Education is fundamental. Fundamentally flawed. In the United States, we pride ourselves to be the land of opportunity and social mobility. Whispering that anyone can rise from rags to riches on the back of a mare named hard work. And while there are an innumerable list of things wrong with this idealistic ‘American Dream,’ the very crux to which we base it on, our education system, is failing.
In the era of COVID 19, students everywhere are struggling. Caregivers became instructors and the home morphed into a one-size-must-fit-all workspace, playground, school, and home. Inequality is magnified while our attention, productivity, and mental health is taxed at a higher rate than feminine-care products. And while inequality in education cannot even begin to be solved with anything less than a revolution, there are some ways in which we can reconceptualize and change the environment of our homes and schools, to help students, caregivers, and professionals improve their mental health, productivity, and performance while reducing inequality in education.
The environment has a huge impact on its occupants’ wellbeing, cognition, and functioning. The school environment is no exception; In fact, understanding how a school environment can optimize academic performance, reduce educational inequalities, and enhance students physical and mental wellbeing is critical. However, to best understand and utilize the environment, we must recognize the environment extends beyond the physical architecture and design of a space. We must acknowledge that social, emotional, and cultural fabrics are significant components of the environment and not as easily separated from these multiplicitous fabrics as we once thought.
If we hope to maximize the potential of the environment, we must reconceptualize it not as a stagnant built structure, but as a conscious living organism which consists of physical, social, and emotional dimensions.
By reconceptualizing the environment and understanding its multidimensional effects on student wellbeing and success, we can uncover design interventions that enrich the learning environment.
This article is intended to be a synopsis of the longer report—School Environment, Academic Performance, and Student Wellness—which identified key interventions relating to a school's aesthetics, size, and structure. These interventions have been found to improve students' wellbeing and academic success while reducing inequality. Specifically, the report rests upon the ideas of stereotype reduction, identity as a product of the environment, and exposure to nature and natural elements as critical to the school environment.
While we might have grown up under the false pretense that sticks and stones are the pinnacle of pain, we are quickly learning that words do hurt. Stereotypes, in particular for students of marginalized identities, can have drastic consequences on their wellbeing and success. Stereotype threat occurs when a person is at risk of conforming to a given stereotype. Students' risk of stereotype threat increases as representation and sense of belonging decreases. While reducing stereotypes, it is essential to not endorse tokenism. Tokenism happens when only a superficial effort is made to integrate marginalized groups. For example, after viewing images of the Cleveland Indian Mascot, Native American students expressed decreased feelings of community worth, achievement, and self-esteem. There are some simple and easy ways to reduce stereotype threat in the classroom, such as by hanging up pictures of diverse role models on the walls, incorporating them and their stories into textbooks, positive affirmations to students, and integrating diverse histories and role models into the curriculum. Decoration of the built environment must accompany curriculum changes if educators wish to avoid tokenism. By exploring stereotype threat, we can find easy and accessible solutions to reduce stereotypes in the classroom, improving students wellbeing and success while reducing inherent inequalities.
Artolution’s 2018 mural project in the East Village, NYC, created with LGBTQ youth and those with autism from 2 local high schools. Image pulled from Artolution.org.
In addition to stereotypes, a school's resources and funding are critical components of its quality. On April 23rd, 2020, a federal court found students in Detroit, Michigan to be unconstitutionally subjected to vermin infestations, black mold, freezing temperatures, and contaminated drinking water within 5 of the lowest performing schools. Without a doubt, this case and many others like it, demonstrate that poor school conditions decrease performance, derail identity formation, and jeopardize wellbeing. According to the place-identity theory, identity forms in relation to the physical and social environment. Kids spend a great deal of time in schools throughout their youth and puberty years. Therefore, the school environment, good or bad, becomes an integral part of children’s development. When a school is dilapidated, students can take on this feeling of neglect, causing them to feel disregarded and undervalued. When a child doesn’t feel cared for by others, it can be difficult for them to value themselves or their education—causing numerous mental health and academic issues.
Finally, irrespective of the status of a student or their school, there is one environmental component which will benefit all students' wellbeing and performance. Luckily for us, this feature came inbuilt to the world’s every veneer: it’s nature. Green spaces are consistently found to be more conducive to your wellbeing, attention, and performance – particularly in the school environment. There is no alternative to the natural environment, and we’ve known this for centuries. For example, natural lighting makes people significantly happier and increases student focus, without the consequences of artificial light.
CCD director Itai Palti said it best: “the only difference is, we are the first generation that’s needed science to tell us that nature is good for us.”
Images from a school in Japan, which showcase how the school design facilitates student exposure to natural settings and elements. Images pulled from Integrus Architecture.
Where a kid goes to school, who they interact with, and what they learn has a significant impact on development—and it should. We design schools to teach, shape, and prepare our kids; Our education system rests on the idea that schools are designed to transmit knowledge to students, preparing them to be contributing members of society and achieve their fullest potential. Some schools do manage to achieve and excel in this, while others not only fail to prepare students, they weaken their mental and physical wellbeing. The issue is not that some do- it is that some don’t, and when we are talking about the development, education, and future of our children, some is just not enough. The linked report explores the aesthetics, size, and structural components of an academic environment and provides a more in-depth analysis and review of the literature. In the meanwhile, here are some suggestions for change that you can apply to your home, classroom, or school environment to increase educational equity and maximize your students potential and wellbeing.
Recommended Changes for the Built Environment:
- Improve building quality
- Ensure the building and classrooms are up to date and structurally sound.
- Ensure the building and classrooms are aesthetically pleasing.
- Fix any broken facilities, objects, or building elements such as bathrooms, desks, or windows.
- Freshen up the building; For example, add new coats of paint and plant flowers.
- Create access to a green space and/ or outdoor play area.
- Increase exposure to nature, natural settings, and natural elements
- Add plants to the workspace or classroom. Add potted, hanging, and window plants whenever possible; in particular, explore adding a trellis or a living green wall.
- Rearrange furniture, such as desks and tables, to face outside.
- If the school is urban, make the roof green or create a courtyard.
- Schedule breaks to walk in a park or nearby greenspace.
- Create an internal courtyard or an outside workspace
- Hang up pictures of nature in the classroom or workspace.
- Add a mixture of plants to the classroom; increase biodiversity.
- Wall Space
- Use neutral or natural wall paint tones.
- Achieve a moderate amount of classroom wall complexity.
- Display images of nature, students' work, and pictures of positive role models such as Martin Luther King, Grace Hopper, and Malala in the classroom.
- Offer wall décor in braille and large print.
- Have students paint murals on the walls.
- Give students a voice in classroom or school building layout and design.
- Use natural, minimally processed materials such as wood and stone to create or add to the school environment.
- Class Size and Layout
- Maximize Accessibility
- Make all doors easy and automatic to open.
- Add ramps and widen hallways.
- Make the front of the classroom clearly visible.
- Train educators and administrators on how to best teach and help students with mental or physical disabilities.
- Minimize class size to between 5 and 13 students and 4-5 students for group discussions.
- Give students some degree of control over their learning environment.
- Have students help to arrange the classroom layout and décor.
- Maximize natural lighting, first and foremost, with expanded and additional windows and skylights.
- Use blue or LED lighting to enhance work and productivity
- Use red light to creating calming and soothing spaces
- Auditory and Noise
- Improve acoustics through acoustic tilling in the classroom
- Decrease exposure to outside noise pollution, such as from a highway, train, or airplane.
- Sound-proof the school.
- Build the school in a quiet area and perform construction over the summer.
- Increase exposure to natural, ambient sounds.
- Heavy rain and water sounds are particularly beneficial.
- Set the audio range for about 70 or between 50 and 85 decibels.
- Enhance Air Quality, Air Flow, Ambient Temperature and Scent
- Plants help to improve air quality, naturally.
- Install air cleaning technology.
- Put screens in windows and open weather permitting.
- Build the school in an area with little air pollution.
- Increase Environmental Variability
- Create different random moments of breeze or thermal changes.
- Keep the temperature between 68 and 74°f
- Use rosemary, citrus, and peppermint scents to energize students and lavender and chamomile aromas to calm students
- Maximize Accessibility
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