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Characteristics of a Positive Learning Environment

How school facilities support student learning

collage of photos of MS/HS Design Center

In order to provide an exceptional education to students, school buildings have to be purposefully built in such a way as to inspire creativity, independence, and a love of learning.

Good facilities in schools should be designed to nurture the intellectual, physical, social, and emotional development of students. Schools should also continually improve their campuses in response to student need and the latest research.

At the International School of Beijing (ISB) the high-quality campus provides a positive learning environment for the student body of more than 1,700. The school has recently remodeled and created four buildings officially opened in ISB's 40th Anniversary year. The new facilities will ensure ISB achieves its Mission, Vision, and strategic priorities. 

School facilities support student learning by providing a healthy learning environment. See how the International School of Beijing’s facilities support a student’s love of learning by downloading the ebook, “6 Characteristics of a Positive Learning Environment."

Defining the characteristics of a positive learning environment:

1.  Flexibility, openness, access to resources

2. Design based on extensive research

3. Overall quality

4. All school facilities under one roof

5. Spaces tailored to different ages of student

6. Facilities built and adapted in response to curriculum development


6 characteristics of a positive learning environment CTA_Updated

1. Flexibility, openness, access to resources

Flexibility, openness, easy access to resources, spaces designed to be adaptable with lots of movable partition walls – these characteristics give students choice in how and when they learn.


According to Modern Learning Environments by Mark Osborne, Director of Leading Learning and a teacher, school leader and consultant for more than 20 years, both students and teaching staff should have the ability to combine two classes into one for team-teaching, split a class into small groups and spread them over a wider area. They should also have the ability to combine different classes studying similar learning areas.

With the ability for school facilities to be flexible and adaptable, teachers can choose how they want their students to learn, and students can learn in a way that is best for them.

“It helps my thought process because I’m not stuck at a desk all the time,” says Noah M., a student at the International School of Beijing (ISB), regarding why he prefers flexibility in his learning.

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With moveable walls, flexible work spaces, more glass, and the strategic use of a common learning area, modern learning facilities are all about openness.

Through a common learning area and flexible work spaces, schools can have central teaching. These areas give students access to what other classes are learning so that teaching and learning can be complemented and enhanced, according to Osborne.

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Access to resources

With each learning area or classroom, good facilities in schools allow spaces for many different activities.

Whether it’s reading, group work, project spaces, a wet area, a space for reflection, or for presentations, both students and teachers have the ability to find the resources they need – whether it’s wireless or wired technology – when they need it.

“[Through modern facilities], inquiries are shared, interventions devised collaboratively and reflections based on both self and peer observations, which leads to a more robust, continuously improving community of practices,” Osborne writes.

In addition to flexibility, openness, and easy access to resources, it’s also important for learning environments to be clean and fresh to keep students motivated and focused.

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ISB’s campus inspires choice in students

“Educational spaces on the ISB campus are intended to be creative spaces that provide much more than a standard educational experience, and as such, the spaces provide for the active observation of the ISB learning processes and activities,” says Gerrick Monroe, CFO at ISB.

"The theme of the school facilities at ISB highlights our refresh and remodeling plan which include visible teaching and learning spaces so that our community has the ability to observe and celebrate the innovative work of students and teaching staff.

“ISB classroom spaces were transformed from the more traditional classroom settings to revised, visible learning spaces where solid walls are replaced with large windows that open into community spaces and hallways.”

The visible spaces must also be flexible to support the differentiating needs of the positive learning environments and activities the teaching staff provides students each day.

There is a consensus in the field of education that flexible spaces allow for seamless changes in the daily programs and activities offered in a space and are also more easily repurposed to meet the changing programmatic needs of a dynamic learning organization over the long term.

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A Look at ISB’s Flex Space

With moveable walls, versatile seating, ISB’s Flex Space – located in the High School – has the perfect balance of flexibility, openness, and adaptability.

“It's proven that interdisciplinary work is more profound because students can see the links between what they're learning. When students are choosing their path and deciding what they study, they are more engaged. And when we have more flexible space for projects, we start to see those things take action," says High School Principal David Munro (2015-2021).

Not only is the space strategically constructed to inspire creativity and problem-solving skills, but the architectural engineering is also of the highest standard and is modern in appearance, giving students a taste of what they will see in university.

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photo of ISB MS/HS Design Center classroom

2. Design based on extensive research

The design of a building, especially an educational facility, should be a collaborative process which incorporates the school community, teaching staff, the student body, board members, specialized architects, and of course, extensive research.

At ISB, buildings are designed based on research exploring the kind of spaces which make for positive learning, and the community is always consulted.

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Consultative process helps develop the Facilities Master Plan (FMP) at ISB

Through the consultation with 30 stakeholders and over 300 members of the ISB community, the Facilities Master Plan (FMP) was able to capture and incorporate all ideas, goals, and recommendations to build and remodel four facilities.

  1. Elementary School (ES) Arts Center and Theater
  2. Middle School/High School (MS/HS) Performing Arts Center
  3. Early Years Learning Center
  4. MS/HS Art & Design Center 

The FMP design and review process looks both internally at the facility needs of ISB’s developing programs and externally in order to identify the programs and facilities availed to the community of learners at peer schools around the region.

The process is democratic and gives the school community the chance to say what they want to see in the new facilities. There are over 20 members from ISB’s community who make up the FMP Committee.

“Parents, students, teachers, staff, and administrators have all actively participated in activities and processes which were specifically designed to elicit ideas and goals from each committee member regarding future ISB programs and facilities,” says Monroe.

To read more about the FMP and the new buildings, click here.

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School Environment

3. Overall quality

According to experts in the field of education, well-planned, quality school facilities have a lasting impact on the educational experiences and creative activities in which students and teachers are able to engage. Educational research (see section two) has clearly determined that the traditional classroom settings which most adults have experienced during their own education are not optimal.

These traditional, immobile classrooms with teachers imparting lessons upon students from the front of the classroom are best replaced or modified to become more flexible, adjustable, and open learning environments.

“[These adjustable spaces] better accommodate and support the active and engaging learning activities designed and planned to elicit student interest and challenge them to apply varied concepts and skills,” says Monroe.

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ISB’s leading school features and facilities

“We were impressed with the facilities and opportunities offered at the school, but mostly we liked the energy, dedication, and positive attitudes from teachers and staff,” says Claudia Stenström Kontor when asked why she chose ISB for her family. Find out more about the good reasons to choose an international school.

This sentiment is echoed by parents, students, members of the teaching staff, and alumni, all of whom see ISB’s positive learning environment and exceptional facilities as key reasons to attend the school.

ISB alumna Kaitlin Davies was presented with a number of options of where to go to school in Beijing by her father. She immediately chose ISB.

“It was quite clear where I needed to be in order to mix with the most diverse group of people and get the best education with access to the best facilities,” she remembers.

A moment that sticks out to Davies during her time at ISB was when she had the opportunity to perform as part of a dance troupe.

“It was on this incredible stage, under the lighting. At [my old] school in Wales, we dined and performed on one really terrible stage. Having this state-of-the-art theater and being able to dance on it was pretty cool.”

We invite you to see our state-of-the-art facilities for yourself by clicking here.

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ISB, a not-for-profit institution

ISB is a not-for-profit institution and therefore it invests all revenue back into the school, to further its Mission and Vision and provide an excellent education for students.

pie chart showing diagram how school fees are used

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Quality facilities put together by experts

In order to create spaces that support a positive learning environment, world-renowned architects with expertise in educational facilities need to be consulted and participate in the planning of the buildings.

Xiaoyi Ma is the chief designer for the ISB project and the founding partner of Inclusive Architectural Practice, a Beijing-based architectural design firm.

“My job at ISB is establishing design principles for the new buildings,” says Ma. “School projects, especially expansions to well-established educational facilities, are different from other building types. They require a designer’s tremendous flexibility and attention to detail in order to customize the design to meet and exceed teaching requirements with persistent forward-thinking.”

We invite you to learn more about Ma, her experience as an architect, and ISB’s new facilities by clicking here.

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Air purification at ISB

According to a study by Environmental Health Reports, when the air quality in a building has less carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds, individuals perform 61 percent better on cognitive tests. Simply put, the cleaner the air, the stronger the brain function.

And at ISB, faculty have made it their mission to make sure the school community has the freedom to play and learn in an environment which allows for the best possible cognitive abilities.

Throughout the ISB campus, the highest standards of air quality are provided by a state-of-the-art air-filtration system. This includes pressurized domes, which are also equipped with heat recovery systems to maintain an ambient temperature.

The indoor sports facilities are in a dome with purified air, meaning students can exercise comfortably in any weather condition. With air purification across the campus, the air here is as clean or cleaner than anywhere in the world.

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School Environment

4. All school facilities under one roof

When all schools, elementary, middle, and high school, are under one roof, it encourages cooperation across all divisions. Though many schools have each located in a separate building, the benefits of having them in one location are plentiful.

Advantages of having all sections under one roof include:

  • Students and teachers can easily use the educational and support facilities, access to which is not dependent on weather conditions, temperature, air quality, or distance.
  • Clean air and a heating/cooling system can more efficiently be provided through a singular, large, centrally managed system.
  • There is regular interaction and support across grade levels and ages of students.
  • Siblings can be in the same building.

The decision to put all ages of ISB learners under one roof was made 20 years ago, according to Monroe, and it’s a decision students at the school are quite happy with.

According to one student at ISB, there’s always someone to ask for guidance.

“There are so many good people around here; if you ever need help, they will be by your side helping you every step of the way.”

And even with three groups of vastly different ages, ISB is known for its inclusivity.

“One of the things I like about ISB is it’s so inclusive; we have a lot of people and we’re all doing things together. Not only is ISB a great place, it’s a great experience… it’s not just a school, it’s my second home,” says another ISB student.

We invite you to see ISB’s state-of-the-art, all-encompassing facilities for yourself by clicking here.

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Characteristics of a positive classroom environment

5. Spaces tailored to different ages of student

In every grade, children have vastly different requirements in order to learn how to excel in the 21st century.

There is a consensus in the field of education that young children need extensive socialization and play-based learning to inspire inquiry early on. As children get older and university is on the horizon, students need to be presented with spaces similar to what they will see in post-secondary school to help minimize culture shock. Students, no matter what the age, need to be given independence and a choice in how they learn. And school facilities need to be built in such a way as to tailor the education to meet the needs of each and every age group.

“It seems common sense that three-year-old students and 16-year-old students need and want much different educational experiences and facilities,” says Monroe.

“Often, providing diversified educational experiences for students of different ages in similarly designed educational facilities is determined by the imagination and creativity of great educators that work within these spaces to provide high-quality programs for our students.”

Experts agree when the design of facilities is planned according to the age, program, and developmental stage of the students, the activities and student experiences created by educators are significantly more impactful.

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ISB’s purposefully built facilities

The design of the ISB facilities and spaces opened in 2020 incorporates the educational needs of each learner in order to best help them excel.

“By actively incorporating teacher and programmatic designers into the development of these new facilities, the variety of programmatic and experiential uses of the spaces has been identified and considered so that teachers and students have the necessary spaces, equipment, and furnishings to support their work,” says Monroe.

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Early Years Learning Center

The Early Years (EY) Learning Center is a remodel project and is a large, purpose-designed space to better serve ISB’s youngest learners.

Details of the building include:

  • Thirteen classrooms (EY3, EY4, and Kindergarten), lofts, and large common spaces.
  • Early Years art classroom, music classroom, and student kitchen.
  • Child-sized facilities and indoor play spaces connected to the outdoor play spaces.
  • Remodel of the first floor of the current Elementary School, with a small expansion out into the Outdoor Learning Environment (OLE) and into the current EY courtyard playground.
  • Supports ISB’s Early Years program philosophy of differentiation, play-based, and inquiry-based approaches to learning, by offering flexible learning spaces.
  • Supports collaboration and the development of skills and community within and across grade levels, by utilizing communal areas.
  • Enhanced safety as this center is a protected learning space for our young learners.

“This building has been specifically designed with the inside and outside flexible spaces, active exploration and play areas, and creative design centers needed to best support our innovative Early Years Program,” says Monroe.

“Young learners need inviting and engaging facilities that challenge and support their learning.”

And the intention behind the remodeled facility is to do just that. Sections such as the lofted learning and play areas, indoor sand and water features, and secret gardens all have the built-in purpose of engaging ISB’s youngest learners.

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photo of ISB Early Years Learning Community

6. Facilities built and adapted in response to curriculum development

The 21st century is one of change and ambiguity, and schools must continuously review their curriculum, approaches to learning, and facilities to make sure they are equipped to respond to these changes and teach students the necessary skill sets to thrive in tomorrow’s society.

“Programs at dynamic schools like ISB require purposefully designed, flexible spaces to best meet the programmatic requirements,” says Monroe. “In order to determine what facility additions and modifications are needed, ISB has regularly run FMP design and review processes to collect and help prioritize these prospective projects.”

Take a look at section two to discover more about ISB’s FMP.

Similar to many established schools, ISB’s FMP is regularly reviewed and updated to guide the short and long-term campus remodeling and construction planning.

According to Monroe, this regular review process is to make sure any additions or modifications to the facilities are relevant and vital to the success of ISB's innovative and changing programs and in line with our goals of providing world-class facilities that best meet the educational needs of our dynamic school community.

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A look at remodeled and newly built buildings responding to programmatic changes

ISB is committed to providing a positive learning environment and opportunities for students to excel.

The school facilities are an extension of ISB's learning philosophy and were designed to realize the school's vision; to nurture the intellectual, physical, social, and emotional development of students. And as the programs change and expand, so do the facilities.

Book a tour today to see the innovative and ever-changing campus in person.

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ES Arts Center and Theater

The Elementary School Arts Center and Theater was a new-build project. It’s a flexible, creative performance/practice space unlike any other on campus, expressly designed to meet the needs of ES performers and audience members.

Benefits include:

  • Supports the development of ISB’s ES fine arts foundational programs, which in turn fuels the growth of world-class secondary fine arts programs.
  • Increases the opportunity to focus on whole-child development and offers a greater range of options for students to meet individual success (increased co-curricular options for students).

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MS/HS Performing Arts Center

The Middle School and High School Performing Arts Center was a new-build project. It’s purpose-built to create a space for the growth of ISB's dynamic performing arts programs.

Benefits include:

  • Provides ample space for growth in these performing arts programs and resolves current issues with acoustics and capacity.
  • Extends and supports the learning of performing arts students both inside and outside of ISB's school day programs.
  • Better supports student creativity in composing, performing, and recording.
  • Reflects the great value that ISB places on the arts programs and will help to inspire students for a lifetime.

ISB’s MS/HS Art & Design Center

The Middle School and High School Art & Design Center was a remodel project and is a centralized design facility for showcasing design and engineering programs.

Benefits include:

  • Meets the demand for campus spaces which facilitate large-scale design and robotics courses.
  • Showcases ISB’s design, engineering, and entrepreneurship programs, which challenge students to create, prototype, and iterate ideas, through a centralized design facility.
  • Facilitates applied learning in science, math, technology, art, and design.
  • Provides inspired spaces to facilitate transdisciplinary and project-based learning.

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photo of outside view of ISB MS/HS Design Center


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