Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lessons from School design in the UK

Does architecture matter for learning?
Evelyn Grace Academy by Zaha Hadid

This past week I was in London for the Annual CAE conference.  Every few years the AIA’s Committee on Architecture for Education has a conference outside the United States, and this year it was in conjunction with the BCEF - British Council for Educational Facilities.  We saw some interesting schools and also some that made me question why they were on the tour.  Presentations covered sustainability and a little bit about pedagogy and the built environment, but the conference seemed to be under the cloud created by the drastic reduction in the Building Schools for the Future building program in the UK.  This £55 Billion program was the creation of the last liberal government but has been drastically reduced by the current conservative government.  In general, the British architects and builders who were at the conference still seemed to be getting their heads around the fact that the ambitious building program was essentially over.
This made it all the more interesting that one of the key note speakers was Graham Stuart an MP, Conservative Party member, and Chair of the Education Select Committee for the new government. Considering he was addressing a group of architects and builders who focus on building schools, his pronouncement that school environments are inconsequential compared to the quality of teaching was stunning.  He said the last government had wasted a lot of money on some schools thereby depriving other needy areas from getting any help.   He said he knew of no credible research that demonstrated that the school environment affected learning.  He was vehement in these beliefs and went unchallenged except for Alan Dunlop, a Scotsman and recent Visiting Chair in Architecture at Kansas State University, who suggested that although teaching is most important, the environment is also an important component in learning.  The MP would not grant this point in the sense that he said the focus must be on teaching.
This is an argument I have heard before in the United States in various guises.  I believe that teaching is the most important thing but not the only thing.  Environment matters.  A good environment attracts teachers and students, allows them to do their jobs more efficiently, and tells them they are valued.  This is no different for teaching and learning than it is for any other kind of endeavor.  Human activities benefit from purpose built environments designed to house them.
These benefits might be considered “higher order” benefits but research has shown (see Earthman’s work at: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/5sw56439#page-1) that even improving bad environments improves student performance.  The significance of this is that even with bad teaching students will do better in a good environment. 
Times are very difficult right now and educational providers are being forced to cut back severely.   Prioritization is necessary in times like these but denial of evidence to justify priorities is bad policy.  Solving the problems we face will require cooperation and new thinking.  Einstein said:
We need new thinking about how to deliver, pay for, and accomplish the mission of educating our children if we want to solve our current problems.

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