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The Message of the Schoolroom

School

by Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor
London: Reaktion, 208 pp., $27.00 (paper; distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press)

Teaching Boys and Girls Separately

an article by Elizabeth Weil
The New York Times Magazine, March 2, 2008

As the popular cliché suggests when it describes someone as the “product of” a certain school or college, every educational institution, from a toddlers’ playgroup to graduate school, is a kind of factory. The building may resemble a well-landscaped country mansion or a rundown warehouse, but its function is the same. The raw materials (students) enter it and most of the time they are somehow transformed into the type of person conventionally associated with the institution.

In any factory, both the employees and the physical plant are necessary to the process. Much has been written about the effect on students of different sorts of teachers and lesson plans, less about the influence of the school building itself. Now, however, two British experts on school design, Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor, have looked at the educational factory structure as “an active agent.” In their new study, titled simply School, they suggest that continually, though silently, a school building tells students who they are and how they should think about the world. It can help to manufacture rote obedience or independent activity; it can create high self-confidence or low self-esteem.

Of course there are wide variations within the educational factory system, visible both here and in Europe, which is the main focus of Burke and Grosvenor’s book. The lively, friendly, but determined three-year-old is a rather different product from the agreeable but politely ambitious prep school graduate. They may, however, be the same person, and the lessons learned in nursery school may be reinforced (or undermined) years later in a much bigger building. As a graduate student once said to me, describing his middle school: “All the windows were filthy, paint and plaster were scabbing off the walls in the cafeteria, and the playground was full of trash. The place looked like shit, and it made me feel like shit.”

Teachers and staff also receive information from the buildings they work in. Dreary, overcrowded classrooms and cheap, shabby furniture and equipment, especially when combined with low salaries, tell grownups as well as children that they are not worth very much. At the other end of the scale, the temporary increase in visible self-satisfaction, sometimes rising to smugness, in someone who has just moved into a large, thickly carpeted, oak-paneled study in an expensive prep school or college is often very striking.

For children the effects of school design may be far greater and longer-lasting. To toddlers, their day-care center or nursery school gives a silent but dramatic message. Good, sturdy play equipment, bright, comfortable rooms, and lots of interesting toys not only make kids happy but also tell them that they deserve the best. The treeless, nearly grassless backyard of the low-cost child-care facility, with its chipped swing set and cracked plastic pool, its ill-lit, cramped playroom, its stained and broken toys, delivers the opposite message, one that even the kindest and most skillful teacher cannot totally contradict. The building in which such a day-care center is located is also apt to have windows too high for small children to see out of and door handles that they cannot reach, increasing their sense of imprisonment and disempowerment.

A good nursery school silently encourages children to think of themselves as unique and valuable individuals by providing them with cubbyholes marked with their names and walls decorated with their own artwork. (The effect may be even stronger for children who live in cramped housing where they must share a room with several other people.) It also gives them a wide choice of things to do: there are places for building with blocks, painting, playing house, and making music, and there are quiet corners for resting or looking at books. Outside there is room for running around wildly, swinging, climbing, or digging in a sandbox.

In a crowded low-budget day-care center there is usually no room or equipment for more than a few activities, and when the kids get bored the teacher is often tempted to turn on the Cartoon Network or pop in a video. As a result, children at the high-end nursery school learn that the world is full of new and interesting things to do, while those at the low-end center learn to watch television whenever they are bored or frustrated.

Through architecture, schools can also teach students (and possibly some adults too) how to think about race and class. In the South, before the civil rights movement, the contrast between large, well-maintained public schools for whites and small, dilapidated, crowded schools for blacks quietly informed African-Americans that they were worth less than whites. Even today, almost everywhere in the United States, schools in expensive suburbs are big, handsome, and well kept, in contrast to the rundown old buildings common in rundown urban areas. And in spite of decades of legal and social effort, the students in these poor school buildings are often poor and black or Latino.

Inside the building, the contrast may be even greater. The upscale suburban public school is clean and well lit and spacious; it has an attractive cafeteria with good food, and its library is full of new books and magazines and computer terminals that always work. When students from a crowded inner-city school realize what they are missing, the result is apt to be some mix of depression or rage, which can lead to vandalism or violence. (It may be partly for this reason that most intramural high school sports and debating teams tend to play schools from similar demographic areas.) Disadvantaged students who somehow get a look at an expensive private boarding school and its country-club campus may become even more angry or dejected.

Educational architecture can also give out messages about religion. As Jonathan Zimmerman points out in his perceptive and original new cultural history, Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory, many nineteenth-century elementary schools resembled rural churches: they had gabled front porches or stoops and a tower with a bell that was rung to call students to lessons, just as the church bell on Sunday called parishioners to worship. In some small towns, the school and the church were the same building.

Today schools run by separate denominations often resemble the churches or temples of that faith. But even when they do not, they usually display religious emblems, paintings, or statuary, both outside and inside, and they are often physically attached to a church, synagogue, or mosque, or next door to one. To attend such a school is to be reminded many times every day that you are, for example, a Catholic, a Jew, or a Muslim.

Children may also learn in school that they should be separated by age and gender. In the one-room schools of the past, kids from six to sixteen or eighteen shared the same space, and could study or play together. If they were especially good at reading or arithmetic, or skilled at games, it was easy for them to join their intellectual or physical peers. If they fell behind, an older student was often assigned to help them.

The classic “little red schoolhouse” (which, as Zimmerman points out, was more often white or gray) not only resembled a country church, but also—as its name suggests—looked a lot like a small farmhouse. The students knew each other, and often knew each other’s families. Usually the school was also a kind of community center: town meetings, concerts, debates, dances, and seasonal festivals like Arbor Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July were held there, and in November it often became a local polling place. Inside, the decorative theme was simple and patriotic: probably there would be an American flag on a stand and a portrait of George Washington, but otherwise the walls were most often bare, to avoid distraction from lessons. A wood stove in the middle of the room was flanked by rows of desks and benches.

The invention of the automobile, and the intensified road building that followed, gradually changed all this. In the early twentieth century there was a move toward rural school consolidation all over the United States. The change was intended to save money and improve the quality of instruction and discipline: teachers would be better trained and more able to handle sometimes unruly students. As time went on, fewer children walked to small local schools, while more and more were driven in big yellow buses to large buildings that might hold up to a thousand students. In these new consolidated schools, classrooms, lunch, and recess periods were organized by age. The result, in many cases, was boredom or frustration for anyone who was ahead or behind in some skill.

The consolidated school was usually an imposing multistory brick building in a modified neoclassical or Romanesque style, with large windows and an impressive entrance. It looked like a town hall or late-nineteenth-century factory rather than a church or a home, and because many students came from a considerable distance, there was much less sense of community. In its classrooms, as well as the American flag and portraits of local or national political figures, there would be maps on rollers and possibly posters of state flowers and birds and animals. Sometimes there were several rooms for each grade, and in this case competition between classrooms often supplemented competition between individual students, creating pressure to succeed not only for one’s own sake but so that Miss Smith’s class could be announced at the end of the term as having exceeded that of Mr. Jones.

In Britain, as Burke and Grosvenor report, school design followed a somewhat different pattern. Unlike the one-room schoolhouse in America, built to serve everyone in the neighborhood, state schools in the UK were mostly established for poor, working-class children. The ragged schools and dame schools of the early nineteenth century were generally unsystematic and unregulated, and their teachers, as many Victorian novels attest, were often incompetent and sometimes cruel. After the Industrial Revolution these informal institutions were supplemented by Sunday schools, originally intended for children who worked in the local factories and mines six days a week. These schools were usually run by clergymen and staffed largely by unpaid lady volunteers; and since they were in session only one day a week, all they usually taught were Bible reading and simple arithmetic. Meanwhile many religious denominations had begun to establish schools for the children of their members, some free or relatively inexpensive and some affordable only for the well-to-do.

In the later nineteenth century, following a gradual horrified protest against child labor, and its gradual decline, nondenominational Board schools were established under the British Education Act of 1870. Like the American consolidated schools, they were usually large, substantial brick edifices with big windows and imposing entrances. In Britain they often resembled late Victorian or Edwardian town halls and government offices—a style consciously chosen, according to Burke and Grosvenor, to differentiate them from Anglican Gothic and Nonconformist classicist buildings. The British schools and their playgrounds also tended to be enclosed by high brick walls, which, as Burke and Grosvenor point out, “institutionalized the separation of children from society.” In fact, in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Britain, middle- and upper-class children often lived in a nursery world of their own, eating separately from their parents and sometimes seeing them only once a day.

The modernist movement in British architecture had a powerful and, some would say, unfortunate effect on school architecture after World War II. Many schools had been destroyed by bombing and, according to Burke and Grosvenor, “there was a moral panic about war children being out of control.” More classrooms were needed immediately, and radical modernist architects welcomed the opportunity to design them. This was the period of what is now known as the “New Brutalism” in European architecture, which favored heavy, blocklike construction and rough surfaces—its effects can be seen most easily today in the National Theatre on London’s South Bank. Rushed schedules and limited funds, combined with these new ideas, meant that what were created were often low-cost, cheaply built schools, with rough concrete floors and walls, asbestos ceilings, and “not one single piece of soft material anywhere.” Some architects and educators welcomed these schools, declaring with enthusiasm that in them “there is an utter and refreshing absence of conscious detailing. There are no materials except glass, steel and plaster.”

But the new stripped-down schools, though impressive in photographs, often had serious practical problems. The huge expanses of glass made them hot in the summer and icily cold in the winter, and they were often intolerably noisy and echoing. In the damp gray weather so common in Britain, the rough concrete walls looked dark and hostile, especially when they were soaked with rain, and though advertised as vandal-proof, they were vulnerable to graffiti.

Fortunately, perhaps, lack of funding and cultural conservatism ensured that these schools were relatively rare. Large institutions change slowly, and only a minority of educational authorities will ever have the desire, or the budget, to go all the way with any new design. Teachers began to complain that it was impossible to teach in the new buildings because of the heat or cold, and that they were unpleasantly institutional. Architects began to suggest that, especially for younger children, a school should not resemble a military fort; rather it should look like a private home, with soft carpets and furniture. Changes along these lines began to be made in the later years of the twentieth century, and have continued into the present. Today, though cost-conscious accountants still demand simple, cheap, fixed designs and industrial materials, many British classrooms, especially for the early grades, look relatively cheerful and comfortable.

What we think children are like tends to determine how we educate them, and in what sort of environment. One persistent belief, for example, has been that boys and girls, as well as men and women, are very different—in some cases almost different species.

The British began to separate the sexes in education earlier, and continued more often and for much longer than the Americans did. The American one-room schoolhouse and consolidated school were usually coed. But until the mid-twentieth century many elementary and secondary schools in Britain were single-sex, and this was especially true if they had been established by a religious authority, and/or were what we would call private schools. (One of the many ways in which Harry Potter’s Hogwarts is a fantasy is that though it reproduces the look of the classic British all-male or all-female “public” school, it is coed.)

Mixed-sex schools, in America as well as in Britain, often had separate classrooms and separate playgrounds, with different areas for boys and girls. Typically, the boys’ playground was (and often still is) much bigger than the girls’, silently conveying the message that females are less active than males. Even today, many British schools and classrooms are single-sex.

Both in Britain and in America, a girls’ school, whether public or private, often looked most unlike a boys’ school. It was more apt to resemble a large family home surrounded by porches and gardens, and its playing fields tended to be fewer and more discreetly placed. The implication was that girls were different from boys: less physically active, more sensitive to beauty and nature, and more attached to home, a message often reinforced by a curriculum that emphasized music, art, and courses in the domestic sciences. Laboratories tended to be less well equipped and sometimes even absent.

For many years, even in American consolidated public schools, boys and girls often entered through different doors, sat on different sides of the classroom, and had different areas or times for lunch and recess. In secondary school, girls took home economics and typing and dressmaking; boys took shop and auto mechanics. Boys were also more apt to be encouraged to study math, chemistry, biology, and physics, since girls were thought to be naturally less able to learn these subjects—a view that still persists even in some of our most renowned institutions.

Over the course of the twentieth century, most American public and private schools became coeducational. Recently, however, there has been a counterreformation. In part, it seems to have been a reaction to the discovery that for the first time in our history more girls than boys are graduating from both high school and college. There have been different explanations for this unsettling development. Some feminists have declared that it proves that women are and have always been superior; other experts, however, have concluded that it is the result of the “overfeminization” of contemporary education which, they believe, has become hostile to the natural needs and abilities of boys.

One solution proposed lately has been to separate the sexes again; and as a result, at the beginning of 2008, according to an essay by Elizabeth Weil in The New York Times Magazine, there were forty-nine new single-sex elementary schools in the United States, and many more were being planned. They were promoted as a means of improving the performance of poor black and Latino children, especially boys, in districts where de facto segregation still exists. In these new single-sex schools and classrooms not only teaching methods but the physical environment is very different for boys and girls. Following the recommendations of Leonard Sax, a former family doctor, “the walls of the boys’ classroom” in one Alabama school, for instance, “are painted blue, the light bulbs emit a cool white light and the thermostat is set to 69 degrees. In the girls’ room, by contrast, the walls are yellow, the light bulbs emit a warm yellow light and the temperature is kept six degrees warmer.”

Though these schools will perhaps convince some boys and girls that they are hopelessly different, with unfortunate results (think of the thousands of future marital quarrels over the proper setting of the thermostat), it is not yet clear whether they will increase happiness and educational performance in the long run. The reported gains in morale and test scores may be partly due to the selection process: children in most experimental schools have usually applied for admission, i.e., they have parents who care about their education. There may also be what sociologists know as the Hawthorne Effect—the fact that if you pay more attention to people they tend to do better. New school programs that attract dedicated, enthusiastic teachers and press coverage often succeed—though sometimes only temporarily.

In the past, when both boys and girls were regarded as naturally wild and uncivilized, and in the extreme case as potential imps of Satan, it seemed right that they should be confined and controlled. Most classrooms had fixed rows of desks, sometimes bolted to the floor, facing a platform on which there was a much larger desk and chair for the teacher, who could thus always be on the lookout for bad behavior and ready with a reprimand or, in some cases, physical punishment. The design of the room implied that if kids were not restrained and supervised they would act up, and to judge from many nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century novels and memoirs, many of them did.

A slightly later and more neutral view of childhood, often associated with eighteenth-century rationality and the writings of John Locke, saw the child as a tabula rasa, a blank sheet upon which experience would inscribe not only knowledge but also morals, manners, and ideals. Yet as these views became popular, classroom design usually remained unchanged. The teacher now had even more potential power, since his or her job was to write upon the children’s minds and souls as well as on the blackboard: to watch, direct, question, and judge. The job of the children was to absorb factual and moral lessons and repeat them when called upon. Today, in classrooms that still follow the traditional model, children may also learn that if they refuse to sit quietly and follow instructions, they may be diagnosed with attention deficiency and treated with mood-altering drugs.

The traditional grid-pattern classroom limited action and freedom of association; you were supposed to face forward and pay attention, not squirm around and talk to your friends. This arrangement made it hard for students to help each other and discouraged individual assistance, since when the teacher turned his or her back all the suppressed energy in the room tended to break loose. The implication was that you were on your own in the world and could not expect much aid either from your peers or from the instructor. Classroom design and practice also silently taught that you should strive for individual success, winning spelling bees and gold stars and year-end prizes—in other words that, as Americans, you had both the opportunity and the duty to compete and achieve.

As Sharon Sutton points out in Weaving a Tapestry of Resistance, “public space teaches children their roles in society.”* In many traditional American schools children learned that it was natural for them to be classified by their intellectual aptitude, which was usually defined as the ability to pass written tests. Today, kids who do poorly on these tests, or seem to learn more slowly, may be assigned to a special classroom where they receive “special education” and are seen by their peers and also sometimes by adults as not only different but inferior. This sort of placement is relatively new: in a small nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century school, students were more likely to be allowed to learn at their own pace without being marked out as slow and separated from the others.

The generally age-segregated classrooms of the consolidated school suggested that all the children in a room were essentially similar: that most eight-year-olds, for instance, had similar abilities, skills, and interests. The unconscious lesson was that one should identify with and mainly associate with one’s age-mates, rather than with older or younger people, a pattern that now often continues throughout life, limiting our possibilities for love and friendship.

—This is the first of two articles.

  1. *

    Bergin and Garvey, 1996, p. 2.

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