Unlocking the potential of learning spaces

Today there is a strong trend for building Innovative Learning Environments (ILEs) in new and converted schools. ILEs are learning environments where classrooms and corridors are opened up for more varied activity-based learning spaces.

People & design Education

The new Hyllievång School in Malmö chose a solution that combines classrooms, open "street" spaces and small activity rooms. Meet a teacher, an architect and a researcher and find out their views on designing modern schools. 

Fredrik Andersson, a preschool teacher and drama teacher, shows us around the newly built Hyllievång School. We start the tour at one of the open spaces with kitchen facilities. The layout is based on a number of “team areas”, each comprised of six classrooms, different sized group rooms and staff rooms.

“This set-up helps us work together as a team and maintain consistency between the subjects studied. The smaller spaces are dedicated to different subjects, for instance maths, languages or IT,” explains Fredrik.

He has a lot of experience of working with learning environments and designing rooms based on students’ characteristics and the tasks to be carried out. Fredrik emphasises the importance of adapting learning spaces to the students’ needs and ideas.

“We adults typically like to plan and decide in advance how each room should be used. Then the children come along and use the space completely differently.” 

Very different to other schools 

Fredrik Andersson

Fredrik Andersson, preschool teacher and drama teacher at Hyllievång School.

When we walk into one of the group rooms, the sound absorption effect is clearly noticeable. One of the long walls is used as a big noticeboard, and is actually a sound absorber. Wall-to-wall carpeting dampens the sound further and gives a feeling of calm and concentration.

“I notice a big difference compared to other schools I’ve worked at. A whole class can sing together in one these classrooms with no problem at all.”

Each classroom has room for 30 children. When they need to work on their various tasks, they can go to different rooms and spaces to either concentrate or connect and collaborate, depending on their needs. As a drama teacher, Fredrik stresses the importance of movement and space, both indoors and outdoors.

“For instance, my preschool class has been learning about trees and how the growth rings indicate the tree’s age. We got the children to form circles to help illustrate the concept. That requires space.” 

Many innovative solutions

The schoolyard at Hyllievång School is divided into smaller areas for different types of movement and activities. There are swings, climbing frames, a basketball court, a multi-purpose area for football and other games, a floorball court, ping pong tables, a long jump pit and a running track. There is plenty of seating along the sides of the building for those who prefer to sit quietly. Instead of a fence, the whole schoolyard is delineated by a surface water trench, which can also be used for learning about sustainability and other water-related topics. In addition, roof terraces on the third and top floor of the building are used as outdoor classrooms.

Hyllievång School has several other innovative solutions. The building has basically no hidden rooms or corners where bullying might go unnoticed. Cables, ventilation pipes and water drains are partially visible behind glass, allowing them to be used for learning purposes. Solar panels are installed on the roof, and their electricity production is clearly shown on a display at the school entrance.


In today’s digital world, we need to devise completely new ways of working. 

Less focus on classrooms

The architectural studio Liljewall Arkitekter won the contract to design Hyllievång School with their concept of a future-oriented school with a passive house design. Stefan Östman, head architect for the project, is a specialist in learning environments. He strongly advocates placing less focus on classrooms as the main teaching space.

“Teachers are still attached to the idea of traditional classrooms of 60 square metres with room for 30 students. This set-up stems from the 18th century and is based on one-way communication. In today’s digital world, we need to devise completely new ways of working.”

Stefan points out that all the students are rarely in the same classroom at once.

“It’s a waste of space for each class to have its own designated classroom. But this was a requirement at Hyllievång School, so we included collaborative ‘team areas’ in the open spaces.” 

The design of the open spaces contributes to the sound damping

The design of the open spaces contributes to the sound damping. Small group rooms break up the space and straight walls are avoided.

The importance of sound and light

Open spaces pose a strong acoustic challenge. Moreover, the large glazed areas at Hyllievång School are not very conducive to good acoustics.

“It’s important to have a feeling of openness and a pleasant environment where everyone can see each other and be seen. At the same time, it’s crucial to have a good sound environment,” Stefan explains.

“An acoustic ceiling is not enough –  wall absorbers are also needed. And the ceilings must have appropriate sound damping with the correct distance between the ceiling and joists.”

The design of the open spaces also contributes to the sound damping. There are not many straight walls here. Small group rooms break up the space, and part of the room is screened off by the kitchen area.

“I think even more use should be made of screens, both for the acoustics and to make the space more flexible,” says Stefan. 

Involving the management and teachers

So how should ILEs (based on an Activity Based Design) be introduced in environments where the traditional classroom concept is still strongly established? Bodil Bøjer, a researcher at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture (KADK) in Copenhagen, is currently studying ILEs and how the physical environment can support learning. She believes that having a specific design is not the primary factor for success; the most important success factor is involving the management and teachers in the design.


The biggest challenge is having the courage to invest in the actual process of designing schools. 

“Teachers are so used to classrooms. You can't just create new buildings or conversions with a completely new type of design and expect things to work automatically. A cultural change needs to gradually take place. The biggest challenge is having the courage to invest in the actual process of designing schools.”

Learning spaces typology

A range from closed to open learning spaces to give context of where street spaces fit in schools. Based on Dovey & Fisher’s learning space typologies (2014) adapted by Soccio & Cleveland (2015) with street spaces highlighted.

 Bi-folding wall 
 Solid wall

  Store rooms

   Street space

New roles for teachers

Bodil points out that it is crucial for teachers to be involved right from the design phase, and for school management and consultants to be sensitive and listen to teachers’ needs and views.

“Teachers’ roles will change completely. We talk about making the transition from teacher-focused learning to student-focused learning. In an ILE, the teacher is more of a facilitator.”

The design of ILEs can vary depending on the teaching methods used. What they have in common is the possibility of choosing different learning environments according to the activity at hand and the children’s needs.

“Students benefit from choosing the best learning space for their needs. Traditional classrooms have a very uniform design, with identical desks and chairs.”

Street spaces coloured by activity

An example of typical activities that could take place in street spaces coloured by activity areas - by Bodil Bøjer Ind Phd, KADK & Rune Fjord Studio.

   Group area
  Social area
  Quiet area

However, Bodil does not expect traditional classrooms to disappear from schools completely.

“Schools will always need a space for assembly and instruction.”

But there is definitely a growing emphasis on collaborative learning in schools, and on the importance of providing spaces for it. There is also growing demand for other informal learning environments outside traditional classrooms, which are commonly described as street spaces as shown in the learning space images. Teachers and students need to be able to choose where, when and with whom to study.

“Informal learning environments play a key role during this transitional phase. They encourage students to take greater responsibility, grow in confidence and become more involved in their learning. Informal spaces are more flexible and can be adapted to different activities,” says Bodil.


Text: Lars Wirtén  

Photo: Teddy Strandqvist