The classrooms, corridors and hallways of primary and nursery schools in the UK are almost uniformly furnished with plentiful display boards. These are decorated to prompt learning, to reflect the school ethos and to generally brighten things up. While primary schools come in all shapes and sizes, these display boards and their decoration have become emblematic of the school building. If you wanted to create a TV show set in a primary school, these decorated display boards would declare school in the very first shot.
Many of the decorations on these boards are changed at least once a term and a huge effort goes towards their pre-holiday refreshment as sugar paper and edging is retrieved from the store cupboards and the sound of staple guns echoes throughout the school. This regular redecoration can be viewed as a reflection of the learning that takes place in schools, as statement made to visitors about the learning and as a relatively easy method of decorating buildings that are often decades old. Once the decoration of the display boards is accomplished, this task can be set aside for the rest of the term unless, perhaps, inspectors are coming to call.
The vigorous, cyclical, preparation energy that fills so many inset afternoons and holidays before the start of term can sometimes allow us to see classrooms afresh. The ritual of redecoration may even prompt new ideas about how the classroom could be used. Might it be that what has been disrupted is the phenomenon of habituation: a tendency not to notice our everyday surroundings unless prompted to do so by a new occurrence or unusual event, for example, if something breaks or goes wrong? When we take things for granted, we often fail to see possibilities to make change and, in the case of school buildings, changes that could benefit the people who use them. In this post, I reflect on the phenomenon of habituation to a school building; about why this might happen and why we might benefit from seeing things anew.
What is habituation?
Habituation is a concept used in psychology to describe a cognitive process in which a decrease in response to a stimulus takes place after exposure to that stimulus for a period of time. These stimuli might relate to any of the senses. An example of this might be as simple as us becoming habituated to the feel of the clothes we dress ourselves in every day. This allows us to get on with the rest of the day as if the sensation of being clothed has been largely edited out of our daily lives.
This natural acceptance of how things are is useful to us because it can help us to get on with all the things that we need to do. But it also might encourage us to experience the places where we work, simply as a container for our work, rather than an active, changing, designed entity that can be shaped to further support our needs and those of others with whom we interact in that place. The covid-19 pandemic may have changed this state of affairs, as people return to work after working at home (although many schools have stayed open even during lockdowns) and given staff the opportunity to understand what works well for them in the workplace and aspects of the building that could be improved. It’s useful to remember that habituation takes place remarkably quickly and those precious insights that occur when you see a place with fresh eyes will soon fade if you don’t take note of them.
Why might habituation be especially prevalent in schools?
The architect and academic Peter Blundell-Jones writes persuasively about habituation to school buildings, observing that we “become blind” to the spatial setting of a school because “it seems just to be there, and we have to make an imaginative leap to envisage how it might be otherwise”.*
In a school where spaces are filled with shared, multiple experiences, we may rightly need to exercise our concentration, effectively creating some blindness and deafness to things that are not relevant so that we can prioritise certain tasks. The imperative to focus on the students above all else, especially in a crisis, is also a shared understanding of those who work in schools. There are a number of other reasons why school spaces in particular may be especially vulnerable to habituation and they include the following.
Requirement to adapt to spaces
Teaching staff are adaptable and capable. It is part of their job to adapt to quickly-changing circumstances. When problems occur in their immediate working environment they are likely to prioritise quick fixes unless working conditions present an insurmountable problem, such as broken heating, toilets etc.
Lack of authority to change spaces
In primary education, teachers are charged with the responsibility of managing their own classrooms, sometimes in line with specific guidance from senior managers. It is less common for staff members to be responsibility for the design and decoration of smaller, shared spaces in schools, while premises managers ensure that these spaces are maintained to a basic standard of safety.
Any changes to shared areas might require consultation and negotiation to avoid creating unforeseen clashes. These are the areas of the school building that can most easily be taken for granted. The cleaning, upkeep and decoration of these spaces, particularly if clusters of objects have congregated in them, may also be irregular and prompt uncertainty about having the authority to make changes to them.
Students and staff members may be unused to being consulted about or involved in an imaginative reappraisal of the school environment and may not feel that they have any agency over the spaces in which they work together.
Lack of resources to change spaces
Changes to our environment require effort and time. This in itself makes it unlikely that teaching staff would choose to focus on an area in the school building that seemingly contributes only indirectly to their work with students. Additionally, such changes might appear to challenge or annoy others and might then require more energy to put things back the way they were.
There can be a difficulty in imagining the possibility of making improvements to school buildings because imagination demands energy and time.
Changes to the fabric of a school, such as refurbishments or new buildings, are managed at a high level and will involve a large budget. Teaching staff may have little involvement in these important decisions. Neither are they likely to be regularly encouraged to make smaller improvements and changes beyond their classrooms for little or no cost.
In conclusion, habituation to one’s surroundings can be very useful, allowing us to quickly adapt to stimuli from our environment that might disrupt our focus on other things that are happening. But in the long run, habituation to school buildings may also lead us to neglect the maintenance and refurbishment of valuable spaces because we are unlikely to prioritise them over other important tasks.
At the beginning of this post, I chose the example of display boards to show that if a recurring task such as their redecoration is allocated sufficient time and resources on a regular basis, it can accomplished as a matter of course. What if we were to allocate a similarly modest amount of time and resources to rethinking and refreshing the small rooms and spaces in our schools that we have become most habituated to? Perhaps we might even collectively improve the school building as a shared workspace to support learning and wellbeing.
Suggested next read: How to break eggs: consciously disrupting our habituation to school buildings
Blundell Jones, P. (2014). The development of the school building and the articulation of territory. In P. Woolner (Ed.), School design together (pp. 11-13). Abingdon: Routledge.