Complexity and Design: How School Architecture Influences Learning

By Rena Upitis.

Published by The Design Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Problems with education are not only about curriculum methods, assessment, or teacher competency. Some of our pedagogical challenges have to do with the ways in which we design school buildings and grounds. This theoretical paper explores how school architecture can be expected to shape the nature of learning by drawing on existing research and models of design and human behaviour. Empirical studies over the last seven or eight decades have clearly established that attributes such as light, temperature, noise, and air quality have an impact on teaching and learning. Where these environmental attributes are inadequate, there are negative effects on attention, behaviour, and academic achievement. However, the research on how teachers and students might benefit from architecturally thoughtful and supportive environments—good design—is less clear. In this paper, arguments are made for paying closer attention to the more subtle elements of design, such as those bearing on ease of movement, intimate and community gathering places, and positive outdoor space. These arguments are supported by examples of Reggio Emilia and Waldorf schools, where architecture is recognized as a powerful and subtle teacher. The paper uses complexity science theory—which seeks to explain how self-organizing systems function—as the central theoretical framework to characterize learning and elements of design in schools and school grounds. The paper provides compelling arguments of how architectural patterns and design, in the context of place-based learning, can positively influence behaviours and experiences.

Keywords: Complexity Science

Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp.123-134. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.158MB).

Dr. Rena Upitis

Professor of Arts Education, Faculty of Education, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Dr. Rena Upitis is a former Dean of Education at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, and is currently Professor of Arts Education at Queen’s University. She just finished a six-year term as National Research Co-director of Learning Through the Arts, a multi-year project that brings artists to the classrooms of over 100,000 students. Her current research revolves around the ways school architecture both constrains and opens up possibilities for learning, described in a newly completed book manuscript titled Raising a School. Rena teaches courses on arts and technology, cognition, and research methods. She has worked as a music teacher in inner-city schools in Canada and the United States and has been a studio teacher of piano and music theory for over 30 years. Rena frequently presents at conferences and publishes widely in academic and professional journals. Two of her books, focus on teaching music in elementary classroom. Another co-authored book, explores ways of approaching mathematics through the arts. Rena’s research has been recognized by several awards, including the George C. Metcalf Research Award (2002) and the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies Publication Award (2005).

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