How to break eggs: consciously disrupting our habituation to school buildings

Why is it important to address the phenomenon of habituation to spaces in schools?

A surprisingly large amount of effort is wasted and value dissipated in schools when staff and students are habituated to the impediments and frustrations of poor design. This loss can be masked by everyone’s capacity to work around these impediments. For example, if small-group rooms in a school are not well-managed and timetabled, teaching assistants can lose a substantial proportion of the time allocated in searching for an alternative space to work with students. As a consequence, they may also become accustomed to episodes of wasted time and see these as an unavoidable aspect of their role. 

A second reason to address habituation is loss of small, unproblematic opportunities for change, may remain unseen because staff view the school building from the perspective that they have become habituated to. We use the photocopier room, the store cupboard, the working spaces created in corridors and halls daily, often without noticing simple ways in which we might use these spaces to better achieve the current goals of the whole school community. 

How can we disrupt our habituated perspective?

A useful starting point is to remember that the school environment has not occurred naturally. Everything in the school building, including routines and behaviours associated with particular spaces, has been designed, even if the reasons for these designs are now obscured from us by time. In another type of institutional building, say, a church, we can often trace the original intentions of the architect and those who have added to their work over the years. With schools, this is rarely the case. 

If we think of every aspect of the school environment as being a design choice, then we can open our eyes to making small but effective changes. This means seeing the pile of unclaimed sweatshirts on the lid of the old piano in the hall or the placement of the first aid area in the dining hall as design choices and ask how we might change them. 

If you are interested in involving colleagues and students in improving the ways in which you use the school building, you may find it helpful to select some of the conversation-starters below to talk through with them. This may help everyone to refresh their experience of the school environment before you begin to plan specific changes together. 

Let’s look at the school building from a historical perspective

Reminding ourselves of the previous or intended uses of spaces in schools can free us from being habituated to the current use of the space and allow us to see new possibilities. The era in which schools were designed and constructed will have had an influence on their configuration, their materiality and intended spatiality. These things will also have been influenced by the prevailing understanding and delivery of education at the time of the school’s creation. A historical perspective may also reveal different layers of adaptation to new models of education, particularly if the building is decades old.

Looking for evidence of previous usage and sharing historical footnotes about a building might help us to refresh our perspective about how it currently supports the education and wellbeing of students and staff. Knowing that a space was once intended to be a cloakroom, an office or a medical room could give us an unexpected insight into what the space might now offer.

How does the building represent the values and views of the school community? 

Looking at what is valued can offer a powerful way of seeing a building anew. How do the types of rooms and their configuration match the values that the school wants to project?  For example, how do particular spaces value people who use wheelchairs or who have come to a room to participate in a therapy? 

Architects and designers use a variety of interesting techniques to value the perspectives of others. Baupiloten, a German architectural studio, devised a method of exploring different areas of a school building by inviting students to throw small sweets onto a plan of the school and investigating the places where they landed to disrupt the usual discourse about school design.

Let’s look at design from a human perspective

Everyone who inhabits the school building will contribute to shaping the environment in some way, even if their contribution is small or unrecognised. The significance of that contribution may be due to the strengths or needs of an individual. It will also be influenced by their status and agency within the school community. Who feels able to ask other people for help? Who can initiate changes that might require an electrician or a builder? 

It might be useful to notice who is responsible for particular areas of the school building and to what extent and there are any hierarchies of use in place. Does every member of staff have access to every room? Are there certain uses of rooms, such as meetings or exams, that are immediately prioritised above other uses?  

Within school buildings, teachers constantly redesign classrooms and move things around. Teaching assistants are also often responsible for spaces and display boards. Teachers sometimes work with each other and with assistants across a year group or even across the school to co-ordinate displays, sometimes navigating only by their understanding of what they perceive to be their territory and what is likely to get in the way of others. Listening to how members of staff feel about different areas of the school may provide new and surprising insights into how areas of the building could be used and improved.

It is always worth asking whether the most obvious room is going to be the best one for a new use. If a new therapy room is planned, should it be sited in a room that is already empty or might another room be repurposed to better effect?  

Let’s use our new understanding of the school building in relation to Covid-19

The impact of the health and safety challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic can help us to see school spaces in entirely new ways, as we look through a new lens of protecting ourselves and others from catching the virus. In the 1920s and 30s, tuberculosis had a similarly profound impact and we still see evidence of that today in schools with large windows designed for maximum airflow and light, which was also believed to be curative at the time. 

Covid 19 has also raised questions about wellbeing and mental health that invite us to look differently at education experiences, looking beyond the airborne transmission of disease to the perspective of students who have found the return to school difficult or who were happiest in school during lockdown when they shared the space with fewer of their peers.

Conclusion

Before we can make meaningful changes to the school building and routines associated with it, we need to see things afresh; responding to new challenges and emerging needs. 

If we want to reveal the potential of spaces that we have become habituated to in our schools, we need to make time for staff to refresh their perspective about these spaces. Given the time and energy to do this, small but valuable improvements may quickly become apparent.  

Establishing a pattern of making changes to small spaces, as with the regular decoration of display boards discussed in my linked post about possibility blindness requires that sufficient and regularly planned time is allocated to those who will plan and execute these changes. It should not be expected to happen in addition to other responsibilities. It is also helpful to bring together people who are naturally interested in and gifted at design. And vital to ensure that those who these changes will affect are represented and that their views are sought prior to and after the changes have taken place. 

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