Reference material for designers and schools

These resources further explore the relationship between teaching and learning and the physical environment.

Level of compliance Main audience Other


  • Boards
  • Proprietors
  • Principals and tumuaki
  • Project managers
  • Property managers
  • Researchers

These written reports and videos summarize how the physical environment of a school can support teaching and learning. At the end of the page are resources from other education agencies, and links to some international research.

Fact sheets

These fact sheets provide a quick overview of what the research says about the link between physical design and student outcomes: 

Full reports 

For more information, you can read our full reports. These documents provide a guide for principals, boards, teachers, and parents who are interested in creating a flexible learning space, but want to know more about what this will mean for their students. 


Making spaces that work for you

The following video features principals, teachers and students at Mountview School and Waipahihi School in Taupō talking about how they use their schools’ physical space for teaching and learning.

The video focuses on how the 2 long-established schools have reflected on, and adapted, their teaching practices and made changes to their property that support those practices. Both schools are striving to teach and encourage collaboration, self-management, curiosity and creativity and use their spaces in varied ways to support this student-centred and future-focused approach.

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Transcript: making spaces that work for you

[Music loud to open, then quiet throughout]

Mountview School Principal Carmel Hoetawa (CH): Here at Mountview School, we embarked on a journey of looking at what we need to do to prepare our students for the future world. When you have up to thirty students in the standard classroom with the desks and chairs, you have cluttered the space. So it required a change in our environments physically, within the constraints of the architecture that we have, and also it needed us to look really closely at how we were teaching, what journey we needed to go on as staff, what learning we needed to look at.

Waipahihi School Principal Tim Lovelock (TL): How is that we can make the space we’ve got work to maximise the opportunity for them to have connection with each other, with other teachers, with other age groups and make this really work for our kids?

CH: So the buy-in from the teachers was really important, the support from the Board was really important.

Mountview School Teacher Kristine Blewett (KB): What I was excited about when I came into this school was the way in which the principal and the senior leadership team and the staff were all engaged in moving forward into this way of learning.

CH: So we brought new furniture into the rooms, we created environments where children could choose how they learned in that environment.

Mountview School Teacher Bridget Kemp (BK): Getting new tables, getting cute furniture looks amazing and I’m grateful I’ve got it but if I hadn’t changed the way I taught and my pedagogy, this wouldn’t have worked. I think one without the other is not really going to make much difference at all.

TL: So what we have is what was a very siloed four classroom block that not has the ability for four rooms that are interconnected and have shared wet, cooking, science areas and breakout areas.

Waipahihi School Teacher Jenny Maloney: It’s the same square metres but it seems bigger, more usable, the carpet makes a huge difference.

TL: A teacher doesn’t belong to a classroom, they don’t live in a space so they move with the different groups of kids.

BK: The classroom’s set out so the children have independence on where they sit, they’re not stuck in any one place at any time.

KB: We can move the tables in any way we want, we can work outside if we need to, we can work over at the benches, whatever we have to do.

BK: They are in control of their learning, they self-manage themselves, they have to be organised at the beginning of the day, they have to have what they need done and they need to set it up. It works especially well around collaboration.

TL: You’re seeing a more genuine engagement around that learning in things like lots of thinking, lots of collaborating, and lots of connection with other kids and sometimes that’s not stuff that can be put in a book.

BK: I can just see them engaging and getting so much more achieved and I feel better because I can see that I’m meeting the needs of each child.

Child 1: We get to plan our own day out and what we do and when we do it.

Child 2: I like having different teachers for different classes.

CH: We developed professional learning groups where we had robust discussions that asked questions of each other of what was going on in our classrooms, how well it was working.

KB: We’re all about student agency so we want student voice, that’s how we engage the students. If they have input into their learning, they’re going to be engaged and they’ll want to take it to the next steps.

BK: Everyone’s more willing to share and to say ‘oh I’m doing this’ and they’re like ‘oh cool, how are you doing that? How does that work?’ and you’re like ‘ok I’ll give that a go.’

Waipahihi School Teacher Megan Fraser: I feel totally comfortable with anyone walking in and out of this space and observing me and giving me feedback and I think that is the culture that a collaborative space allows, where curiosity is heart of what we do.

Child 3: I like that we actually make stuff. You don’t design it and then it just lies down, you actually make it.

KB: I think here the devices have been a huge help. So we have devices but they’re not on the devices all the time.

BK: You can see it when you’re in the room, there’s a feeling in the room like there’s just everyone’s working, everyone’s calm, there’s no behaviours, it’s just, yeah, it just works.

TL: Collaboration in life and the ability to understand each other and to get connection is what success in this century and beyond, I think, is all about, and the more our kids know about themselves and how to do that with others, the better they’re going to be.

[Music to end]

Stonefields Primary School, Auckland

The following video at Stonefields School in Auckland addresses how to develop a vision for a school that includes the perspectives of educators, learners and the wider community. School leaders discuss turning that vision into practise and setting up property to support those practises.

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Transcript: Stonefields Primary School, Auckland

00:08-00:31: [Sarah Martin, Principal] So a visitor to our school would walk into the school and see a series of learning hubs that are, some are more connected than others and then there’s three teachers operating within a space. We’re passionate about multi-levelling our children here, you’d wander through the school then it’s not a junior senior, it’s all mixed up, we’re all in this big learning melting pot together, which is pretty neat.

0:35-00:48: It’s absolutely fundamental to come back to your beliefs and having a shared purpose regardless of the initiative and then being really, really clear about the principles that surround that belief, and then decide on the best practise to implement that belief.

00:50-01:16: [Chris Bradbeer, Associate Principal] So developing a vision was absolutely critical and when we look back at it, it was very much work that Sarah was involved in right from the start. So Sarah had been on board for probably the best part of a year before we opened. For us I suppose, putting the buildings aside, it was actually looking at, well, in establishing a vision for a community and for a new school, what do we actually want to do?

01:16-01:49: Having that learning capacity and knowing yourself as a learner, having a learning process that allows you to kind of get out of those I’m stuck situations and knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do and then having that capacity to collaborate with kids of different ages or with adults or with different areas around school, and having an understanding of what’s worth collaborating on and actually what can I do better on my own, so those are probably the sort of the key things that have underpinned what we want learning to look like here.

01:49-02:07: [Sarah Martin, Principal] We needed to value every stakeholder’s voice, so from the student voice and what they wanted in their learning spaces – they’ve been in the space for two years to inform what needed to happen next. Our parents have been critical in this consultation process too and certainly our Board and our teachers having been in the space.

02:07-02:26: there was a really multi-layered approach to involving the students so some drew pictures and wanted to realise what the space might be like. Others talked about the good and bad things in the current space they were in and then there was lots of student voice in video getting them to describe their drawings and really understanding exactly what they meant.

02:27-02:52: Getting between hubs was really key, learners talked extensively about working in a hub, well, learning in a hub, the fact they like to go to other hubs. And so they looked at the idea of having interconnecting doors so that you can just slide them open and they can be open all day and it’s very much a sort of a sense of a learning village kind of concept rather than discrete, discrete spaces.

02:53-03:26: So really early on we got our architects involved in the consultation process where they facilitated sessions with our parents, students, and our teachers and that was really magic, that was really, really exciting. So we didn’t wait and then say ‘this is what we want’ towards the end of our consultation process of heavily involved, they then came back to us with lots of different opportunities and really challenged our thinking with what they presented back so it was really great to have educationalists and architects working to look for the best outcomes for kids.

03:26-03:48: What’s starting to happen is beyond the three teachers and three sets of children, if you like, and three times as much space and it’s starting to be a pretty magic, collaboration between learning hubs. I’m seldom seeing those doors between learning hubs closed and I just think that opens up visibility, practise, building organisational capability and it just takes the whole thing to another level.

03:51-04:42: [Chris Bradbeer, Associate Principal] It’s been privileged work. When we come back to talk about, you know from a leadership point of view, what it’s actually been like, it’s been privileged work, there’s no other word for it. You know I’m immeasurably proud of what’s been achieved by the team and the teachers and the kids in such a relatively short period of time and I think to see the manifestation of all that learning, of all the expertise we’ve been able to tap into and all the dialogue and the consultation and the conversations we’ve had with kids and with teachers, and to see that actually manifested in a physical thing that you can open the door of and walk into and think ‘yeah, you know, our community has done this’ has been pretty special.

04:43-04:56: [Sarah Martin, Principal] Every day when I walk into the new space, I’m really, really excited to see again just how the whole envelope’s been pushed that much further by teachers and learners realising again what’s possible.

St Clair Primary School, Dunedin

St Clair School Principal Richard Newton talks about the school’s pedagogy and the opportunities that property can offer for learning. The physical design of their school emphasises connection across the school, flexible, multi-use spaces and furniture and physical transparency.

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Transcript: St Clair Primary School, Dunedin

[All narration attributable to Richard Newton, Principal unless otherwise specified.]

00:08-00:46: If I was describing our space, I would say that it is a shared atrium design with an expansive mezzanine which allows connection across the school facilitating cross age cross ability – it allows people to move freely within the space. I think it also physically conveys a really strong message about transparency. The glass is there but that transparency of practise, transparency of purpose, our children being able to see each other at work, colleagues being able to see each other work.

00:46-01:10: For us as a school it was always about the pedagogy that came out of property and the opportunities that property offered for learning, so it was never about a nice gleamy building. So as part of the background, as well as visiting schools and speaking to colleagues, it was also doing some reading, people like Nair’s work, some of those North American architects and some of the work going on in Australia.

01:11-01:33: I think another element was reflecting and saying ‘well that’s great for that context that I’m reading about but how does that work in our place?’ and so that then became part of a long-term development strategy with the whole staff and everybody doing some serious learning about space and what space has got to do with children’s learning.

01:33-01:59: We had a series of actual staff meetings and so they were very focused on what was the purpose of the existing spaces we had, how did those spaces work and what was the limitations of those spaces? What would we like to do or what do we think we could do if we had some sort of collaborative space that we could all make use of? We talked about simple things like glass – what was the purpose of glass? What does it represent philosophically? What was its physical characteristics and how would these impact on learning?

01:59-02:22: We considered also the work we were doing because that was part of our journey. What can we do with our existing spaces and we were already experimenting with existing classrooms, you know how can you use that little rectangle in ways that allow children to have some sort of sense of agency in their own learning so we were able to tie that initial work into the possibilities that a modern building offered.

02:23-02:50: Seeing the way space is actually a promoter of agency. Space isn’t somewhere where you can go to do something different, space is actually something that offers you the opportunity to actually consider the choices you’re making as a learner, ‘the reason I want to work in that place is because this is an independent task, the reason I want to work in that place is because I can sit there comfortably with three or four others and undertake a problem.’

02:50-03:22: I think the other thing I like about our building in terms of that is that nothing has a set purpose. Everything is very flexible and an independent space for one child can two minutes later be a little work space for three or four children. I think we’ve deliberately tried to have a variety of space types but we’ve allowed children to think about the way that space would be used and so in that sense the space becomes a promoter of agency and it makes children more reflective about the way they’re using space.

03:22-03:44: [Brigid Fyfe, teacher] Throughout the school, the seniors are always out in Te Manawanui, our juniors are working with them or they can see them working there. We don’t have to worry too much about the work that they’re doing out there because they know what they need to do and they’re taking the ownership of it and working along with the space as we are.

03:45-04:03: one of the things that really excites me about our new development is every classroom will link directly through expansive glass into this big collaborative space and we’ll have a strong sense of one school, very united all connecting into the big heart, all sharing in that learning experience.

04:05-04:17: Physically the space has done something at a deeper level in the school culture, I see an acceleration in the way teachers think about space as a result of this development.

04:19-04:39: [Brigid Fyfe, teacher] I think it’s totally changed my way of thinking as a teacher over the, must have been, 4 years now. I don’t use my classroom as a classroom, it’s not my classroom, it’s a space that I work in and I work in Te Manawanui as another space I work in, I’m not the traditional teacher that I started out as.

Learning studio pilot project

In 2008, the Ministry invited schools entitled to replacement or additional classrooms to participate in a project to develop a ‘learning hub of the future’. This work has informed subsequent guidance and reference design work.

The project aimed to deliver a group of flexible spaces at each school that would enable teaching and learning in a variety of ways.

In 2012, the project was assessed by boards, staff, architects and project managers and the concept had overwhelming support.

The openness and flexibility created by adjustable operable walls and significant internal glazing allow a variety of teaching and learning styles, furniture arrangements and locations.

The learning spaces had good design, function, aesthetics, acoustics, lighting, heating, insulation, ventilation and air quality.

Review of the learning studio pilot [PDF, 1.7 MB]

Case studies

The following fact sheets describe case studies of how schools around New Zealand have aligned their school property with their education practise.

Auckland Normal Intermediate modern learning environment case study [PDF, 179 KB]

Woolston School modern learning environment case study [PDF, 194 KB]

Breens Intermediate modern learning environment case study [PDF, 206 KB]

Pegasus Bay (formerly Waikuku) school case study [PDF, 187 KB]

Waimairi School case study [PDF, 1.5 MB]

St Martin School case study [PDF, 1 MB]

Other sources

This section provides links to other sources where you can learn more about the integration of educational practise and school property. This page will be updated as new research is published.

Ministry’s iterative best evidence synthesis programme

Teachers and educators are the biggest within school contributors to students’ academic success and social development. The design of learning spaces should support a school’s teaching and learning practices.

The importance of teachers and effective teaching is demonstrated in the Ministry’s iterative best evidence synthesis (BES) Programme. You can read more about this collaborative knowledge building programme on the Education Counts website.

BES Programme: What works evidence/Hei Kete Raukura – Education Counts website(external link)

Te Kete Ipurangi

Te Kete Ipurangi provides information about innovative learning environments, school stories, guides for getting started and other resources including a module on the Inclusive Education website.

Innovative learning environments – TKI website(external link)

Guide to ILEs – TKI website(external link)

The Education Review Office

Ta Tari Arotake Mātauranga visited 12 schools to see how they were preparing their students as 21st century learners. They provide a full report and a 2-page summary.

Leading innovative learning in New Zealand schools – ERO website(external link)

International research

The Ministry is currently participating in a research project about innovative learning environments and teacher change being run by the University of Melbourne.

Innovative learning environments and teacher change – ILETC(external link)

The OECD has an ongoing project called the Learning Environment Evaluation Programme (LEEP).

Effective learning environments – OECD website(external link)

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