The physical environment has a considerable impact on learning, mood and engagement as well as being the advertisement for your culture and all that is positive and excellent in your school. Walk around regularly with a notebook and create opportunities for students and staff to do the same. Build in a process of regular renewal such as the following:
Step 1 – Student voice. Ask students which spaces inspire them and which don’t.
Step 2 – Experiment. Try the same activity in different settings and different layouts
Step 3 – Investigate. Fuel your experimenting by visiting spaces and thinking creatively
Step 4 – Refresh. Display positive messages, student work and learning exemplars.
Step 5 – Student voice. Evaluate improvements by asking again.
Step 6 – Invest. Make specific improvements each year based on your research.
When I worked with architects on school design, they would usually begin with asking how I wanted the space to make me feel or how I wanted people to ‘read the purpose’ of the space. They would then set about choosing the furniture and design around this requirement. As educationalists we probably give less weighting to the importance of the learning environment than we should. I frequently hear teachers describe classrooms as a ‘nightmare’ to teach in and am aware that when a teacher leaves, the scramble for their room can be quite intense yet we rarely consider how to make all spaces inspiring.
The famous educationalist, Loris Malaguzzi described the environment as ‘The Third Educator’ when he defined the Reggio Emilia system of education. For him, the physical environment should draw the learner in and engage their curiosity. David Thornburg suggested that classrooms should provide four types of learning space which he described using his ‘primordial metaphors’. He suggested that students were more likely to engage in discussion, for example, if the space was constructed to facilitate this and other activities required different spaces.
Personally, I believe that delegating part of the budget for improvements to students and empowering them to survey peers and make changes is a key strategy but am aware that the success of such initiatives depends upon the school culture and in some cultures, the students don’t yet have the skills to do this effectively.
Other items to consider here include: the use of the space and arrangement of furniture; the use of colours to denote areas; the use of the walls as both exemplars and a platform for praise; the use of different floor heights and structures; and the use of adjoining spaces.
Teachers: The classroom environment.
Where the relationships create the social environment, the physical or virtual space in which you operate creates the working environment. Items to consider here include: the use of the space and arrangement of furniture; the use of colours to denote areas; the use of the walls as both exemplars and a platform for praise; the use of different floor heights and structures; and the use of adjoining spaces.
Leaders: The school environment.
Research conducted in Bristol in the UK made a direct link between achievement and the feelings of pride in the school. Rapid addressing of graffiti and prioritising repairs are just two ways in which pride can be upheld but also the careful stage management of events to ensure that each time the school is on show, it shows its best side.
One researcher describes the school environment as the ‘walking curriculum’ meaning that it is part of the opportunities students use for progress and for curiosity. The regular refreshing of student displays and the showing of ex students and what they are doing now, are just two examples of how this is done in schools currently.