Ugly surroundings make learning difficult. A look at international school building research

Christian Rittelmeyer

How school buildings act on physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing

A literature review by the Design Council in London shows that the colours and the quality of light in schools, the air and sound quality, the furniture and food on offer have a significant effect on moods, learning performance and wellbeing of pupils. A literature review published by the Australian education ministry (School Issues Digest) reaches similar conclusions. Research undertaken in the School Design and Planning Laboratory of the University of Georgia in the USA also makes clear such effects. Studies in, among other places, Germany, South Africa and the USA have shown that pupils are less likely to destroy the school inventory if they have a positive perception of their environment. Ruth Klockhaus and Brigitte Habermann-Morbey were able to show in a study that vandalism increases if pupils experience the building as rundown, drab and its colours as ugly. (Cf. illustrations 1 and 2 as positive/negative examples). The experience of “warmth” in school – undoubtedly also influenced by its colours – clearly reduced the tendency towards delinquency of pupils according to a research undertaken in Germany.

Some studies also show the negative effects of bad sound insulation, strong echo effects or other sources of noise in schools: it does not take more than constant medium-strength noise such as from a busy adjacent road to impair performance and health. Another stress factor can be a too high pupil density per square metre – greater density leads to worse performance, more frequent behavioural problems and pronounced feelings of stress. Other studies show that a school environment which is perceived as positive (classrooms with windows instead of being windowless or “warm” lighting instead of neon lighting) reduces the sickness rate of pupils.

My own research has shown that school architecture has a pronounced physical effect: depending on forms and colours, feelings of stress or relaxation, blood circulation, and other physiological parameters can be influenced in a specific way; this physical component of the effect of architecture begins to explain why school vandalism, susceptibility to illness and antipathies are triggered or reduced by certain forms of school building. Some research indicates that different colours and materials, full or part-spectrum lighting as well as daylight or artificial light act on heart rate variability, blood pressure and physical wellbeing. Children who have trees, gardens, parks or meadows in their environment show better performance in school than comparable children from densely built-up areas. That can be seen in the test results when children move from one environment to the other. The result is likely to be due to the relaxing physiological effect of the natural landscape.

Studies in the USA by Glen Earthman and other researchers have shown that school performance can be improved in almost all subjects through architectural surroundings which appeal to children and adolescents; if school buildings are perceived to be unappealing, the statistical average of school performance worsens. Studies of this kind have also been carried out with similar results in numerous individual American schools. Technical characteristics, too, such as for example thermal comfort (not too hot in summer, pleasant, not too dry indoor air in winter) and above all good, non-glare lighting in the classrooms lead to increased willingness to perform both among pupils and teaching staff. All results of this kind of course represent statistical trends which do not relate to every individual case.

A comparison of large open-space or smaller dimensioned school buildings showed that pupils felt more comfortable and learnt better in the latter building types than in the so-called “dinosaur schools”. Further studies are necessary in this respect in some new and positively critiqued progressive schools since some of these buildings have been designed in a very open-space way and produce a “waiting room atmosphere”. Others, on the other hand, were subdivided internally in many different ways – they contain small learning corners, “pods”, space dividers made of flower boxes or trees. One example is the much-debated Hellerup school in Copenhagen.

Research has also shown that the learning environment can influence how pupils perceive their teachers. Thus one study showed that teachers who teach in strictly rectangular or cubically structured classrooms (“classic box classrooms”, cf. illustration 1) are perceived as being stricter by a section of their pupils than when they teach in an environment which has a “living” feel (illustration 2).

Various studies also made clear that many pupils find that food tastes nicer in an aesthetically pleasing school canteen than in an ugly one. In general, such “colouring” of perception through the architectural environment is meanwhile well known through architectural and, more generally, environmental psychology.

Different classrooms

Some experiments in which pupils were exposed to and observed in various classroom environments suggest a wide spectrum of effects: thus after eight hours in a classroom defined as ugly they reacted with behavioural monotony, fatigue, headaches, irritability and hostility in comparison to when they spent the time in a classroom which was classed as pleasant. Similar effects were produced in the American debate by so-called “hard classrooms” in comparison to “soft classrooms”, which in the former case refers to classrooms as shown in illustration 2 and in the latter case means classrooms with curtains, floor coverings, wooden furniture, flowers or room colours communicating a feeling of warmth (illustration 1).

There can therefore be no doubt that the design of school buildings is of considerable importance with regard to the performance, wellbeing and health of growing children and young people. Just as much attention should therefore be paid to the shape and colour of school buildings, the décor and design of the school playground, as to the quality of teaching and the curriculum. That in this respect many architect offices and building authorities are lacking aesthetic literacy continues to be obvious in view of the many school buildings which communicate a cold, unfriendly and boring effect.

Edited extract from: Christian Rittelmeyer, Einführung in die Gestaltung von Schulbauten, Frammersbach 2013, p. 53 ff.

About the author: Christian Rittelmeyer was professor of education at the Institute for Educational Science of Göttingen University until 2003.