Introduce self and Thomas DeVere Wolsey. I am pleased to present The Walls Speak research conducted through the National Center for the 21st Century Schoolhouse. The National Center encourages the design and construction of learner-centered schools through communication, research, and training.(Click now.)
WALLS RESEARCH INTROIn July 2009, The Center’s collaborating scholars were featured in a themed issue of The Journal of Educational Administration which examines what we know about the relationship between educational facilities and students’ and teachers’ work and learning, as well as the role the public plays in shaping these learning places and joining the community of learners. Contributing authors span the fields of education, architecture, urban planning, sociology, and public policy bringing new questions, methodologies, and conceptualizations to the endeavor. A growing body of research connects the quality of school facilities to student outcomes, including achievement and attitude, as well as teacher attitude and behavior. Less is known, however, about the mechanisms of this relationship. Some influences are clearly physiological. Others are related to social factors that are more difficult to define and quantify. The Walls Speak research, conducted in three phases, explores these social factors.Phase 1, a statewide quantitative study of 80 Virginia middle schools, was guided by 2 hypotheses: 1st, we hypothesized a positive link between teachers’ perceptions of the quality of their school facility and student achievement and 2nd, that this link would be mediated by the influence of various aspects of school climate, including academic press (that is, a serious and orderly learning environment), teacher professionalism, the collegial leadership of the principal, and community engagement. Results, published in the Journal of Educational Administration, February 2008, demonstrated that school climate played a mediating role in the positive correlation between quality facilities and higher student achievement. Phase 2, qualitative, collective case study explored in greater depth the interplay between a school building’s physical properties and school climate and how these combine to influence teaching and learning. We were interested to know how high quality facilities nurture a positive school climate and high levels of achievement, especially in schools that serve a primarily low-income student population. Results from this study are included in the 2009 special issue of JEA. Results of Phase Two indicated that ongoing interactions between the design and reality of the built environment and the occupants of that environment helped to define the learning climate of these schools. Reciprocally, the climate helped to shape the interactions that took place. Phase 3, utilizes a mixed methods triangulation design. Combining methodologies utilized within the first two phases of The Walls Speak research, this study combines collective, instrumental case study with survey methods. This current phase continues to explore the interplay between quality facilities, school climate, and student achievement, now charting the effects of facility improvements on student and teacher attitudes, behaviors, and performance within schools undergoing renovations in a large metropolitan school district. An article describing preliminary results from initial data collection prior to renovation, is due out in the Journal of School Leadership this fall.[Click now.]
THEMESFrom the data, several broad themes related to building quality emerged as central to this interaction, including movement, aesthetics, play of light, flexible and responsive classrooms, elbowroom, and security. Further, the schools in these case studies characterized the interaction between school leadership and building design. We advanced a School Leadership-Building Design Model as a means to describe this dynamic interaction.[Click now.]
ARCHWe use the arch as a metaphor of the interplay between the themes we found. The arch, as a design feature, provides a solid structure around entry points that either facilitate or block movement. An arch can surround a locked gate or a familiar point of entry. In the arch metaphor, community and a sense of local history are the keystone on which all else rests. An arch also consists of pillars and wedge-shaped stones that use compressive force, keeping the structure intact. The leadership-school design arch is built on pillars of school design and the influence of the occupants on the one hand, and the interaction of the occupant’s identity and the personality of space on the other. Over this, the six themes provide the interlocking characteristics of facility quality. Entering the span, or opening, the school’s climate interacts with all these characteristics of facility quality, mediating their combined influence on student learning and achievement. Students created most of the photos you are about to see. These photographs reflect a number of schools studied. A few are our photographs of areas of the school students discussed with us but could not access or their photos made with unfamiliar equipment were not suitable for presentation. In some cases, students described areas of the school to which they did not have access because classes were in session and so forth. We share the specifics of the methodology presented here in an article in press with the Middle School Journal. I have copies of this article available for you today.[Click now.]
PERSONALITY/IDENTITYThe particular personality of a school building may or may not encourage a sense of belonging. Think of the personality of the building as an amalgam of various attributes, including events that have taken place within the school, affect of the people who inhabit and modify various spaces, the organization of the space as designed, and so on. The identities individual occupants construct result, in part, from this built environment, which in turn was created by past occupants, designers, and community supporters, whose previous interactions continue to influence learning in a given place (Uline, Tschannen-Moran, & Wolsey, 2009). Significant to the many facets of adolescent identity development, a prime task of this age, attachment to significant places and people is often a balance of many roles adolescents adopt. Of interest is identification with, and attachment to, a school community, particularly the role the school building plays in this aspect of identity formation within middle school students. [Click after peaceful picture.] About 54 seconds
PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT Each middle school student was given a Polaroid® and one package of film with ten possible images in Phase II. Students were intrigued by the cameras; most knew about instant photography, but few had ever used this aging technology. Indeed, shortly after data collection was completed, Polaroid ceased most sales of the instant film. In Phase 3 of the Walls Speak research, digital cameras and presentation software were used in place of Polaroid film to help students organize and discuss their photographs. Students in this millennial generation (cf. Eisner, 2005) may not be fascinated with the novelty of digital photography. Still, their understanding of digital technologies may enhance their ability to use the cameras and software to manipulate images and describe them in ways that enhance image-based research. Further research is needed in this regard. Once students returned to the interview room, they were asked to lay the photographs on a table and categorize them. They grouped the images and labeled them with felt-tipped markers. Then, researchers interviewed the students as they described their photographs and the categories in which they placed their photos. [Click after 3 Polaroid Cameras.] About 40 seconds
IMAGES AND INTERVIEWSFor presentation purposes and confidentiality reasons,all names included here are pseudonyms. Allison labeled each photograph, mainly using verbs. Though she thought of her photographs as a progression starting with the school doors, we were able to make additional interpretation based on the contents of her photographs and the themes that emerged from the photos her peers made as well. Five of Allison’s ten images used the verb “come” to describe some aspect of the school environment. A photograph of a stairwell is described as “come on down” while an image of the school auditorium is labeled, “Come class, sit down.” By contrast, Makina grouped her images by the general purpose of the place she photographed. Four of her ten images were labeled “working places” and featured images of desks in the computer lab, students or staff members at work, and the school library. She photographed the backstage area and put it in a category of its own, “behind the scenes.”[Click after stage.] About 55 seconds
PHOTO INTERVIEWSBethany made use of descriptive terms such as “pride” to label her photograph of the school mascot but also made symbolic use of school features to characterize her feelings and perceptions. An image she made of the podium in the school auditorium is labeled “freedom of speech.” During interviews, Bethany referred to this image and elaborated at length on her perception of the school as a place where she could and would be heard. Describing her photograph, she claimed, “I said freedom of speech because I like speaking and everybody has their own voice in this school. If there is an issue, you can speak up about it. If it is reasonable, if it is able to be met, then it will be met. And you can pretty much say what you want and people will listen to you.” Bethany only made nine usable photographs because she accidentally tripped the shutter at one point destroying one of the ten in the film pack. Of those nine photos, six of them contained images of people: a teacher, several students, and a lunch worker. During the interview, Bethany frequently referred to the occupants of the school even when prompted to look at the features of the building. She seemed unable to separate the people from the place and context. A photograph Bethany took of a friend she found in the school library mediated the following exchange. The photo was labeled, “studying.” Bethany said: I took this picture. It says future leader, because…We asked: We’re back in the library for this picture? Bethany replied: Yeah. And it says future leader because I believe everybody who goes here has an opportunity. There are all kinds of opportunities and everybody makes sure that all the students get opportunities. Because of those opportunities, it makes everybody in here future leaders. [Click after Future Leader.] About 33 seconds
PHOTO ALBUMIn analyzing the photographic data, we found it useful to use the term “photo album” to describe the collection of photographs made by the student informants. When studied in combination, the photographs contained within the album revealed important differences in students’ perceptions of what was important to their learning. In comparing photographs made by different students, common themes emerged, resulting in the arch model you saw in slide 4. Allison focused on activity, Bethany on her sense of belonging, and Peter on the tools and aspects of the building that helped him learn. For example, where Bethany focused on people and larger aspects of the school building, Peter often chose to photograph furnishings. Three of his images were labeled “getting somewhere” and featured a school bus, the main entryway to the school, and a stairway leading to the second floor of the three-story school building. From the album, we were able to learn the school from the outside in, and vice versa. When viewed as an entire corpus of work, the album also helped to confirm recurring themes that emerged from across the data. A central theme among student transcripts and photographs was the link between the notion of school as a significant place and students’ identities. This theme permeated the photo albums. In the images you see here, a variety of entries, doors, and hallways demonstrate the impact of doors and thresholds students notice as they enter a school facility and navigate the terrain within. These images helped to confirm the first theme of Movement, prevalent across all data.[Click at Lancaster Main Entrance.] About 47 seconds
PLACES FOR LEARNINGIn our research, we have seen high quality facilities, as well as facilities in great need of improvements. In all cases, student occupants demonstrated keen powers of observation. They noticed the limitations of the school buildings they inhabited and appeared acutely aware of the degree to which various aspects of the physical learning environment satisfied their needs and desires, or failed to do so. They were perceptive in their appraisals, describing both good and bad experiences and the feelings these experiences elicited. As Marissa accompanied one researcher on a walkthrough of East High, she talked about the differences she observed and her classmates’ overall response to them. East High is a good school, but I think we do deserve a lot more, especially since we’re bringing up our test scores. When we hear in the news that other schools are getting all-weather tracks, and bigger classrooms, …then you think, ‘Oh, aren’t we as good as them?” Students seemed to conceive of their learning as sprawling. When we asked about places that supported their learning, their answers challenged the more traditional architecture of self-contained classroom instruction. They talked about portable laptop labs, lab tables with electrical outlets, workbenches and tools, the music room filled with guitars and drums and accordions, the library where they conduct research and the computer lab, explaining that,“ a lot of kids don’t have Internet access at home, so this is good for them.” Makena’s photographs of working places typically showed student desks arranged for group work with chairs facing each other rather than in rows. Students also valued the ability to move and preserve a sense of personal space. From the photo-mediated interviews, researchers came to understand that students understood school as a place where their actions as students were consequential. They believed that school environments, made up of useful spaces and furnishings, should be purposeful. Students attached meaning via their emotional responses to the school facilities and needed both personal and social spaces. In addition, they connected the aesthetic features of the school environment to learning and instruction. About 1:32
CONCLUSIONSchool buildings contribute as an important mediating factor to the overall capacity of the occupants to provide an inviting, supportive, and safe environment. Erikson (1968) suggested that young adolescents require leeway as they negotiate and resolve conceptions of their own identities with those others in the environment around them. One way we make operational Erikson’s concept of leeway is to think of “constrained flexibility.” Middle school students require physical space to move about the school building, and conversely, they need spaces for social contact with other students, teachers, and other members of the school community. In other words, students need flexible spaces in which they can assert themselves and interact with others, partly of their choosing, yet they need constraints or limits as to their use of those spaces that help define them as members of a functional learning community. The literature regarding middle grade students centers largely on curricular and developmental factors but do not address the impact of physical space on school climate or academic achievement. The present study, as part of a series of studies, sought to explore the relationship of the physical environment with school climate, achievement, and identity development factors.
CONCLUSION 2Too, the spaces for learning were enhanced in students’ minds through symbolic structures. These included historical aspects of the architecture, thresholds, and passageways. Students appreciated aesthetic features of the building and consistently pointed these features out to the research team. Students, teachers, and others in this middle school valued the responsiveness and flexibility of the learning spaces. The built environment, in this way, supports the organizational structures of effective middle schools (NMSA, 2010). When the school is constructed and utilized in flexible and responsive ways, student learners begin to think of themselves as part of the place. The place, in turn, becomes part of their identities. Schools are significant places in students’ lives, and how school facilities are designed and used may help or hinder the identities students construct of themselves as learners and as members of learning communities. Photo-mediated interviews helped students to think about and organize their conception of school as a place. In turn, we found that the photographs scaffolded our understanding of the school building as it was understood and perceived by our middle-school research participants. Photo-interviews provide a wealth of information that would not be available through oral interviews alone. For those who design and administer facilities, the importance of space for students to move about is as important as spaces for students to interact in a safe and social manner. Personal spaces and social spaces interact in ways that improve school climate and promote achievement (Uline, Tschannen-Moran, & Wolsey, 2009). At the same time, leadership that recognizes students’ needs for both personal and social spaces, and facilitates their productive use of these spaces, increases the potential that students will identify themselves as competent learners. Attention to these notable features of the building may also contribute to the perceptions students hold of the school as a place of learning.
Exploring Learning Spaces and Places Cynthia L. Uline, Ph.D. Thomas DeVere Wolsey, Ed.D.
Schools as significant places Building identities
Conclusion Importance of space for students to move Personal spaces and social spaces interact in ways that improve school climate and promote achievement School facilities should reflect the intentions of school designers and past occupants, both students and adults.
References Uline, C. L., Wolsey, T. D., Tschannen-Moran, M. & Lin, J. (in press). Improving the physical and social environment: The effects of building renovation on teaching and learning. Journal of School Leadership. Wolsey, T. D. & Uline, C. L. (in press). Middle School Learning Spaces and Places. Middle School Journal Uline, C., Tschannen-Moran, M., & Wolsey, T. D. (2009). The walls still speak: A qualitative inquiry into the effects of the built environment on student achievement. Journal of Educational Administration, 47(3),pp. 395-420.doi: 10.1108/09578230910955818
Contact Dr. Cynthia L. Uline email@example.com Dr. Thomas DeVere Wolsey firstname.lastname@example.org