The classrooms are empty and the hallways are quiet; finally, a time to think. When educators think, they think of achievement. They look back at the past school year, enjoy the successes and analyze the failures. They all want to achieve more.
Without a doubt opportunities for enhanced achievement can be found in every facet of our educational programs. We can upgrade curriculum, provide teacher enrichment, expand support staff and even offer free coffee in the morning. However, we might also want to take another look at those hallways and classrooms.
A fascinating exhibit (the exhibit, “The Best School in the World” runs through July 22, at the Finnish embassy in Washington, D.C.) highlights anew the effects of school design and student environment on academic achievement. In an article published in Education Weekly, Sara Sparks, quotes Pasi Sahlberg, the director general of the Center for International Mobility and Cooperation at Finland’s education ministry, who attributes the nation’s impressive academic achievement to the quality of the academic curriculum, the equity in educational access, and a focus on how the environment and school design supports students’ learning. Sparks notes that:
The exhibit exemplifies the country’s move from factory-style schools, with all classrooms and desks in rows, to contemporary campuses built to meet the pedagogical and social needs of their students and teachers. The national Board of Education set guidelines for a proper learning environment, including recommendations on aesthetic quality, with the sense that a school “should be a place that is physically, psychologically, and socially safe, promoting the child’s growth, health, and learning as well as their positive interaction with teachers and fellow pupils.”
When classrooms are filled with natural light, shown in studies to increase student achievement, the hallways designed to maximize adult supervision, and thus minimize bullying, or the built in coffee bar in the teachers lounge (it still comes down to the coffee!) one cannot help but be impressed with the attention paid to school environment. This stands in stark contrast to many of our schools in which the term ‘factory style’ seems to describe more than the fashion in which we arrange the classroom furniture. While we seem to care deeply about what we teach and how we teach, we often ignore an important third component: where we teach.
This failure is analogous to one who spends millions developing the best automobile possible, and ensures that each driver is properly trained, but pays no attention to improving the roads on which the cars travel. Ignoring the third component significantly reduces the efficacy of the first two. Curriculum is upgraded, teacher skills are enhanced, but the school environment, the road on which it all rides, was designed for an era long passed, slowing real achievement and compromising the hard work of our educators.
While cash strapped districts are not about to start tearing down buildings and erecting the types of schools the Finnish exhibit displays, we can look at making small improvements in our school environments that will eventually point us towards the above goal. While the classrooms are still empty and the hallways quiet, have another look and dream of the possibilities.