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The Optimal Learning Environment: Learning Theories

The Optimal Learning Environment: Learning Theories

By Bukky Akinsanmi, LEED AP
SHW Group, Dallas TX

How can designers create the ‘perfect’ learning environment? It is nearly impossible to provide a generic and accurate answer to this question because learning environments are designed to suite or support particular learning theories – and there are many theories that explain the learning process. Researchers often base their theories on physiological, psychological and sociological changes that take place when learning occurs and often exclude the physical/material conditions that surround the learning process. As a result, learning environments are often described in terms of pedagogical philosophy, curriculum design and social climate and there is little research on the role the physical environment plays in the learning process. This article is the first in a series of articles that will explore various learning theories, the description of the learning environments associated with each theory, the physical contexts designers have created to support them, and proffer a perspective from which designers can conceptualize the creation of an optimal learning environment.

How People Learn

Learning is the acquisition of skills, knowledge, values, wisdom and understanding. It is a necessary ability for survival and can be a conscious act—like learning to start a fire—or an unconscious act such as breathing. Learning also occurs in formal settings like schools and conferences, non-formal settings such as hobby groups, and informal settings such as homes. There are many theories explaining how learning occurs. These explanations fall under three broad schools of thought—behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism.


Late nineteenth and early twentieth century psychologists believed that learning began after birth. A newborn’s mind was considered a blank slate – tabular rasa – that learned appropriate and inappropriate behavior through positive and negative reinforcement (Squires and McDougall, 1994). B.F. Skinner (1904 – 1990) was a major proponent of this theory called Behaviorism (Skinner, 1953). Behaviorists believe that learning is evidenced by a change in actions through an explorative process that exposes individuals to external stimuli until a desired response occurs. The desired response is reinforced with rewards while undesired responses are not. This school of thought – based on experiments conducted on animals – is concerned with discernible changes in behavior and gives no consideration to the learner’s cognitive and affective processes since they are not observable (Harzem, 2004). It puts the responsibility of knowledge transfer on the teacher while the learner is a passive participant. Knowledge transferred from the teacher to the learner is viewed as objective, factual and absolute.

Environmental Response:

Learning environments that are designed based on this school of thought are lecture-based, teacher-focused, and structured, and use a system of reward and punishment to promote learning. Physical learning environments (schools) created to support this learning theory were typically fenced in single buildings with several stories. Classroom wings were laid out like the Henry Ford’s assembly line: new learners (raw materials) were located at one end and moved through the classes until they emerged as graduates (finished products) at the other end (Bennett and LeCompte, 1990). The class rooms were laid out in rows and columns and provided minimal room for flexibility. The teacher’s desk was the main point of focus (besides the blackboard) and had a vantage point that made students’ supervision easier. An example of a school built in the early twentieth century is the historic Soldan High School in St Louis, Missouri (below).

Soldan High School, St. Louis, MO


Another school of thought – Cognitivism, came to the forefront in the second half of the twentieth century when researchers found that behaviorism did not account for all types of learning (Gagne, 1984). Cognitivism rejects the behaviorist approach which excludes mental processes (e.g. thinking, memory, knowing and problem solving) in its explanation of how people learn, limiting learning to observable changes in behavior alone. Cognitivism focuses on the study of mental processes and uses it to explain learning. This view compares the mind to a ‘black box’ – one that needs to be opened and explored. The black box, like a computer, receives information, processes it and then produces an output that may be stored in the mind or exhibited in behavior (Semple, 2000). Knowl edge can be viewed as schema, that is, symbolic mental constructions that are organized or processed in the mind. Learning occurs when there is a change in the learner’s schemata. Assuch, the learner is an active participant in the learning process, and his/her actions are a result of thought.

Environmental Response:

Learning environments created around this paradigm encourage curiosity, provide inquiry–oriented projects and present knowledge in staged scaffolding. Similar to behaviorism, cognitivism presents knowledge as absolute and objective. Schools built on the philosophy of cognitivism were typically laid out like campuses and were not often fenced in. They were usually single or two-story buildings connected by various walkways, which provided opportunities for the students to interact with the outdoors periodically, supporting the explorative approach of the learning theory. The classroom buildings housed students according to their grades, usually with several classes of one grade occupying a floor or a building – a response to the enrollment explosion brought on by the baby-boomers. The classroom buildings were sequentially arranged and consisted of long corridors, flanked on both sides by classrooms. The internal layout of the classroom did not change much, however. The teacher’s desk was still located at the head of the class and the students still sat in rows and faced the teaching wall. The Matawan Regional High School of Matawan, New Jersey was built in 1960 and is an example of a physical learning environment that responds to the Cognitive learning theory (below).

Matawan Regional High School, Matawan NJ


Constructivism is the third broad category of learning theories. It rejects the behaviorist assumption that the mind is a blank slate and posits that learning is a process of constructing knowledge rather than acquiring it. It takes into consideration the learner’s social, cultural and contextual conditions (Boyle, 1994) and theorizes that the learner constructs knowledge through experience and in accordance with his/her level of cognitive development (Boyle, 1997). In other words, learners interpret new information through their contextual experiences and build on their existing knowledge from the conclusions reached during the assimilation of and reflection on new knowledge. The mechanism by which learners internalize new knowledge was first articulated by Jean Piaget (1896-1980).
This paradigm views learning as an active process of making meanings from experience (Semple, 2000) and unlike cognitivism, it emphasizes the individual nature of learning. This theory puts the responsibility of learning with the learner and emphasizes the role social interaction and reflection plays in the learning process.

Environmental Response:

Learning environments designed based on this theory are student-centered, collaborative, co-operative, and experiential. Teachers in this setting serve as facilitators rather than instructors. One of the more recent learning theories that grew out of constructivism is the brain-based learning theory. It is established on current neuroscience research findings about the physiology/functions of the brain and proposes that people learn better in a challenging, safe, comfortable, social and enriched environment (Caine & Caine, 1991).
There are very few schools designed to respond to constructivist learning theories from inception. In most cases, these learning theories are implemented in school facilities built as far back as the 1960’s. The Nola Dunn Academy in Burleson, Texas is an example. It adopted the brain-based learning philosophy when it was created in the late 1990’s but was located in a 40-year-old building – an uncomfortable facility they have managed to tolerate for almost a decade. The facility provided a cognitivism-based physical context, which inhibited the effortless implementation of brain-based learning principles. However, in spite of the limitations inherent in the facility, the Nola Dunn Academy has managed to succeed with passing test scores that exceed the state average by over 25%.
The school made substantial changes to the internal spaces. To provide vertical interaction and peer-to-peer learning, the school housed a vertical team that comprised of five different grades in each building. The teachers organized their classrooms as they deemed fit – some do not have desks and chairs but use bean-bags and couches. They removed the focus from the teaching wall and created the ambience of a favorite grandma’s living room, thereby providing an emotionally safe, comfortable and visually stimulating environment. In this re-created setting, learning opportunities are not restricted to the classroom – students read in hallways, take classes outdoors, and learn social skills during lunch time through the ”buddy system” (a mentoring program that pairs younger students with older ones). To consolidate the gains of the adoption of the brain-based learning theory, a new facility which responds to the core principles of brain-based learning is currently being designed by SHW Group – an architecture, planning and engineering firm in Dallas, TX.

Creating the Optimal Learning Environment

As mentioned earlier, most learning theories do not provide sufficient description of their physical context. Therefore, designers—architects, engineers, and facility planners—of physical learning environments have to respond to a program of spatial requirements and relationships (educational specifications) when creating a physical context for learning environments. While educational specifications should reflect a school’s learning theory, they may not get updated as school systems adopt new pedagogical philosophies. Therefore it is important for designers to approach the design of a physical learning environment from a place of ‘not-knowing’. Designers need to realize that school systems are departing from the traditional cognitive-based learning theories and are embracing constructivism learning theories. Therefore designing ‘schools-as-usual’ will not only undermine the goals of a school system, it may also make the designers uncompetitive in the school design market.

To create a facility that helps a school system achieve its goals, designers need to know and understand the learning theory to which the school tem subscribes. They must ensure that the educational specifications they work with reflect the appropriate learning theory. They must have a working knowledge of the psychology of learning and be able to interpret it spatially. A holistic approach must be used to create ‘places of learning’ and not just ‘spaces for learning’.

Akinsanmi’s Next Installment:

The Optimal Learning Environment: Learning goals and Societal Expectations
Explore the relationship between learning goals, societal expectation and learning theories and the role of school designers.


Boyle T. (1994) Designing for usability and effectiveness in a resource rich learning system, East-West Journal of Computers in Education, 1, 37-45.
Caine, R., & Caine, G. (1991). Making connections: Teaching and the human brain. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Fraley, L. F. (2001). Strategic interdisciplinary relations between a natural science community and a psychology community. The Behavior Analyst Today 2 (4): 209–324.
Gagne, R.M. (1984). Learning outcomes and their effects: Useful categories of human performance. American Psychologist, 39, 377-385.
Goldin, Claudia (June 2001). The Human-Capital Century and American Leadership: Virtues of the Past. The Journal of Economic History 61: 263–290.
Harzem, P. (January 1, 2004). Behaviorism for new psychology: what was wrong with behaviorism and what is wrong with it now. Behavior and Philosophy.
Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.
Squires, D. & McDougall, A. (1994). Choosing and Using Educational Software: A teachers’ guide, London: The Falmer Press.

Photo Credits:

Soldan High School (1916) retrieved on the 10/11/08 from:
Matawan Regional High School retrieved on the 10/11/08 from:

October 22nd, 2008

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