The Message of the Schoolroom


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…

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