The School Educational Environment : Good Buildings Make Good Pupils?
The Educational Environment:
Good Buildings Make Good Pupils?
What effect, if any, does the fabric and facilities of a school building have upon the quality of education that children receive?
Is the state of a classroom environment and the structure and condition of the school important factors in educational outcomes?
It is an interesting question but almost impossible to provide a definitive answer. It has therefore raised a lively debate between differing opinions. Two schools of thought if you like.
On one hand there is a strong belief on the importance of a world-class education for children. On the other hand others would argue, while not necessarily disagreeing with this assertion, that quality of teaching is the more important factor.
No Child Left Behind
In the USA one of the findings of the 'No Child Left Behind' Act in 2001 called for a study into environmentally unhealthy schools. Part of this problem may be the sheer size of many schools in the modern age.
Schools in the USA have become much larger than in previous years with populations of 2-3,000 not uncommon and in large cities up to 5,000 pupils in the biggest schools.
But in 1964 Barker and Gump were the first to demonstrate that 'small is beautiful' when it comes to the effect of school numbers on learning. They showed that smaller schools are more intimate learning environments where pupils feel less isolated and anonymous.
On the other hand larger schools and class sizes can be impersonal, alienating and even intimidating to young minds.
In fact in a scathing attack in 1968, John W. Gardner who was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Lyndon Johnson administration stated;
"I am entirely certain that 20 years from now we will look back at education as it is practised in most schools today and wonder how we could have tolerated anything so primitive"
The question is still being asked over 40 years later whether we have fully evolved from this primitive state. In the July 2010 'School Environments Survey' of UK teachers 1 in 4 believed that their school buildings were not suitable environments for learning. Not only that but a huge 95% of them agreed with the principle that the school environment influences pupil behaviour.
A new age of austerity
In the UK in 2010 the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government cancelled the old policy of the Labour Party on the financing of education.
Consequently a construction programme called 'Building Schools for the Future' was scrapped.
A new age of austerity descended on the country and the expense and bureaucracy of an £800 million budget for 700 schools was seen as unviable given the economic situation.
As you would expect the issue quickly became a political football. Left, right and centre contested the legitimacy of investing this money and blame each other for a decline in school buildings and indeed in education itself.
Of course as is the norm in Sociological questions and theories the topic is not a black and white issue. Teaching and environment, plus other factors, are interrelated with mutual effects on each other and consequently affecting both pupils and teachers.
Criticism has been levelled in the UK at The Private Finance Initiative as producing a financial bonanza for construction and supply companies in capital projects that have been overpriced. Moreover it is reckoned that the quality of new-build was sub-standard leading to accusations of short-termism and lack of a long term strategy in school building.
But this is a criticism of school buildings that could also be stretched back to the 1950s designs of flat-roofs, chipboard walls and portacabins.
A history lesson
Therefore when we refer to schools that are in bad physical condition we are not necessarily pointing the finger at old schools. On the contrary many buildings from the Victorian and Edwardian era are still in functional use.
With proper maintenance and improvements they can serve as excellent centres in which children of the 21st century can learn and thrive.
In fact in many instances it is the post World War II blight of low-cost architectural blunders that is causing the most concern. The 'baby-boomer' generation of the 1950s required a large increase in school buildings but even some of those built in the 1980s are in a state of disrepair and neglect.
Veterans of that post-war period point to a greater appreciation for education and a respect for their teachers. In any case, stricter discipline at school and a more cohesive family unit at home were regarded as imperatives for a quality education.
Adults looking back may say that children simply had more manners and did as they were told. There is no doubt that good manners should always be lauded and encouraged. The question is though do we want to impose unquestioning subservience in young minds or encourage critical thinking and a confident assertion of well thought out points of view.
Health and safety
There is no argument from any side of the discussion that schools should be primarily a safe haven for pupils. Parents entrust their children to the educational system as well as its teachers and expect that it will be a place free from risk or danger.
There will always be the obvious worries over playground bullying, intimidation and violence. Perhaps even the sarcasm from the ancient archetype of a teacher intent on humiliating his charges.
But when masonry falls from roofs, when holes appear in walls and leaks descend from above the school and the system is failing their duties of care to provide a safe environment in which to teach.
Ultimately a school building should be 'fit for purpose' and when classroom walls are crumbling then we should all be concerned.
The notion of 'sick building syndrome' has its detractors but it has never more applied than it does to the state of many schools in the UK. Schools are working environments and aside from the dangers of dilapidated structures and multiple health hazards the simple fact of children wearing coats, scarves and gloves in poorly heated rooms in the winter is unacceptable.
As one Music teacher succintly observed, "you try teaching a child to play the cello when he's wearing mittens!"
All in the mind
In 1979 Psychologist Rudolf Moos referred to the 'Classroom climate' meaning the social atmosphere or "learning environment" in which children were taught.
Moos outlined three dimensions of relationships, personal growth and system maintenance & change. In his words;
"Each social setting has a unique 'personality' that gives it unity and coherence."
He was referring to human interactions and individual development but he also recognised the importance of the environment.
This was similar to the beliefs of the Italian teacher and psychologist Loris Malaguzzi who founded the Reggio Emilia approach to early learning in the 1940s in Italy. Essentially stating that learning comes through children's interaction with the environment.
Therefore the organisation of the physical surroundings was seen as crucial in encouraging children to interact, to create meaning and to make sense of their world. This was described as a 'Third Teacher' along with the other two important influences of interaction with adults and also with peer-groups.
But perhaps simply a comfortable classroom, suitably heated, dry and free from drafts is all that is required rather than state of the art facilities. Ventilation is important with good air quality found to have a positive effect on learning. In fact in the USA a lack of good quality air was regarded as an inheritance of the 1970s energy crisis that had never been redressed.
In 1999 Rosen and Richardson posited the belief that poor air quality was linked to absenteeism. In a controlled experiment in Sweden they found a reduction in absenteeism in a day-care centre when air quality was enhanced.
It is known that children breathe a greater volume of air in proportion to their body-weight than adults. It also known that high levels of carbon dioxide in the air can cause drowsiness, headaches and an inability to concentrate. Studies by scientists in measuring performance against improved air quality have found between a 5 to 10% improvement in pupil performance on academic tasks.
These results have been achieved in tests in Norway in 1997, the USA and Japan in 2006 and Denmark in 2007. Although not dramatic increases they are certainly consistent over time and over different countries.
But is all the rest purely cosmetic? Are they merely aesthetic irrelevances to be discarded in favour of a back to basics approach to interior décor and amenities? Environmental and Occupational Psychologists as well as Ergonomic researchers may strongly disagree citing the subtle effects and nuances that set the theme of our environment and effect effect on the human mindset.
In a famous example from California in 1999 a survey was carried out on schools. However the survey for the Pacific Gas and Electricity Company was originally intended to produce energy savings. An unintended consequence of the survey was the findings that light had a positive effect on learning.
In fact researchers have shown that natural daylight is the most conducive for positive outcomes among pupil learning. Also plenty of glazing interior and exterior and especially if there are pleasant natural surroundings outside.
The 1999 study was conducted by researchers from the Heschong Mahone Group and in another report in 2003 they concluded that:
"An ample and pleasant view out of a window, that includes vegetation or human activity and objects in the far distance, supports better outcomes of student learning."
However in the UK environmental effects were known as far back as the 1900s when Edwardian schools were designed with large windows to give children access to daylight as well as freshly circulated air. It seems that pupils do not necessarily gaze out of the window in a daydream but instead enjoy the positive effects of naturalistic surroundings.
Studies of human psychology and behaviour have shown that improvements in a working environment makes people more satisfied and productive. On the other hand neglected and run-down surroundings can cause a congruent downward spiral of disenchantment or even despair.
The Ford school of thinking
As part of the 2010 survey in the UK, Ty Goddard the Chief Executive of the British Council for School Environments stated;
"Money invested in school buildings is an investment in teachers and children, not a wasted luxury"
However there is an assertion that as long as schools are of a minimum standard then that is all that is required to encourage learning. Professor Glen Earthman had concluded this in 2000 on the 'adequacy' argument as did Mark Stricherz in the same year when commenting on the subject.
Although Stricherz agreed that "Research does show that student achievement lags in shabby school buildings" he then added the famous and oft-quoted remark "... but it does not show that student performance rises when facilities go from the equivalent of a Ford to a Ferrari". He felt that decent facilities were sufficient without the need to go overboard with hi-tec frivolities or world-class amenities.
Are pupils actually affected?
Teaching has changed over the years and there are modern expectations of how classes should be run.
Education has moved with the times.
It is no longer a simple exercise of 'chalk and talk' in front of regimented rows of passive underlings.
Flexible learning is more the norm with an awareness of different learning styles among children.
There is more group work in schools inculcating the importance of teamwork and communication which are important requirements for future employment skills.
Children may have higher expectations especially in the context of higher standards of living in relation to the past. Housing conditions by and large are better than decades ago but many schools have not kept apace with these improvements.
Of course there still exists child poverty and poor housing but most children enjoy a higher standard of living than that of their grandparents of the post-war generation. No doubt they will make the comparison between elevated conditions at home with the outdated and inferior facilities at school.
Are teachers affected
Of course teachers may be affected too and poor building conditions can lower morale and motivation causing them to either underperform or leave for a better school.
The best teachers will not want to work in derelict schools especially if their pupils are not motivated to learn.
As well as the insidious effect of demoralisation the practical problems of outdated facilities and equipment can lower the quality of lessons.
Schools can suffer from lack of modern materials or the poor condition of materials. There are issues about the availability and the state of books. There are requirements for state of the art computers and modern science laboratories.
If we want a modern education for a modern educated workforce then surely children need to become skilled in the methodologies relevant for their future careers.
Asking the children
Should not learning environments be more personalised according to local requirements and preferences?
Indeed should children not be consulted more often on what matters to them.
On a practical level children as well as teachers and researchers have highlighted the importance of proper toilet facilities.
If they are in a poor unhygienic state then children are less inclined to use them as aften as they should.
This can lead to stress and discomfort. There are also issues of toilet blocks being an area where bullying can occur at break-times.
Researchers have found that even simple things like the displaying of work on the walls or even the colour of the walls can make for a better environment for children.
For example it has been found that primary school children respond better to brighter hues whereas adolescents prefer more subdued colours. But even on a subjective level children assert that the colour of their classroom is important to them.
Certainly it is likely that they would be less conservative in their outlook than adults and a feeling of ownership can be engendered when children are included in the consultation process.The days of architectural determinism are surely over when we accept that the designers know best and that any off-the-shelf plan will suit all sizes of school and all types of pupils.
Place of schools in society
It seems indicative of the modern free-market era that it is in the interests of schools to house modern facilities in a competitive sense as well.
Schools need to entice parents into sending their children to that school.
Education has become a competitive business. It can also earn revenue for the school since in the evenings and weekends when traditionally they are empty the modern school can rent out sports halls and rooms to community groups. Thus the 'Extended Schools' initiative in the UK sought to move the institution beyond the school gate and into the community.
A sense of belonging and a sense of being valued are fundamentally important to enhancing school performance. When children enjoy pleasant surroundings with good materials, modern equipment and under the tutelage of a quality teacher then they will take more pride in their education.
It is a reciprocal relationship combining expectations and responsibilities with sound investment and strong support. Not only investment in money but also investment in time, care and encouragement.
The notions of partnership, ethos and good old-fashioned 'esprit de corps' are often quoted as crucial to successful schooling. Parents, teachers, governors and pupils with a shared educational philosophy free of division and detatchment. Children can gravitate towards a group affinity and feel that they have a sense of belonging to their school and a peer-group camaraderie with their classmates.
Buildings are important in every aspect of our society and our human behaviour as they represent the values and attitudes of that society. We are constantly evolving as a community, in our thoughts, our ideals, in our technology and understanding of the world and nature. Therefore it seems obvious to state that the formative years of education should evolve too and keep apace with new developments.
Like church buildings, town halls and community centres the local school is an iconic building within that community. It should be a focal institution with an important sense of identity and history. Schools are emblematic of the social fabric and the heart of the community and should therefore be revered and respected as such.
Internet sources for further information
- The Design Council (UK) , 2005
The Impact of SchoolEnvironments: A literature review - This review explores the impact of learning environments on students achievement, engagement, affective state, attendance and well-being.
- The Heschong-Mahone Group
Heschong Mahone Group completed studies researching the relationship between human performance and building design on behalf of the California Energy Commission's Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) program.
- Plowden Report 1967
'Children and their primary schools' (1967) A Report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England) Full notes online.
- Roger G. Barker and Paul V. Gump, 1964
Big School, Small School. Book on 'High School Size and Student Behavior'