved on from the Victorian learning ethos, which was to create ‘carbon copy mentalities’; learning everything by rote to fit into whatever path was chosen for them. For children to survive and thrive in the modern world we now live in, they have to learn to be an individual with unique talents to stand out from the crowd and be confident in their uniqueness. Let’s celebrate ‘the trombone playing science ace’ or ‘the bookworm Eco-warrior’.

We need to encourage the taking of calculated risks, innovation and exploration. For this to occur naturally, for children creativity and personal learning in all its forms should be fostered by the space around them.

Gone are the days of endless boring corridors and multiple classrooms, or old villas that weren’t fit for purpose with bad light and no facilities. Spaces now, as demonstrated by the Ladybird Early Learning Centre we recently completed, are increasingly fun, bright, flexible, and adaptable. Let’s have moveable walls, informal teaching pods in communal areas, group learning in libraries with interactive walls and state-of-the-art creative studios. Why not?


While this forward thinking is still in its early stages here in the region, I am encouraged by the open-mindedness of our latest clients. For the newly built schools to be successful they need to have unique selling points and top class facilities to compete in, what is now, an international field; so it just makes good economic sense.

Equally important is the need for a safe, toxin-free environment. No more lead paint and vapour emitting carpets. With such high instance of asthma and allergies in the latest generation, this is increasingly important. Most sustainable and environmentally safe design is just common sense and LEED compliant materials with low emissions and green credentials are so much more readily available, to be almost the norm, not the exception.


Design for education is constantly adapting to new learning techniques, and the vast array of information is now at children’s fingertips. Pupils are increasingly more sophisticated and globalised through access to technology. Personally, I am delighted to be constantly learning from this process myself, to see how children and teachers move around and thrive in the environments we have created and taking note of how to improve the next time. Designing for education is refreshingly straightforward. The answer to design for a school comes straight from the people who eat, play, learn, explore, interact, and teach in them.

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