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Archives > February 2013 > The Role of Light in Education

The Role of Light in Education

It is not news that light has some kind of role to play in education, as for the majority of fortunate students, being able to see forms a key part of how information is received, then is hopefully sorted through and absorbed. It is also not really news that different light ambiances can make people feel different….for example a cooler light in a typical office compared to a warmer light in a café.

By: Matthew Cobham

What is new is how you can begin to quantify this and the benefits it can bring in education. This is what we will cover in this article.

However, before diving into the increasing body of research and application examples, let us take a little tour of recent educational establishment design history.

Natural Light in Classroom Design
In the 19th century, architects such as Edward Robson realized the role of natural light in school design and came up with some useful rules of thumb—for example “30 square inches of glass for every square foot of floor.” This has now developed into modern daylight factors which are used by designers and many of Robson’s schools still exist.

Classroom design also went through some less good times, none more so perhaps than in the 1960s, when in Europe and North America windowless classrooms became common. The logic was linked to heat conservation, but the effect on students and staff began to be questioned.

A lot of studies were undertaken, and one of the most visually powerful was undertaken by Karmel in 1965.  Here he and his team took a sample of 1000 14 and 15 year olds, where 500 were studying in schools with windowless classrooms and 500 were studying with a lot of daylight. The students were asked to simply make a drawing of what they believed an ideal classroom should look like, and the results were both interesting and tragic.

The students in the well day lit classrooms drew, much as expected, classrooms with some windows. The students who were used to windowless classrooms drew their classrooms as having even more windows than those students who actually had them. It was studies like this and many more which fortunately helped transform classroom design to a situation now where it is—at least—generally accepted that light has a role to play in education.

What do we know today and how can you apply it in your educational establishment?
What we know can become detailed very quickly, but one of the starting points is the role of the right kind and quantity of light to regulate the natural sleep wake cycle. Our whole being is regulated by light and where we do not get it, as is shown in studies where people are deprived of light, our natural cycle will shift.

On reentering an environment with light and dark, the body clock gets reset. This is clearly demonstrated in jet lag which takes a few days for the readjustment to take place. Our bodies need light (the right kind, which we will touch on later) and darkness for our bodies to be correctly what is called “entrained” (adapted) to the environment in which we are.

The consequences of not being adapted are, at the very least, we feel sleepy when we should be awake—pretty important in education; at worst, there is a growing body of evidence which shows that there can be some serious health consequences, details of which go beyond the scope of this article.

Four Light Settings: Effect on Concentration
Along with students being awake at the right times, concentration is also useful in a learning environment. Recent studies conclude that concentration can be significantly improved with the right kind and quantity of light. In pilot studies carried out in the Netherlands and Germany, two school classrooms were installed with lighting systems where the teacher had the choice of four lighting settings.

The idea was to use light as an aid to help structure a day better for students. In the early morning a higher illuminance level and cooler colour temperature (visual appearance of the light) was chosen by the teachers and then as the day progressed teachers were able to choose from the four settings, the appropriate ambiance for the situation: Energy, Focus, Calm and Normal. “Normal” was a setting meeting the basic European lighting recommendations for classrooms. “Calm” included a warmer colour temperature and Focus a higher illuminance level and cooler light.

Students were asked to undertake a standard “d2” concentration test. The “d2” test was originally developed to assess the concentration of long distance truck drivers, but since been used in many studies to assess concentration. The pilot studies showed that concentration improved by about 20% compared to the control groups.

From the success of these pilot studies, Philips was asked to supply similar lighting systems for nine schools in the Netherlands who agreed to take part in more extensive research. The results are fully in line with the findings from the pilots with concentration levels significantly increased by giving teachers choice over appropriate lighting conditions for the tasks at hand.

Movement to Light Emitting Diodes
So far we have not discussed at all lighting technology and how developments are making all of what we covered so far easier if done in the right way. The whole lighting industry is in the process of moving from conventional light sources in the form of Incandescent and Discharge light, such as Fluorescent, to digital in the form of Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs).

The last year or so has really seen the tipping point in performance where now luminaires with LED can outperform conventional lighting bringing lower maintenance, due to longer life time, energy saving and in the context of this article, easier control. This already means, and will mean even more in the near future, that it will be easier to have the optimum light for the learning situation and not just what is required as a minimum by a basic lighting standard.

Fortunately the great work being done in research is now being linked with application, and if you want to read in more detail about the role of light on people including in education it is worth getting a copy of Human Factors in Lighting by Peter Boyce which you can find on any major internet bookshop.

What else can you do to learn more about the value of light?
Another great source of information is the Philips Lighting University where you will be able to download learning about many aspects of the subjects from the basics, to LED technology to advanced seminars for lighting consultants. The Philips Lighting University site can be found




About The Author
Matthew Cobham

is responsible for lighting application at Philips Lighting internationally and has 18 years of experience working in lighting application in Europe and Asia. He holds an MS in Light and Lighting from the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, London, UK. To learn how Philips can help you realize your “education and light” ideas, contact Dana Wallace in the US:




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