From Where I Sit: Learning Is The Work That Children Do

TFM Columnist Dr. Tim Springer explains the importance of environment in the learning process.
TFM Columnist Dr. Tim Springer explains the importance of environment in the learning process.

From Where I Sit: Learning Is The Work That Children Do

From Where I Sit: Learning Is The Work That Children Do

By Tim Springer, Ph.D.
Published in the August 2009 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Hard as it is to believe, summer is nearly over. Vacations, sleeping in, swimming, and all the things we associate with summer are coming to an end for this year. Parents and children look forward to the next few weeks with mixed emotions—children with some anxiety and parents with relief. A new school year is nearly upon us.

Most children (and many adults) spend a large portion of their time in schools and other learning environments. Sadly, in the U.S. that often means occupying spaces that are little changed from when their grandparents attended school.

Educators tell a joke about Rip Van Winkle awakening after 100 years. He’s amazed to see how people are living and how tools and technology have changed lives. He doesn’t know how to cope until he wanders into a school and says, “Ah yes, I recognize this. This is a classroom—just like where I went to school, except our chalkboards were black and yours are green.”

Education, schools, and classrooms in the U.S. have suffered from neglect and outmoded thinking. Furthermore, the tendency to view “public” as bad and private as good; the misguided notion that we can expect more while paying less (especially by lowering taxes); the trend toward withdrawing from the system (through private schools or home schooling)—this set of circumstances has meant schools have fallen far behind in providing the best possible environment for learning.

Traditional design too often tried to limit distraction and enforce rigidity. Often it was based on inadequate population growth projections.

A few simple statistics illustrate the sad state of U.S. educational facilities. According to the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences, fully one quarter of all schools are overcrowded, with 8% accommodating over 25% more students than the number for which they were designed. Of all schools studied, 36% report using “temporary” classrooms. [Source: National Center for Education Statistics.] Not surprising, data shows conditions are worse for schools in lower socioeconomic areas. With one of the fastest growing school populations in the U.S., Florida has many new schools opening at 120% capacity. There are over 20,000 “temporary” classrooms in use in Florida. [Source: “Construction In The Fast Lane” by Corrina Stellitano, School Planning & Management, June 2004.] Too often, in every state in which they are used, these temporary classrooms become permanent fixtures.

Clearly, educational facilities are under stress. There is a capacity problem. But there is also a facility planning and design problem.

Most discussions about teaching and learning in the 21st Century focus on pedagogy and technology. These are critical factors. But the physical setting can significantly help or hinder learning. Unless we change our approach to designing schools and learning environments, we won’t help improve students’ performance or their ability to succeed.

We should apply at least as much effort and attention to the design of learning environments as we do to work spaces. In fact, we should apply more attention and effort, since learning is the work children do.

If one believes environment affects behavior—and I fervently believe that is true—then the design of environments in which children learn has to be one of the most important areas to which we can apply our knowledge and skills. Some simple but profound questions should drive this approach to learning environments:

How do we learn? This question has occupied some of the great minds throughout history. A number of scientists have postulated different typologies of learning styles, but a commonly accepted and widely applied classification incorporates three principle theories: verbal linguistic learning; experiential learning; and multiple intelligences.
Broadly speaking, people adopt one or more of the following styles:

  • Visual (spatial). You prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding.
  • Aural (auditory-musical). You prefer using sound and music.
  • Verbal (linguistic). You prefer using words, both in speech and writing.
  • Physical (kinesthetic). You prefer using your body, hands, and sense of touch.
  • Logical (mathematical). You prefer using logic, reasoning, and systems.
  • Social (interpersonal). You prefer to learn in groups or with other people.
  • Solitary (intrapersonal). You prefer to work alone and use self-study.

Almost every one of these learning styles has a corresponding environmental feature that supports it.

How can the physical environment facilitate how we learn?

  • Visual. The visual environment includes spatial relationships, boundaries and barriers (like windows and walls), lighting, color, and contrast. Visual environments also include such things as visual noise and distractions.
  • Auditory. The auditory environment is influenced by the material properties of ceilings, walls, and floors as well as the distance between sound source and receiver and how well materials absorb, reflect, or block sound transmission. Auditory distractions (noise) are also part of the auditory environment
  • Physical. The physical environment includes space, materials, finishes, textures, and furnishings. It also includes physical ergonomics—appropriately adaptive adjustments to accommodate individual differences and different types of physical support for activities like standing, sitting, moving, seeing, and listening.
  • Social. The environment is the combination of elements that facilitate communication and collaboration. Combinations of features from the visual, auditory, and physical environments can support or hinder collaboration and communication.
  • Solitary. The environment supports concentration. It generally includes issues of enclosure, boundaries, and barriers that are more impermeable to light and sound.

How do we know if learning environments are effective? I find it extremely interesting that debate rages over whether work environments affect performance and how to measure that impact, while measures of children’s knowledge work (i.e., learning) are widely accepted. We know if an environment works if we can show that people learn faster or better in it.

Paralleling some of the more innovative approaches to workspace design found in offices, some interesting experiments in learning environments have included standing height desks with foot swings. [Source: “In Education, Furniture Matters, Too” by Susan Saulny, New York Times, February 25, 2009.] Rather than sit down meetings, teachers are using standing height desks to have brief consultations with students and soft seating for thinking, reading, or informal gatherings. [Source: SIS USA.] All of these trial concepts are backed up by data on learning effectiveness.

As we ponder ways in which the physical environment affects learning, it is important to consider that much like workspaces, certain elements help while others hinder. Distraction, whether auditory or visual, draws attention and focus away from the task at hand and inhibits effective communication.

This is true whether one is dealing with an office workspace or a classroom. Similarly, furniture that fits both the intended use and the users can facilitate learning. Other physical environmental elements that affect behavior include the thermal environment, air quality, furnishings, and flexibility of design and layout to accommodate change.

The point being, whether one considers spaces for knowledge work or spaces for learning, many of the same qualities that characterize good design and effective environments apply equally. We also know that if consideration of effective environments is included in the planning stage, it costs no more and often results in lower long-term cost of ownership than traditional approaches.

In case you’re wondering how all this applies to you, are you concerned about job security? The World Bank estimates there are 10 million classrooms in over 100 countries in need of repair—plus we need 10 million more classrooms worldwide by 2015.

This demand will far outstrip the capacity of those who currently focus on school design. With the downturn in the economy and dearth of new office projects, it seems logical that some facilities professionals might apply their talents to the coming tsunami of classroom demand.

Some of the recently appropriated billions in U.S. government stimulus dollars are being distributed to states for improving schools and learning environments. (Whether and when they do so is another matter.) But the intent is to improve education by repairing, improving, and building new learning environments. Therefore, it is imperative that facilities professionals stand ready to apply everything they know about effective planning and good design to create the most effective learning environments they can.

We know a lot about how to design good spaces; we simply have to take the initiative and leadership to ensure knowledge is applied appropriately. That’s the way I see it from where I sit. Of course I could be wrong.

Springer ispresident and founder of Geneva, IL-based HERO, inc. andfrequently writes and speaks on a wide variety of issues affectingorganizations, work, and workplaces. For past columns from Springer, go to From Where I Sit.


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