“If the conditions are right, people grow in synergy with people around them and the environments they create. If conditions are poor people protect themselves and their anxieties from neighbours and the world.”
During my 17 years of teaching I have asked students many times what environment they work best in. Yes, there is a host of ‘offices like google’ and ‘slides to free vending machines’, as well as those there is always, always a surprisingly simple running theme:
Anyone who’s worked in a school will probably feel it too. I definitely have: working in classrooms with no windows and 30 heat generating computers, not enough desks or chairs and always, always, always the wrong temperature for the season. What is it about most school buildings and their overall heating control systems? Freezing in the winter, melting in the summer? Outdoor spaces too seem to be getting increasingly small – as temporary mobile classrooms have to be built on the yard, and inner-city schools have to have all outdoor spaces caged in ‘for security.’ Standing in these recreational spaces the similarities with prisons are unavoidable.
I feel that the students’ responses are a symptom of a much wider phenomenon. By the end of this century we are due to hit 10 billion people on the planet, causing all sorts of environmental, agricultural and social problems. In addition, more people live in cities than before.
What can we do in schools? Interestingly my partner is just finishing studies on Architectural Technology and Sustainability. I have been learning all sorts of things I haven’t come across in education (currently the benefits and efficiency of thermal heat pumps…), of particular interest to me is the relationship between environment, architecture and how people live and work in a space. I am a sensitive – I already knew this instinctively – those classrooms with the strip lighting are never going to be my top learning space, but to realise that there is a whole industry of people who study and care about this is great. For my Future School I have many ideas about the design of the building and how it will support learning…
But for now, what can we do in our learning environments with usually little flexibility and no budget?
How about we start by opening the blinds? So many classrooms now have the blinds down as default – so that we can all see the whiteboard. But what we are doing is asking our students to sit in dark rooms, or giving them more artificial lighting to work with. There is a great song Open the Window in the musical Anne of Green Gables (I played her at 13yrs, a great part) sung by the new teacher Miss Stacey who instructs the class to:
“Open the window,
Sweep out the cobwebs
Open your mind to what is going on all around!
Look at the sunlight,
What is it made of?
How can it make the flowers jump right out of the ground?
Take of the blinkers,
Let in the daylight
Tear down the fences, use your five senses –
I pretty much take this as a mantra for my learning environments and attempt to use it as much as possible. For creative writing I create exercises based around inspiration from outside – just moving their chairs to the window can make such a difference to the work they produce, or if I’m feeling particularly rebellious I will take them outside (I once did this with a very well behaved yr 8 class, only to be told that as I was only one teacher with 34 students I should have filled in risk assessment form -and it wouldn’t have passed as there should have been two adults present. We went onto the school field, we didn’t even leave the school property – sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission…)
Another thing I do is always have plants in my classrooms. Students often enjoy being given the task of watering monitor, they enjoy watching them grow over the week and surely it gives the students more oxygen for the brain? In one learning space I use now it is very challenging – the space as I use it is a library/reading room, but it was designed originally to be a holding room – for restraining pupils who were being physically violent. I have done my best with ‘inspirational reading posters and material’, and in addition I bring in different scents – lavender from a neighbour’s bush, or some essential oils – anything that will help to stimulate the students’ senses and make the environment something more than a box with one ceiling high window.
The effects are hugely positive, I often get feedback from students that my classrooms make them feel ‘safe’ ‘happy’ ‘calm’ – all important ingredients for learning (see my post on Safety First (Learning Second)). The lavender also had unexpected results. One teenage boy with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, who up to that point had engaged little with my lessons, asked if he could have some lavender, he told me it reminded me of his grandma and helped keep him calm. He took some and was careful to place it in his cube he had made in maths. That lesson was one of the most productive we’ve had.
Whilst we’re watching what the world and the population do about space, food, resources, energy – I feel it’s important to inspire our young people with their own learning environments as much as we can in our microscale learning environments; it is what they’re asking for – and who knows, one of them might have vital answers for solving the issues on a worldwide scale when they grow up…
Meanwhile, have a listen to that song – it is rather catchy.
 The Element: How Finding your Passion Changes Everything, Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica, Penguin Books, 2009
 Worldpopulationhistory.org – provides a surprisingly interesting video that shows the increased population pattern throughout human history. Also provides teaching resources.