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Optimal Learning Environments: Societal expectations, learning goals and the role of school designers


Optimal Learning Environments: Societal expectations, learning goals and the role of school designers

by Bukky Akinsanmi,

SHW Group, Dallas TX

Contrary to popular opinion, schools have changed and are consistently changing (Whittle, 2006; Wagner, 2003). Schools, the total socio-cultural, intellectual, institutional and physical environment in which learning takes place, have evolved with fluctuating and expanding societal expectations for centuries. These expectations drive the learning goals adopted by educational systems and coincide with the development of new learning theories. School curriculums often evolve to accommodate societal expectations but are hindered by unresponsive physical contexts such as dated and nonflexible physical facilities. This article, the second part of a series on designing optimal learning environments, explores the effects of societal expectations on schools and investigates the relationship among societal expectations, learning goals and the learning theories that undergird schools. It also provides practical ideas that can help designers of physical learning environments create flexible and responsive physical contexts – an important feature of an optimal learning environment.

Societal Expectations and the School

Classical Antiquity (800 BC– AD 600)

The word ‘school’, derived from the Greek word ‘schole’, originally meant ‘leisure’ – a meaning devoid of boredom, pressure and anxiety that are now a part of today’s school experience. It later evolved to mean a place of ‘otiose (leisurely) discussion’ and also referred to a group of people holding similar thoughts or opinions about issues (Liddell & Scott, 1995). Schools in classical antiquity were places where students received ‘general preparation for citizenship and adulthood’ (Coulson, 1996). At that time, parents taught their children whatever they knew and sent them to school to learn subjects they felt unqualified to teach (Freeman, 1904). Schools operated as private ventures; anyone could start a school and set any curriculum and tuition, depending on what parents wanted their children to learn and how much they were willing to pay.
Parents had the autonomy to select teachers for their children and did so very carefully (Plato, 1937). The curriculum often required by parents consisted of gymnastics, music, and literacy. In gymnastics students developed strength, stamina and agility – survival skills needed in an era of frequent wars and society expected every able-bodied man to be in the army. Musical skills were valuable because Grecian cultural history had been handed down orally through songs for centuries, and literacy was becoming important to the fledging judicial and political system of Ancient Greece. The instruction for music and literacy often occurred in the same building, but special facilities were created for gymnastics; these facilities were called ‘Palaestra’ and consisted of a series of changing rooms, storage, classrooms and colonnaded playing fields (Coulson, 1996). Drawing and painting later became a core part of the curriculum as parents increasingly demanded it (Marrou, 1965). Evidently, parental demands and societal expectations determined the curriculum and learning goals even in the earliest schools.
Palaestra at Olympia, Greece
(above) Palaestra at Olympia, Greece

Middle Ages (500 AD – 1600 AD)

Formal education in the middle ages was spear-headed by religious organizations and occurred in cathedrals, chantries and monasteries. The clergy provided instruction and the rudimentary curriculum consisted of religious education and literacy in Latin. With the invention of the printing press, books became readily available in Europe and the demand for literacy in the common languages of the people such as German increased. The clergy schools opposed teaching in these languages and private schools emerged to meet the popular demand (Coulson, 1996). On the other hand, artisan guilds ran vocational schools which were attended by poorer students after completing a few years in the clergy schools. The parents had the autonomy to select the vocational school and the curriculum content of their choice. The vocational schools remained stable while most of the clergy schools eventually came under the supervision of city councils; the townspeople, who often donated to the schools’ educational funds, wanted a proportionate influence in the curriculum and staffing issues (Coulson, 1996). The religious educational system had learning goals that did not align with societal expectations and ultimately gave way during the reformation (Paulsen, 1908). Around this time, tax-funded, government-run educational systems emerged in Europe resulting in increased external regulations in schools and decreased parental influence.
Ancient Monastery in England2
(above) Ancient Monastery in England

Modern Era (1600 AD – 1900 AD)

The modern era saw a steady increase in the control governments exerted over schools. An era fraught with political instability, each ruling power sought to control the populace through legislation in the schools, to the detriment of the students. The English Monarchy chose to control religious views by enforcing sectarian religion-based curriculum in state-funded schools while the revolutionary government in France used legislation to sever all ties between religion and education (Chevallier, Grosperrin, & Maillet, 1969). State-funded schools in England – called grammar schools because they taught Latin – continued with a version of the middle-aged religious curriculum and became irrelevant to the emerging middle class which thrived on trade and commerce. By the 18th century, private schools proliferated and taught a variety of subjects (English, Mathematics, Astronomy, Geography, Anatomy, Biology, Book-keeping, Economics, Surveying, etc) that were pertinent to the needs of the commercial and professional middle class (Lawson & Silver, 1973; Coulson, 1996). Due to two societal influences – government regulation and employment opportunities – enrollment declined severely at the state-funded grammar schools while a wide variety of innovative private schools, whose learning goals aligned with the current societal expectations, flourished (Lawson & Silver, 1973).
Hertford Grammar School, Hertfordshire, England
(above) Hertford Grammar School, Hertfordshire, England

An innovative school that gained a lot of traction in the late 18th and early 19th century was the monitorial school, developed by Joseph Lancaster (1778 – 1838). Later known in the United States as the one-room schoolhouse, the monitorial school utilized a delegate system where the smarter students (monitors) taught the day’s lesson to smaller groups of students after receiving tutelage from the master teacher (Labaree, 1999). The curriculum was relevant and the system was economic, integrated and effective. Education became more accessible to the poor and enrollment in these schools was high. The system was soon replicated by others and was imported into the United States.
One-room School House in Michigan
(above) One-room School House in Historical Michigan

Post-Modern Era (1900 – Till Date)

An organized system of public education did not exist in the United States until the mid 19th century. Pilgrims who arrived as far back as the 17th century reverted to the ancient Athenian method where parents taught their children at home. As the nation grew, private schools were established particularly for the wealthy and the one-room schoolhouse (monitorial) system was adopted (Labaree, 1999). It was not until 1840 that Horace Mann (1796 – 1859) of Massachusetts began to advocate for a state-funded public education system which later came with state-regulated assessment. He sold this idea from an economic point of view; he informed business owners that they would get better workers if they paid for public education. Local businesses, merchants and wealthier artisans supported the idea but wage earners were reluctant. Employers needed a disciplined workforce who were prepared for the jobs of the industrial revolution and expected the school system to provide it (Butt, 1978). By the late 19th century, the school system had modified its learning goals as well as the design of its physical learning environment to accommodate these societal expectations. School design transformed from the one-room schoolhouse to a linear and sequential layout similar to factories where the students would eventually work (Bennett & LeCompte, 1990).
Three forms of societal expectations – parental demands, external regulations and employer needs – have influenced the learning goals adopted in historical schools. Parental influence and requirements directed the core curriculum heavily in classical antiquity and external regulations from religious organizations and governments played key roles in the middle ages and the modern era. Though the established school systems embraced the earlier external regulations in both periods, they resisted later changes in the societal expectations to their own demise. The post-modern era schools had learning goals that were driven by the need for workers during the industrial revolution and embraced change in its facilities, structure, teaching methods, and philosophy.

Learning Goals and Learning Theories in the 21st Century

History has shown that society’s expectation of school graduates’ competencies influences the learning goals adopted in educational systems. Learning goals evolved with society’s needs and its evolutionary timeline corresponds with the proliferation of learning theories. The heyday of behaviorism coincides with the early twentieth century curriculum which was marked by imitation and rote learning. The curriculum had a limited range of subjects and required a lot of discipline and memorization – desirable skills in factory workers of that era. Cognitivism, prominent in the late twentieth century was accompanied by an expansion in curriculum to include tasks and activities that required cognitive input from learners. The curriculum became less classical and more practical (Goldin, 2001) so that graduates could take up white-collar jobs that were available across the nation.
Constructivism, which also began in the second half of the twentieth century, did not gain mainstream attention until recent times. It was unable to penetrate the foundation of traditional schools but led to the increased creation of independent and alternative schools. These schools have curriculums that are more flexible, driven by students’ interests, provide more opportunities for social interactions and promote learning by doing. The increase in the availability of these kinds of schools reflects the more recent evolution of society’s expectations of graduates’ competencies in the 21st century.
In 2002, The Partnership for 21st Century Skills identified six new learning goals (in addition to traditional core subjects) that graduates of secondary school education in the United States must attain in order to remain competitive in a global economy. These areas include critical thinking, ability to solve open-ended multidisciplinary problems, creativity and entrepreneurial thinking, communication and collaboration skills, innovative use of knowledge, information and opportunities as well as the ability to take charge of financial, health and civic responsibilities – all skills that emerging constructivist learning theories help students achieve.
Societal expectations and emergent learning theories are, therefore, indicators of the changes a school system may need to respond to in order to remain relevant. The socio-cultural, institutional and intellectual environments of school systems are amenable to change, but the physical learning environments are not. Over 50% of school facilities in the United States were estimated to be at least 40 years old in 2001 , at least 10 years above the average life span of a building. It is difficult to adapt these facilities to support new trends in educational philosophy and suggests that schools have not changed. Designing school facilities based on current needs alone creates new antiquated and obsolete facilities. In order to create optimal learning environments, school designers need to design with change in mind.

The Role of School Designers: Designing For Change

Designers of physical learning environments can look to societal expectations and emerging learning theories to determine the possible use of school facilities in the future. Designing with those trends in mind will help create facilities that accommodate change more easily. It will influence not just the building program and spatial configuration, but also the choice of materials, construction details and specifications as well as the overall aesthetics. It will prevent school facilities from becoming obsolete before they are built. Designers will engage in timeless design, which takes cognizance of a school’s context – the community’s history, heritage, values, identity, physical site, locally available materials and construction techniques – and resolve design problems within this framework and the future.
History shows that some school systems embrace change while others wait for change to happen. Many school districts today, prepare for and direct change by working with school planning services such as the Cambridge Strategic Services in Dallas, TX. Cambridge works with school districts and their communities to develop strategic plans that consolidate their highest hopes and aspirations while acknowledging possible setbacks. Such plans should be made available to school designers (especially architects) so that they can design to the district’s highest aspirations. Great design, flexibility and creativity can be achieved even within the persistent constraints of time and budget in the school design industry. School districts without strategic plans should endeavor to develop one.
Above all, designing for change in school facilities is a moral imperative. A school facility in the United States will influence the lives of thousands of children and adults in its average 40-year life span. It may remain in use even when all the key decision makers in its design process are long gone. It can impact the attitude of a generation towards learning and is a cause bigger than a designer’s need to create a self-glorifying inflexible edifice. School designers should bear in mind the original meaning of the word school – leisure and design from mindset of ‘a place for leisure’.

Next Installment:

Optimal Learning Environments: The School Design Process: What role does the current model of the school design process play in creating optimal learning environments?


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Chevallier, P., Grosperrin, B., & Maillet, J. (1969). L’Enseignment Francais de la Revolution a nos jours. Editions Moutons .
Coulson, A. (1996). Market Versus Monopolies in Education: The Historical Evidence. Education Policy Analysis Archives , 4 (9).
Freeman, K. (1904). Schools of Hellas. New York: Teacher’s College Press.
Labaree. (1999). The Chronic Failure of Curriculum Reform. Education Week , 18, 42.
Lawson, J., & Silver, H. (1973). A Social History of Education in England. London: Butleer and Tanner Ltd.
Liddell, H. G., & Scott, R. (1995). A Greek-English Lexicon (9th Edition ed.). USA: Oxford University Press.
Marrou, H. (1965). Histoire de l’education dan l’antiquite. Paris: Editions du seuil.
Paulsen, F. (1908). The German Universities and University Study. London: Longmans.
Plato. (1937). Protagoras. In B. Jowett, The Dialogue of Plato. New York: Random House.
Resnick, D. P., & Resnick, L. B. (1977). The Nature of Literacy: An Historical Exploration. Havard Educational Review , 47 (3), 370 -385.
US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics; The Digest of Education Statistics, 2001
Wagner, T. (2003, May). Reinventing American Schools. Phi Delta Kappan .
Whittle, C. (2006). Dramatic Growth is Possible. Education Next , 6 (2).

Photo Credits:

Palaestra at Olympia, Greece retrieved on 11/15/08 from:
Hertford Grammar School, Hertfordshire, England retrieved on 11/15/08 from:
One-room School House in Historical Michigan, retrieved on 11/15/08 from:
Ancient Monastery in England retrieved on 11/15/08 from:

December 12th, 2008

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