Finding a place within the school

A school can be thought of in many ways. For some it is an educational institution; for others it is a workplace. For students it is the place they are required to attend for a formal education over which they have little or no say, with both the content and process largely prescribed by remote authorities and government agencies. Even for those who have had no direct association with it, a school’s presence extends into the wider community through its reputation, achievements and the daily movements of students to and from the school. But….there can also be a vast gap between an historically based reputation and the present day reality.

The campus and its buildings often stand as the most immediate and tangible representation of a school. When looking at the physical assets, the basic typology varies little across countries and educational systems. A mix of buildings, pathways and natural settings…..very little of distinction and difference to the neutral observer!

The significance of these individual elements of the campus, the part that they play in the students life at school can vary enormously within the student cohort. Some students will gravitate to a particular facility or cluster of rooms based on their individual interest, reflecting a familiarity arising from the frequency of formal classes undertaken in those environments and often involving professional student/staff relationships with particular staff members located within them. It may be the “science block” or the “art” room or perhaps the gymnasium!

Alternatively, a student’s “preferred place” may be a place where informal, ad hoc games are played against the back wall of a building, a simple ball court painted onto bitumen, a set of swings, or a larger formal sports venue used during out of class hours. This activity does not constitute part of the formal curricula and is often unstructured and beyond the supervision of staff.

There are other places within the school which serve no direct educational role, but which are highly valued by students. For some students their most significant place, which is remembered long after school has been completed, will be a setting in the natural environment beyond the formal buildings, perhaps an undistinguished tree that provides shelter or serves as a meeting point; or the far corner of the campus boundary far removed from the eyes and ears of other students or staff. Or it may be a seemingly insignificant “dead space” serving no function at all and unnoticed in the regular course of the school day, such as the underside of a stairwell, or a slight opening on an upper-level providing a view to the foyer below. The mix, and  type, of places which resonate with students will vary enormously. At the same time, some students may have few, if any, places within the school which evoke a strong personal connection.

In my recent work developing a new school in Costa Rica, and current work in established schools in Spain and Italy where I am involved in transforming very traditional facilities into contemporary learning environments, I have emphasised the need for architects and project user groups to see those schools as a composite of many types of “places” whose attraction and importance to students will vary enormously. Beyond the need to establish better formal classroom spaces to enhance the process and experience of student learning, I have stressed the importance of creating opportunities for individual students to find their “place” within the greater campus setting.

As a way of demonstrating this to my project colleagues, I will often ask them to recall their personal favourite “place” from their schooldays. Interestingly, few readily nominate a formal classroom or any type even thought it is this facility which is most prevalent within any school.  If we are working within the actual project space currently being designed, such as an enormous chapel of a former catholic school, which I am reshaping as a contemporary “makerspace”, I will challenge each member of the team to identify their own “preferred place” within the environment. It can be very illuminating to see the diversity of preferences with arise within a single facility.

In the case of the “makerspace”, some individuals pragmatically elected their preference based on how they imagined themselves working in the facility and the need for proximity to specific resources or devices, or they chose a more intimate and enclosed space within what is largely an ope-planned setting because of  how they “felt” within it. One member of our team chose a small, elevated  cul-de-sac which will be the most difficult setting for others to reach, allowing him oversight of approaching intruder and also of the vast, open floorspace below thereby optimising his capacity to see what others are doing.

Why all this conversation? Because we would do well to remember that a school is a source of intense personal memories which students carry into adult life and which are deeply embedded into an individual’s sense of self. Long after they have departed, the physical character of the school can resonate powerfully with the individual student, and that influence may have little to do with memories of the state of the art performance centre, the heated indoor swimming pool or the broadcast standard multi media studio. Often the most simple is the most memorable!

There is a critical need to shape our schools in terms of the opportunities provided for each student to find their “preferred place” in order to benefit the individual and the collective community which resides within the school.


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