A Comfortable Truth: School Buildings and Healthy Learning

May 07, 2007

by Rochelle Davis, HSC Executive Director

Who among us has ever reflected on our elementary or high school classrooms and thought: Now that was a comfortable chair.

In the article “A Comfortable Truth,” published in the April 2007 issue of Edutopia, planners and architects Prakash Nair and Randall Fielding argue that our attitudes about schools and comfort are rooted in the century-old notion that physical hardship creates self-disciplined children — and it’s well beyond time for a change.

Most public schools today are twentieth-century adaptations of the schools in the original American colonies. In the industrial version, however, students became products to be passed from grade to grade until sufficiently educated to work in a factory. School buildings reflected this ultimate goal, with classroom after similar classroom aligned along each side of a corridor, and regimental rows of hard chairs symbolizing strict attention and serious purpose. […]

Though the industrial model was solidly in place as the educational standard, however, a parallel, progressive movement arose in the early 1900s that sought to humanize and personalize education. This philosophy survives and has gathered dedicated adherents along the way, but most mainstream educators at the time it was developed were unconvinced that change was needed, and schools remained much as they had always been. Even after almost a century, John Dewey’s 1915 exhortation that “nature has not adapted the young animal to the narrow desk, the crowded curriculum, the silent absorption of complicated facts” remains largely unheard.

What is the rationale for justifying the lack of creature comfort in today’s schools? Nothing more defensible than the old dodge “We’ve always done it that way.” But schools wear out and are renovated or replaced by new structures. And architects know far more about how people live and work than they once did. So the factory model is slowly relegated to history, like the dinosaur it is. But questions of comfort and rigor remain unresolved. Should schools be comfortable, and if so, why?

Nair and Fielding go on to provide “eight truths” about school building and design, beginning with truth #1: comfort matters.

We couldn’t agree more.

The authors call for greater investments in softer seating, cleaner/fresher air and noise controls, and they advocate for creating adaptive and flexible learning spaces with access to healthy food, smaller learning communities and environments where students can feel “both secure and significant.”

A number of the issues are consistent with Healthy Schools Campaign’s agenda, including healthy indoor air, acoustical comfort, healthy food and school gardening. Their suggestions are important and definitely worth a read.