I’ve always felt that the physical environment of educational institutions — their colours, their spaces, their architecture — is one of the least-considered elements in the constellation of educational “success factors,” though possibly the most pervasive one.
Take, for example, the graduate program in which I'm currently completing my PhD. Just before I began my degree, the Faculty of Education—in which my program is housed—was moved from a concrete tower in the centre of campus to a newly-renovated college building. This seemed like a fine plan; however, it wasn’t long after joining the program that I realized the re-design had been a failure. While the Pre-Service Department was housed on the airy, welcoming ground floor, the graduate students’ space, consisting primarily of a computer lab, was relegated to the basement. This separated the grad students from the Graduate Program office and faculty—who were now sequestered on the second floor.
You might be wondering: other than the inconvenience of stair-climbing, what’s wrong with this arrangement? Everyone is housed in the same building, at least, and it looks clean and efficient thanks to the renovation job.
The first problem is that while grad students can probably work in almost any room with a computer, housing them in the basement—which is referred to as “The Dungeon” by some program members—is a poor choice because they will spend more time in this room than most other students will spend on the ground floor. Providing a pleasant working environment means more people will use the lab facilities, and it gives grad students an additional reason to come to the department from off-campus. At a large and isolated commuter campus like ours, this is important, because it helps to create a communal environment and to foster the social and peer support that is so vital to graduate student success.
The second problem relates to the same issue: physically separating faculty members from graduate students makes it more difficult for students to have informal, serendipitous and social contact with professors. So assigning graduate student space to the basement, in a room which is well-equipped but sterile and detached, means adding distance to the existing (non-physical) chasm that often separates students from faculty. Not that the faculty space is well-designed either—it’s standard academic architecture, a loop of corridor lined on each side with offices, following the shape of the building. Most of the office doors are closed.
Part of keeping students in a program, keeping them “engaged” with classes and faculty and other students, involves creating a space where they can feel welcome and included. I feel strongly that educational architecture—the “place” of education—contributes to the kind of educational experience we have, from grade school all the way to the doctoral degree. Institutional architecture sends a message, and affects messages sent; it expresses an idea about the function of the environment it helps create. In the documentary How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand suggests that while buildings may indeed “learn,” people also learn from buildings; our practices and habits, even our feelings, are shaped by our environments—and thus so is the work we do within them.
Amid the current cuts and crises in higher education, it may sound trite to offer this kind of critique. But with graduate school attrition generally hovering around 50%, universities should be taking more seriously the research about what helps students adapt to university life and to academic culture. The effects of physical space are very real. I think it’s no coincidence that in our program, students often find it difficult to “meet” a supervisor. After all, there are few real in-person opportunities to do so, outside of planned events and the classroom—relatively formal occasions.
While we can’t necessarily change the buildings we’re in, we can be sensitive to their use, to our adaptation to the context provided. And we can ask ourselves questions. What would the building look like if we began by asking how people learn? How do people meet each other and form learning relationships? If you could design your own workspace, your own learning space, what would it look like and why? This need not involve a major reconstruction project. If the university had taken these things into account before renovating our program space, the same amount could have been spent and things might have looked, and felt, very different.