Task Force Begins Campaign To Highlight Role of School Design on Student Learning

February 21, 1990 7 min read

By Debra Viadero

In the half-hour before classes begin each day, the 40 to 50 teachers at Kamariya Middle School in Yokohama, Japan, can usually be found in what is known as the “teacher office.”

The room contains a desk, bookshelves, and files for each teacher in the school. And lounge areas adjoining the office are furnished with comfortable furniture and traditional Japanese tea tables.

Such offices are common to a number of schools in Japan. But, to a small but growing group of educators and architects in this country, they represent something more than just an unusual perk for Japanese teachers.

They say such architectural features are at the heart of a new awareness that school buildings do not just house education--they also are part of it.

“What teacher offices, adequate storage facilities, or easy access to copying machines communicate to teachers is a message: ‘What you do is important,”’ said Harold Hawkins, a professor emeritus of educational administration at Texas A & M University. Teachers who feel better about their job, he contends, do a better job of teaching.

Mr. Hawkins is the founder of the National Interface Task Force, a group of educators, facility planners, and architects who are waging a campaign this year to convince educators that school buildings can have a profound impact on student learning.

By ignoring that concept, members of the group argue, the national movement to reform education has missed an important piece of the learning puzzle.

“For years,” said Tony F. Wall, executive director of the Council for Educational Facility Planners International and a member of the task force, “the talk in education reform has never really touched on facilities but has gone all around it.”

“They’ve talked about school climate and how it affects educational achievement but they haven’t considered that school buildings are part of school climate,” he said.

Schools ‘In a Vacuum’

The task force’s efforts are timely. According to Mr. Wall’s group, the demand for new school buildings across the country is greater than ever. He said the demand has resulted from a combination of two factors: demographic changes in the number of school-age children and the deterioration of a generation of schools built 40 to 50 years ago.

During the 1988-89 school year, Mr. Wall said, $33 billion was spent in this country for new school construction--an amount exceeding even the record school-construction expenditures of the 1960s. Even-higher expenditures are projected for the current school year.

“Most new schools are going to be there 30 years,” Mr. Wall said, ''and when you talk about the number of children who will pass through their doors over that time we certainly have an opportunity to make a significant impact.”

Until recently, task-force members said, most school construction took place “in a vacuum,” with little attention to the ways in which buildings can enhance student learning or even the working environment for teachers.

“You just used the same old design you’ve cranked out for years and years,” said Gaylaird Christopher, who is president of a California architectural firm and a member of the task force.

As Mr. Hawkins noted in a recent journal article, “State legislatures, regulatory agencies, and product manufacturers have had more effect on school design and equipment than educators.”

Shallow Research Base

Part of the reason that educators were omitted from the school-design process was that, until recently, few thought their advice could make a difference.

Most past research on the subject has found no significant relationship between student learning and a student’s environment, task-force4members acknowledged.

In recent years, however, a small number of studies have begun to hint at the potential impact of schools and equipment on education.

“We’re breaking new ground,” said Jerry Lowe, an associate professor of educational administration at Murray State University in Murray, Ky.

He spent three months observing and interviewing students and teachers in three elementary-school buildings--a noisy, dilapidated, multistory building from the 1930s, a facility constructed in the 1950s, and a carpeted, well-designed school built in the 1970s.

“Basically, the school that looked good did a good job,” he said. ''Teachers’ enthusiasm for teaching was a lot higher and kids felt better about coming into the school.”

A 1987 study found that the color of classrooms had an effect on both the blood-pressure levels and the perceptions of the students and teachers in them.

And a 1988 comparison of two Tennessee elementary schools with similar student populations found students at the newer, better-designed school scored higher in reading, listening, language, and arithmetic.

Despite such beginnings, however, most research on the impact of environments on people relies on more “naturalistic” observations. And task-force members concede prospects are dim for getting the kind of “hard” data that may be needed to convince skeptics.

“I don’t think we’re likely to get a lot of quantitative results that if we do one thing or another we’re going to raise test scores by ‘X’ number of points,” Mr. Hawkins said. “What we’re talking about is using good judgment about what we know about a good environment and applying it to a classroom situation.”

Despite the shallow research base, the “interface” issue has been getting more and more attention in recent years both inside and outside of education. Mr. Hawkins pointed out, for example, that the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Educational Leadership spent all of 1988 analyzing the working conditions of urban-school educators.

And the American Institute of Architects, the national trade association for that profession, is currently examining whether architecturally pleasing buildings have any impact on student learning. As part of the study, the group is surveying ad8ministrators who work in schools recognized by the architecture profession to be outstanding.

“We’re saying, ‘Yes, that building looks good, but does it support what’s going on in schools?”’ said Mr. Christopher, who is directing the study.

Distilling Theories

The National Interface Task Force launched its own efforts with a similar project in 1987.

Mr. Hawkins and other educators at Texas A & M, which has its own smaller “interface” task force, began visiting exemplary schools in this country and Japan in an effort to develop a profile of the kind of physical features that enhance school learning.

As part of that project, the group chose three schools recognized as “schools of excellence” by the U.S. Department of Education and three Japanese schools--including Kamariya--noted for student achievement.

“The assumption was that there was some learning going on in those places,” explained Mr. Hawkins.

Using videotapes, observations, and interviews, the group tried to identify architectural features, such as the teacher offices, that had a positive effect on the overall school climate.

Among its findings, for example, the group noted that all of the schools provided sufficient work space for faculty--although the Japanese schools were considerably more generous in that respect. The outstanding American schools, however, had professional libraries and well-furnished places in the building where teachers could lunch together, work together, or relax.

Walls that “teach”’ were also common to all the schools studied. In the American schools, such surfaces included bulletin boards, display cases, or exhibits of student work. The walls in the Japanese schools featured murals.

And all the schools contained settings that encouraged student dialogue. This meant benches located in strategic places, common areas, library alcoves, and mailboxes for students and teachers.

“There are a lot of things that can be done without necessarily increasing the cost” of a building, Mr. Hawkins noted.

The researchers also concluded that flexibility was an important attribute of the schools studied. Classrooms could be rearranged to accommodate a wide variety of teaching styles, from individual instruction and “hands-on” learning to traditional classroom lectures.

“You might find some of these things in many schools,” Mr. Wall said. “But the pieces did not come together well.”

The group’s goal now is to take the principles distilled from those studies and incorporate them in a single school. Talks are currently under way with school systems in Florida and Canada.

In the meantime, the task force is taking its message to national education groups.

“We’re not really proving something,” Mr. Hawkins said. “We’re trying to raise the level of awareness of the school environment.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 1990 edition of Education Week as Task Force Begins Campaign To Highlight Role of School Design on Student Learning