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Look to special populations and their professional service associations

Posted By: Ross Mitchell on June 20, 2002
Let me congratulate you on bringing this question forward as a mainstream issue of fundamental concern. The physical environment is not an immutable given and should not be ignored.

I have found that architecture gets a lot of attention with low-incidence special populations such as deaf and hard-of-hearing students, blind and visually-impaired students, mobility-impaired and wheelchair-using students, etc. For example, for the deaf, lighting is very important since their access to instruction is through visual input; for hard-of-hearing students who use their "residual" hearing, acoustics is very important since sound quality and competition dramatically affects comprehensibility. Similarly, the physical arrangement of persons and furniture is important so that conversations can be followed visibly or so sound conducts without undue distortion, reverberation, or attenuation. I would be happy to show you around, if you ever get to visit Gallaudet University, to examine the successes, failures, and compromises that are evident in a century and a half of building and classroom construction.

I believe that school building issues are overdue for attention. A number of fiscal impact studies have been done to estimate the cost of repairing, restoring, replacing, or building schools throughout the country, but these documents do not more than specualtively discuss the links between the material environment and the ease or difficulty with which attention and learning are sustained (i.e., the ability of teachers and students to sustain motivation and attention to the tasks necessary to attain curriculum and instruction objectives). Given that all of the improvements desired are not attainable with the limited resources dedicated to schools, it would be really valuable to have an understanding of school architecture that links design principles, including furnishings and their arrangements, to conditions specifically supportive of learning. (Though I think that the more functional perspective - vocabular choice - would be to think about buildings that do or do not flexibly permit a variety of instructional models to be implemented so that a range of possible student performances may be observed.)

There are many general principles that are considered when designing a building for healthy and sustained occupation by a large number of active persons, not all of which are incorporated into any given school's architecture, but I don't know if their is any awareness of features requiring greater attention because the building is going to be a school instead of a structure for some other purpose. For example, should there be a lot of natural light from available sunshine or should illumination from fluorescent or incandescent sources be considered adequate (and at what intensity)? Should the fresh air throughput of the ventilation system (the number of room exchanges per hour) be greater in schools than in office buildings? How much sound insulation or other forms of reverberation control should be required? How many unused square feet of classroom per child should be maintained? Are sliding partitions or modular furniture adequate for defining distinct instructional spaces (e.g., separating a larger room into smaller rooms so that more than one class can meet in what was originally a single architectural space)?

Lots of ideas, some of which were touted as revolutionary strategies for utilizing space that would transform social and instructional environments, have been enacted in a variety of school designs. I have no notion of what the literature is on the efficacy of these architectural innovations, though having taught for six years and being married to a teacher of 12 years, I can say that some designs are far more susceptible to problems as a function of such things as teacher personality, the social environment of the classroom (e.g., lots of interpersonal engagement in instructional activities), collegial expectations, etc. Relatedly, I have no idea how much architecture itself constrains the enactment of any particular educational philosophy (e.g., the physical separation of teachers who are supposed to work together, the amount of background noise from large interacting groups that can be tolerated, the safety of students who are supposed to be engaged in various hands-on learning activities, etc.).

Finally, I would like to point out that the material condition of schools is sufficiently variable, and non-randomly distributed, that the State of California is currently being sued because "savage inequalities" have been alleged. Not all students and teachers are equally able to allow "the physical reality to fade into the background." You might consider trying to put together a proposal for a symposium at AERA to further facilitate this discussion....
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 physical setting for instruction / learning by jonathan fraser on June 19, 2002
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