The current debate in American education is how much a teacher influences a child’s success in school. We are about to see whether that impact can be quantified in a grand national experiment with value-added measures.
But yet to be understood or even much considered is the role, if any, that the school building itself plays in student success. A new study out of Britain suggests that the classroom environment — defined as classroom orientation, natural light and noise, temperature and air quality, color usage, organization flexibility of space and storage facilities — can affect a child’s academic growth by as much as 25 percent in a year.
Schools in fast-growing metro Atlanta have spent a lot of time reassuring parents that their children don’t suffer from attending classes in trailers. One of my children spent a year in a trailer. He never had much of a reaction to the tight space, but I found it oppressive. Outside trailers seem disconnected from the schools in both real and intangible ways.
Many adults maintain that environment is critical to their productivity. I know writers who have to work in bright rooms awash in light. But I know others who prefer to labor in cave-like settings. In my own office, it’s always interesting to witness the individual attempts to personalize work stations. We work in a large open room with contiguous desks. (My only individualization is the stack of Diet Coke cans that I have yet to bring home to recycle.)
In a pilot study by the University of Salford and architects, Nightingale Associates, it was found that the classroom environment can affect a child’s academic progress over a year by as much as 25 percent. The year-long pilot study was carried out in seven Blackpool LEA primary schools. 34 classrooms with differing learning environments and age groups took part.
The study took two lines of enquiry. The first was to collect data from 751 pupils, such as their age, gender and performance level in maths, reading and writing at the start and end of an academic year.
The second evaluated the holistic classroom environment, taking into account different design parameters such as classroom orientation, natural light and noise, temperature and air quality. Other issues such as flexibility of space, storage facilities and organization, as well as use of color were evaluated. This holistic assessment includes both classroom design and use factors to identify what constitutes an effective learning environment.
Notably, 73 percent of the variation in pupil performance driven at the class level can be explained by the building environment factors measured in this study. Current findings suggest that placing an average pupil in the least effective, rather than the most effective classroom environment could affect their learning progress by as much as the average improvement across one year.
Professor Peter Barrett, School of the Built Environment, University of Salford said: “It has long been known that various aspects of the built environment impact on people in buildings, but this is the first time a holistic assessment has been made that successfully links the overall impact directly to learning rates in schools. The impact identified is in fact greater than we imagined and the Salford team is looking forward to building on these clear results.”
Design Research Lead, Caroline Paradise from Nightingale Associates, said: “We are excited by these early findings which suggest that the classroom plays an important role in pupil performance. This will support designers and educators in targeting investment in school buildings to where it will have the most impact, whether new build or refurbishment.”
Through these promising findings, the study will continue for another 18 months and cover another 20 schools in different areas of the UK.
The British study earned a write-up in Huffington Post, which includes a wonderful slide show on innovative and dreamy schools designs from around the world.
Huffington Post notes:
The Salford-Nightingale findings come as an estimated 14 million children in the United States attend crumbling public schools with leaking roofs, moldy walls and dangling ceiling tiles, among other deteriorations. The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, says the situation has gotten so bad that at least one-third of the United States’ 80,000 public schools need ‘extensive’ repair.
A 2007 Department of Education survey found that 43 percent of schools in the U.S. see the condition of their buildings as ‘interfering with the ability of the school to deliver instruction.’ The effects of such conditions were reported to range from lower student achievement to reduced teacher productivity. Just refurbishing those schools into ‘good overall condition,’ however, would require $127-322 billion in spending, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog