The school building as third teacher

Eleanor Nicholson

Editor’s introduction

‘Wouldn’t it give us pleasure to see a string of meaningful details in a children’s world? Things that admittedly serve trivial purposes, that stand for themselves and their function and, besides, come together in the realm of fantasy, of poetry. They could be minor details: a star of light, patterns

in a wall____ Little things, showing that we

have made an effort to understand the world of children; that we have overcome what stands between us – age, drawing board, cost calculations… ambition, architecture.’1

Since the late nineteenth century, children have gone to school. They have gone to all kinds of schools; small schools, big schools, friendly schools and forbidding schools. In the early stages of mass education school buildings were often little more than rudimentary conversions of former church or even industrial premises. During the twentieth century, throughout Europe and the USA, new purpose-built structures appeared, designed by architects with the needs of education and teachers in mind. Many of these structures are now coming to the end of their useful life and are being replaced. For example, in the City of Exeter, SW England, all five of its high schools are being rebuilt. The chronic underperformance of Exeter’s state schools is the main reason for this (along with the evident need for radical solutions to old, badly maintained buildings). One local headteacher stated that the city suffered from an anti-education culture, a commonly perceived view that would resonate around the state sector both in the UK and USA. This is due in no small part to the alienation children feel attending poorly maintained, outdated educational facilities. The message they send is one of failure and lack of respect for education and those intended to benefit from it.2

So, how should the new generation of schools be designed? Often the primary concern of school developers and the governments who allocate public finance is cost, which is determined by the use of time and the allocation of space. Consequently, pragmatic guidelines and standard schedules of accommodation tend to dominate the procurement agenda. With the recognition that schooling has a pivotal role to play in the general well-being of society, the importance of the place in which education takes place is now frequently discussed and debated. We are open to new ways of doing things, yet the reality of building seems to be that we are confined within systems which have been in place for decades, unchecked and unquestioned by school developers.

Eleanor Nicholson presents evidence that children and young people are extremely aware of the symbolic messages which these buildings transmit. The issue therefore is not simply one of educational outcomes, to use the current jargon; of equal importance is making schools attractive for the future generations of young people who will use them. Issues which are often deemed to be of secondary importance, such as the design of children’s toilets, the quality of social and waiting spaces outside the classrooms, locker areas and the meaning or the ways in which architecture is represented, are often overlooked.

Nicholson presents a historical perspective, quoting the key educational visionaries such as Piaget, Montessori and Dewey, and illustrates a number of contemporary examples where good school design and enlightened educational strategies go hand in hand to create a humane learning system appropriate for the twenty-first century. She makes a plea that all of those within a community should have a stake in the design of the new school buildings and the form that the education should take. She sees the building as ‘the third teacher’ a tripartite alliance between teachers, parents and the environment within which it takes place. Perhaps there is an even more profound message here – the very fabric of the school building can teach children about many things which will be important ideals which they can grasp and hold onto throughout their lives. This is a plea for a better understanding of place, to enhance environmental literacy as part of the evolution of education towards a more humane individual framework which reflects the profound social changes which have taken place over the past 25 years.


In an ideal world, there are supportive, exp­erienced teachers; there is an engaging and experiential curriculum; and there is a school climate that supports a sense of mutual respect, warmth, fairness, aesthetic pleasure and the US traditions of democracy and opportunity for all. Do we need especially designed buildings to promote these values? Not necessarily. Fine child-centred programmes can exist in less than wonderful buildings. Conversely, rigid, unjust, cold and insensitive programmes can take place in state – of-the art buildings.

However, after a lifetime spent inspecting and supporting school communities in California, there is no doubt in my mind that the school building is, and should be a player. A building can reflect and perpetuate ideas about how children learn, what they learn, how they are taught, and to what end they are taught. Beyond purely educational objectives, a building can also communicate to children a great many subtle messages about what is important and what is deserving of respect. This is crucial in an age where education is viewed with a certain degree of contempt by many young people in society, whilst paradoxically, education is conceived by those who govern us as a crucial component in making a fairer, more civilized society, now and in the future.

It is my view that school buildings really make a difference, not just in the education, but also in life experiences of the children who use them. In this chapter I intend to make a direct connection between children’s learning and the buildings they inhabit, by way of a number of built examples. But what kind of learning do I mean here?

In 1990 James H. Banning addressed a gathering of architects and school people at a conference in Winnetka, Illinois, the proceedings of which are printed in a small booklet entitled Children, Learning and School Design. Rejecting a causal link between the built environment and student behaviour and student learning, Banning posits a possible or probable link. This, he says, ‘not only appears more realistic; it also captures our intuitive notion that school buildings can make a difference in the lives of children.’3

Every aspect of an educational environment represents a choice about what is to be provided and what is not to be provided. Implicit in those choices is someone’s judgement about what’s important for children. However, most of the battles on school turf are about three things – use of time, use of space, and use of money. There are but so many hours in the school day and the school week and the school year; there are only so many square – or even cubic – feet permitted in the school building. There is only so much money available from the Board, or in the case of private schools, from the Archdiocese or the Board of Trustees or the parents. For every choice made during the development of any school design, something is put into the school and something is left out. Those choices reflect priorities, which in turn manifest basic values. As such, even the most trivial as well as the most fundamental decisions about school design carry symbolic messages.

There is, for example, a difference between an assembly room designed to host the entire school for regular community gatherings and a hall that is designed primarily for sport. These two spaces are furnished differently, used differently, and viewed differently by the students and teachers. As such they represent different priorities. The message of the first is that building a sense of community has top priority; the message of the second is that the value of community is equal or secondary to physical education. It is a subtle but important distinction. Children read meanings about themselves and the wider world into the environment of their school. It is so important because it is designed specifically for them.

In his contribution to the 1970 Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Robert H. Anderson wrote:

… Historically, the school building has influenced not only what might be learned but also what might not be learned. The primitive resources and limited size of schoolhouses placed definite restrictions on other than sedentary activities, and hampered the development of curriculum offerings in the creative and expressive arts, in physical education, in vocation education, and in other areas having specialized space needs.

In recent times, despite a growing clamor for kindergarten and other preprimary services, many states have moved slowly in providing such services because of the high cost of providing the space such programs require. Thus both quantitatively and qualitatively, the physical environ­ment has over time exercised a peculiar power, often repressive, in the educator’s world.4

The phrase ‘the high cost of providing the space such programs require’, demonstrates the prior­ities at work here. This statement not only implies an economic decision but one which, as Banning points out, promotes certain symbolic meanings, advocating the primacy of financial decisions over and above the child centred agenda. It is the intent of this chapter to explore those symbolic meanings both in terms of architecture and of iconographic interpretations, and posit an alternative more inclusive approach to designing the next generation of school buildings. I would ask those who are reading this from the perspective of a professional training in architecture and space planning to bear with me and excuse some of the architectural references I make, which I appreciate may at times appear a little naive and sentimental. As an educa­tionalist rather than a building professional, I am aware that I am writing about the architectural side of this from the perspective of an informed amateur.