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Architecture for learning

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  May 10, 2013 03:20 PM

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There are lots of factors that go into a good education but here’s one you may not have thought of: the color of the paint on the classroom walls. That’s just one of the new ideas discussed in the most recent issue of Architecture Boston, which looks at how research into the relationship between student learning and architecture is changing the way schools are constructed.

For decades schools were built using a linear model, with classrooms lined up along a hallway, and desks lined up within classrooms. But that regimented approach is out of synch with current pedagogical thinking, and to see how consider the proposed new high school in Grafton, Massachusetts. Cambridge firm SMMA/Symmes Maini & McKee Associates has put together plans for the school around what it refers to as an “egg crate” floor plan, where the school building is divided into groups of classrooms clustered around common spaces. The idea is to provide students with multi-purpose spacse in which to work in groups or pursue independent projects.

Another example of the emerging architecture-learning nexus is John D. Runkle elementary school in Brookline. Recently renovations there brought more natural light into the classrooms and changed the school’s color scheme to muted greens and blues—colors chosen because they’ve been shown to minimize students’ stress and distraction.

These changes in school architecture are being driven by research that shows that where students sit, so to speak, has big effects on how they learn. The Architecture Boston article cites research from the University of Georgia, which concluded that freedom of movement and views of the outdoors were correlated with better performance on standardized tests. Similarly, a 1999 study of 2,000 classrooms in California found that students in classrooms with the most natural light performed 20 percent better in math and 26 percent better in reading than students in classrooms with the least natural light.

Those are big numbers but there are good reasons not to swallow them whole. Social scientists still have significant disagreements about the impact that major factors—like parental education, family income, and race—have on how well students do in school. Given that, it’s no easy feat to isolate the salutary educational effects of a new paint scheme or wider windows.

But then again, maybe it’s enough simply to recognize that we’d all prefer to read in a sun-drenched nook over a fluorescent-lit bunker.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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