This is a very disheartening article. Sapna Cheryan at the University of Washington has spent the past several years looking at the design of classrooms and has found them inadequate for learning. All the way from kindergarten to university. There are many different deficiencies to choose from, but many of them are related to human factors and ergonomics issues. She has a TEDx talk here.
U.S. students spend an average of 11,700 hours of their lives in classrooms from kindergarten to senior year of high school and another 400 hours in classrooms in college. But emerging research shows that many of these spaces are physically inadequate for learning, and others offer subtle but powerful psychological cues that discourage or inhibit particular students.
In some cases, the layout is locked into a position suitable for a lecture, which we know is not the best way to run a class – at least not all the time. There are fixed rows of long tables with chairs set behind them. There is no way to reconfigure them into clusters appropriate for group activities, discussion, or collaboration. This is particularly problematic for female students according to a study of 900 college students.
Some classrooms convey personas that activate stereotype threat in students. Science labs have Star Trek references and video game gear that turns off students who don’t consider themselves “computer geeks.” Many of them have no female images in the posters, manuals, or anywhere else that female students can look for role models. Just changing a few posters can significantly enhance the recruitment of female and minority students into STEM majors and is one of the cheapest interventions you can imagine.
Other studies reviewed by Dr. Cheryan found that many classrooms are deficient in lighting, noise, temperature, or air quality. Student scores are up to 25% lower on reading and math tests with insufficient classroom lighting. About one in seven public schools have temperatures above or below the 68-74 degree range, which is best for learning. Another on in seven has too much noise.
I find this particularly disheartening because when students start off at a disadvantage, all of the other challenges we face are magnified. We have known for decades that these deficiencies harm learning. At the same time that we upgrade the layout of workplaces, sports stadiums, and the local shopping mall, we are woefully inadequate in how we design classrooms. Buying all new furniture might be expensive, but I am sure that many schools have replaced their desks and chairs in the years since we have known about this, and yet replaced them with the same front facing designs that were there before. And the posters – don’t get me started. When I teach STEM courses, I make sure to use female and minority examples as often as possible because I know that stereotype threat and ambient belonging issues are very real. But it takes more than just the efforts of individual teachers, especially at the K-4 level when kids are just developing their attitudes towards school and subjects, and their own interests.
If you have kids, ask them what images they see in their science labs. Ask them to imagine and describe an engineer and see what gender and ethnicity turns up. If you teach, do you make an effort to overcome some of these stereotypes in your own teaching or in how you decorate your offices, classrooms, and labs?
Image credit: ChristianSchd