total learning: shoeless learning | superclasses | rooms within rooms | write-on surfaces | toilets | schools-within-schools | sound | learner led | science spaces | phones: how young? | tiered seating | little details | flat screens | rule of 3 |. . . . ©professor stephen heppell

shoeless learning spaces

Shoeless is still great in a CoVID-19 safe environment - see foot of page for update.

Our work on shoelessness came at the beginning of Buidling Schools for the Future (the BSF programme was a government investment scheme for secondary schools in England. It was announced by the DfES in February 2003, by the Labour Schools Minister David Miliband. With generous funding to transform the building stock every detail of potential improvement was sought - shoelessness was just one detail).

Let us start with two clear disclaimers:

1) nobody knows why this works, although there are many hypothesies: in China, it is suggested that reflexology has the answer, in India - respect (as temples are shoeless too), in England "more like being home".. and so on. All interesting hypothesis, but... who knows?

2) secondly, it is in my view impossible to separate the impact of shoelessness on something as complex as "behaviour" from a number of other factors - the mere act of asking children if they think shoelessness is working triggers that reflective practice meta-cognition which can itself be a powerful agent of postive change. Schools going shoeless are almost always also exploring other effective practice too.

Two graphs illustrate:

The first comes from our Learnometer research work (which yields very solid objective data on learning space design):

a sound graph decobels against time

In the (2013) graph (above) the red line, students with shoes, contrasts with the blue line, students working shoelessly. The school day runs from the initial blue peak to the far right of the graph. But The blue line is also acoustic data from a large space with 89 children in it, whilst the red line is a traditional "cells and bells" space with a shut door and only 27 children. The vertical scale is decibels - so shoeless here is much quieter, but the blue is also a zoned space where students are more autonomous, and more engaged as a result.


behaviour graphs showing improvement boys seated comfortably, reading

Similarly, in this second graph (above, left) from Juliette Heppell's work at Lampton secondary school the behaviour gains are quantifiable in terms of the two types of detention and the yellow slip counts, but although the students are shoeless, they also transformed their whole learning space - zoning it, adding writeable surfaces, mood lights, and so on. They researched effective learning improvements and adopted the ones they thought appropriate to their context. Student Agency. Shoelessness is part of the improvement, but not all of it - as you can see in the accompanying image of boys in their Reading Zone.


From time to time the media revisit this work, which is gratifying, usually when a school somewhere newly tries shoelessness and then reports to their local paper just how effective it has been. But again, they very rarely, if ever, just do shoelessness alone. In early 2017 another very welcome flurry of interest saw the better known shoeless schools all being interviewed - and all of course making the same point:

West Thornton school saying shoeless is just a tiny bit of what they do to improve


But enough of the caveats. The reality is that it does work astonishingly well: better learning, better behaviour, money saved, quieter learning and more (see below). So what do we know about shoeless learning today?

It probably started en masse in Scandinavia where many children learn with their shoes off. The weather - snow, ice, slush - led them to need outdoor shoes and boots for walking to and from home and these got left at the school door on arrival; hence their initial foray into shoelessness. New Zealand, where Maori schools are often very shoeless too, might also lay claim to being part of the origins.

Today, in very many schools worldwide, across all age ranges, shoeless learning has taken off, despite what is usually initial scepticism ("you asked them to do what?"!). Let us explore...


So many schools are trying it - they confirm a complex mix of significant gains - some log some gains, others log other gains:

So this adds up to better learning, better bahaviour, less stress for everyone, cheaper maintenance, better engagement... what's not to like?


The children almost always just say "oh thank goodness" when they hear their learning is becoming shoeless - smart schools use it as a way to catalyse a conversation about better learning and a segway into a more universal sense of learner voice;

my own theory (offered more than slightly tongue in cheek!) - is one that remains untested: perhaps somehow boys testosterone is stored in their shoes - so when they take them off, they seem to be all round nicer, gentler, quieter (!!);

teachers and all visitors must be shoes-off too - I was in a school recently where the children would simply not acknlowledge an adult who had entered 'their" space in shoes (and quite right too);

please note also that children's shoeless feet do not smell - it is having shoes on that make feet smelly!


for such a simple idea there are some very specific details to apply before implementation:

shoeless applies to everyone - teachers, headteachers, guests, caretakers, everyone - the nice clean floors that children like so much won't happen otherwise;

don't do it to the kids, do it with them, or better still let them research and lead the idea; the gains are in engagement, reflective learner practice, etc etc

you need to give notice - children need to know their socks with holes will not be exposed to mockery from their peers. Shoeless will start on <date> and clean the floors on the weekend before;

you need a "place" for the shoes - a strip of floor, an old rack from the library, some way that shoes do not heap on top of each other

you will need to give guests notice that you operate a shoes-off policy - nothing more embarssing that a VIP visitor with a hole in their socks...

a few schools go to a "half way" position of uniform plimsols or slippers - you do get some of the gains - but really this is just an uneccesary expense and complication. Identical plimsols get muddled and they are not needed.

with early years children - who love to be shoeless - the teacher task of putting shoes on and off - as children play outside and come back - is a burden for teachers. Better to have a class set of (very cheap) plastic wellingtons or "fake" Crocs and it doesn't really matter about size, but the key thing is that most of them can manage wellies, or Crocs, independently.



short teachers who have been a bit "stacked" by their heels come back down to earth.

in heavy machinery workshop areas there may be a safety issue - but not in the usual school workshops - children do not normally wear steel toecap shoes anyway

theft has not been reported by anyone so far as a problem

if you have shoeless learning then toilets, especially with boys, can need a little ingenuity. Jesmond Gardens primary school simply parks a pair of Crocs outside each cubicle that children are quite happy to slip on, if needed by a damp floor.

if you are in outdoor buildings you need to put shoes on to move between buildings - noone seems to report this as a problem, it is just worth mentioning because you need multiple places to park shoes.



images of shoelessness...

shoeless library

shoeless children of all ages on the TK park learning centre in Bangkok


children in Hartlepool's Jesmond Gardens Primary School - wear and tear on furnishings, especially soft furnishings, is a lot less and children are happy to use the floor as a learning space


children of secondary age using the tiered seating (from the Isis furniture calalogue) in their classroom in London

coshions stack

Also in Tk Park - the shoes are exchanged for simple floor cushions in these racks that have been copied by many

dane without socks

In Denmark the children also very much like their shoeless school - this one is an all-through school

rack of shoes

In Tasmania old library racks and sheleves are reused outside (but under cover) as the shoe storage solution


Secondary age again in this image - depending on uniform socks may be varied or standard - this school student is in Scandinavia.

shoes off

just a strip of plastic floor to store a huge number of shoes and boots - this in Norway's Tromso - but note the lack of carpets, yet children are still delighted to sit shoeless on the floor


Obviously with schools urgently reconfiguring as they cautiously return after the CoVID-19 lockdowns (see our advice on Going Back) , reasonable questions might include "what is the role of shoeless now?" and "is it safe?". We asked the same; here are our thoughts:

the good news 

the less good news

On balance, shoeless is a very considerable and helpful addition to CoVID-19 risk strategy. But everyone must do it. 


Professor Stephen Heppell 2011

back to back to