Four Important Ideas: Learning Environment as the ‘Silent’ Contributor Student Wellbeing

“The physical space influences behaviour and ultimate wellbeing of every member of the community”

Dr Helen Street (2018)

Student wellbeing is not well-served as an extra program, an add-on to the crowded curriculum, as Dr Street argues in her book, Contextual Wellbeing: Creating positive schools from the inside out, it needs to be part of the DNA of the school, clearly evident in the approaches to learning, the policies and practices and the foundational culture. As a ‘silent’ contributor to wellbeing, the physical environment cannot be overlooked in this equation.

“Buildings exist as reflections of the values, attitudes and behaviours of their designers, owners and occupiers” (p.122).

Student wellbeing can be supported by the environment in four ways:

1. Power of Outside

As I consult with schools in masterplanning and the pre-design in-house research, I often talk to the school community, asking ‘What would enhance learning and the overall culture?’ More frequently they say ‘we want more green’, a ‘connection to the outside’ and ‘bring the outside in’.

Institutional school buildings of the past have prioritised corridors, moving the inmates, I mean students, from one cell, sorry, classroom to the next. School buildings were once only considered as the container for teaching, set up to maximise the impartation of knowledge. Now, we are seeking to design the optimal environment for learning.

In many cities, with increasing urbanisation families live in medium and high density housing, the idea of ‘outside’ is critical. As students spend a considerable part of their day at school, we can provide this link to the natural environment, to plants and making a connection to the outdoors.

2. Comfort and Design

There are many inspirational images of shared and open learning environments, seeking to inspire a sense of openness, showing multiple zones for a range of interactions. However, with insufficient attention to acoustics and other sensory elements, Dr Street notes that,

“Many teachers ended up ‘surviving their open plan environment rather that using them well and the potential benefits of teaching in flexible and collaborative learning spaces were often overshadowed by high noise levels and insufficient cooperation between staff and students.” (p.124)

3. Ownership

Enabling ownership of the design by the school community can be transformational when creating a place for learning. I regularly hear stories of how the key users of the learning environment, the students and teachers, had not been consulted. This usually doesn’t end well.

In my talk on this topic, I present a to don’t list, as opposed to a to do list, when embarking on a journey of school transformation. This includes no ‘ta-da’ moments, the temptation to have a great reveal to the community when the building is completed. New building projects are directly related to change in practice, habits and attitudes. This can be scary for many. As the project nears completion, anxiety rates can increase.

“The most effective physical environments are created when the whole school community is consulted and involved in the process of change and development, from classroom decor to the shared spaces.” (p.129)

4. Voices from the Walls

I’ve written previously about the idea of ‘small data’. Walk around any school or workplace, and small data abounds. This can be the information displayed on the notice boards, and shape everyday cultural clues that lead to broader trends. I’ve become a ‘small data detective’ when I’m visiting a school and if I see a sign or message on a wall, I often ask the host ‘why?’. My perception of the message as an independent observer, is often different from the original intention.

Dr Street asks,

“What messages are being given out by the reception? The hallways? The canteen? The classrooms?” (p.131).

She explains that these messages reflect the culture of the school,

“Do they suggest that education is a race you might win or lose?” (p.131).


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