Beauty Matters

Why are schools such uninspiring spaces? They have become sterile places that use ordinary materials, flourescent lighting, and, generally speaking, do not inspire greatness.  They are run of the mill and feel more like prisons than anything else (I know I am being overly dramatic, but this is my blog and I am exercising that freedom).   What message does that send to students?  Do these ordinary spaces make them feel like education is valued by the community, or like it is a necessary evil like the DMV?  Do our school buildings send the message that we value our students? Our teachers?  I would argue that our schools paint a very different picture.  Most schools across America (I can’t speak to other places in the world) give the feeling of a factory.  Don’t get me wrong, teachers have prettied them up with bulletin boards and student work, but the overall feeling inside a school is that it is a temporary space that we are moving students through.  The tables in the cafeteria fold up, the desks are meant to out last a nuclear bomb, and the chairs are uncomfortable uniform plastic that can be wiped down easily.  Nothing about most schools makes you feel special, or like you might like to sit down and read a book or learn something there.  The only thing most schools inspire is how to tell time so students can count the minutes until they can escape for the day.  Think about it, the majority of schools in the US don’t look much different from when you were in school.  Even when they are remodeled, the feeling of the building doesn’t change all that much.  How many of you remember thinking “I wish I could go back to my fourth grade classroom and just curl up with a good book?” *Crickets*  Me too, I would not choose to go sit and read in my fourth grade classroom for anything.

I don’t think this was always the case, it seems to me that there was a time where the architecture of a school mattered, where schools were beautiful places because education was prestigious and important.  The architecture of the building mattered because a message was being sent that this was an important place to be.  I see very few schools that invoke a feeling of importance.  Even if the outside of the building is a beautiful space, as soon as you walk through the hallways you know this is, without a doubt, a school.  What if our schools were beautiful again?  What if we used the school building to show our students, teachers, community that learning is valued, that what happens in a school is special and inspired?  What if schools were more than just a place for students to learn, but were also places that the community wanted to come and learn?  What if the school was a place you might like to go sit and read?

I think that beauty does matter, I think that when you sit somewhere that is aesthetically pleasing it makes you want to stay a while and inspires you.   I think that if you have a cozy place to read, you are more likely to enjoy reading.  It is all about the experience of reading, the experience of learning.  What is the first thing we all say on a cold rainy day, “I wish I could stay in bed all day and read a good book.”  Anyone want to go sit at school and read a good book?  No.  Why? Because it is uninspiring, it is uncomfortable, and worst of all it sucks the joy right out of the reading.  Bookstores and Starbucks are popular places to sit and work because we enjoy the experience of sitting and working there.

Last year, I did a year-long project with my students.  I asked them to describe their dream school to me; if school could be anything, look like anything, feel like anything, what would it be?  You know the first thing every one of them would change?  The aesthetics of the building.  Most of them wished for spaces that looked more like Googleplex or Pixar.  They wanted spaces that felt creative and fun.  They wanted piano stairs and lunch tables that looked like the periodic table of elements.  Not one of them wanted chairs.

There has been a lot of buzz lately about the $578 million school that has been built-in LA (yes, that is one school).  It is the costliest school in the nation and it is incredible.  It looks like a place you would want to spend time.  Just because a school is beautiful doesn’t mean that the learning there will be better, but it will show students that education is worth spending money on.  It will make students and teachers want to spend time there.  It will send a message to the community that learning is important.  For that reason, beauty matters.

Today I read a blog post by Sparky Teaching on why school environments matter, there is a beautiful poem about why environments matter that has been transformed into a video.  I recommend you take a look at it!  I also got my copy of American School and University today, it is their special edition that comes out once a year on Educational Interiors.  The schools are beautiful, there are some truly innovative things being done, but I am a little disappointed that the school still hasn’t been completely re-imagined.  The classrooms still have desks, there is still a board of some type at the front of the classroom.  Can’t we do better?  Can’t we take a hint from Google and Pixar and do a complete rethink?

Here is my re-imagination of a school:

  • Light! Why don’t schools have more natural light?  Why in the world do we still use fluorescent lights (seriously, no one looks good in that lighting, we all look like the living dead under fluorescent lights!)  Why don’t we have beautiful pendants and mood lighting in the library that makes it feel like a cozy place to read?
  • Flexible learning spaces.  I really like that I get to choose where I get to sit and work as an adult (at least when I am home).  When I was a kid my favorite place to work was on the floor on my stomach.  I hated sitting at a table to work, probably because I had sat at an uncomfortable desk all day at school.  I really liked a particular spot in my hallway where our ceiling was tall, there was a lot of natural light, and all of the architecture of our house met.  It felt special, my spot. We need spaces all over the school where students can go and work, then we need to give them the freedom to work there.
  • Libraries that feel more like bookstores.  I don’t know about you but the bookstore is one of my all time favorite places to be.  I love the smell of the books, the comfortable chairs scattered between bookshelves in little nooks, the dark woods.  I want my libraries to display books the way a bookstore does, advertising them to me, enticing me to read them.  I want my elementary library to feel like the kid section at Barnes and Nobel.  Like I have just fallen through a rabbit hole and right into the middle of a story.  What if school libraries were connected to the community library, housed in the same building but separated for security?  What if all of the community came to the school to learn and to read?  What if students saw the love of reading first hand?
  • Cafeterias, yuck! Why do all cafeterias make me want to hold my nose and gobble my food as quickly as possible so that I can escape outside?  Why don’t cafeterias look more like a 5 star dining experience?  Why don’t we use the dining experience at school to teach kids how to share a meal?  Why don’t we have family style meals where kids put their napkins in their laps, pass food around the table, ask to be excused when they are finished?  We take these niceties for granted as adults but not all kids have those experiences at home to teach them.  Most kids eat in front of the TV, in between after school activities, or by themselves as mom and dad rush around.
  • Finishes- The finishes of a school are SO bad. That awful ugly carpet and linoleum floor combination, cinderblocks, dated brick, and GRAY.  Uninspiring, depressing, prison like.  With the technology of today you can’t tell me that laminate wood flooring wouldn’t hold up just as well…there must be a better solution!  Bring in some natural materials that reflect the place where the school is.  I’m in Colorado, let’s see some beautiful rock, and wood, and color.  Let’s put in big windows that let in plenty of light and take advantage of whatever view is available.
  • Art- Let’s add art to our building, real art.  Many schools took advantage of the Picturing America collection in their schools, let’s frame them beautifully and put them on display prominently in the building.  Let’s make it feel like an art gallery.  There is a school in the School and University this month (Rochester Institute of Technology) that has a gorgeous round glass enclosed art gallery room.  The glass has quotes etched on it and paintings can be seen no matter where you are in the building.  There are study areas and places to sit in the gallery.  Every school should have an area so beautiful and inspiring.

    As much as I love decorating bulletin boards can we get rid of them?  I would much rather see student work displayed in a nice frame that makes it feel special and appreciated, decorating the halls, the classrooms, the cafeteria, the office, and library.

  • Outdoor spaces- Schools should have courtyards full of life.  They should have gardens that are cared for by students, places to sit, labyrinths to walk around, fountains, and tables to eat at.  (My thoughts on gardens is a post within itself.)
  • Music- Hallways, cafeterias, and shared spaces should be filled with beautiful music that speaks to the soul.  Kids don’t get enough classical in their cartoons any more, let’s give it to them in their schools instead.

Have you ever been in a really beautiful space that just makes you want to sit and soak it in?  For me that usually happens in nature but it also happens when I am surrounded by art, incredible architecture, or any kind of good design.  Schools should be that place.  Creativity should flourish in there.

I’ll leave you with a TED Talk by Bill Strickland who shares my philosophy that beauty matters, the piano is a little distracting (a bit loud) but the message is well worth it!

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11 comments

  1. So, so, so true. Thanks for putting it so well.
    I whine a lot about our library space. Middle of a major hallway … no walls and on a slow day 1400 feet walking through (on a SLOW day).
    I want people to feel welcome, but seriously. I can barely keep a coherent thought in my head and I’m not five trying to listen to a story. Or eight trying to learn how to use an online database. Or ten and not sure if I like reading or not but trying to pick out a book that might be “the” book, anyway.
    Going to work on the whining and check out your links. ;]

  2. I love this post! I have spent days making my room look like a fun place! I even had a teacher ask me why I bother! After reading this I feel better!! I agree that we need to do all we can to make the students want to learn and part of that is being creative with my space!!

  3. Lots to think about here. True, so true. I used to love to read at my grandparents’ house where we lived scrunged up in a little private spot beside the hot air register and between a table and the wall. I used to read for hours there, interrupted periodically by a grandparent/great aunt advising me to turn on the lights! I didn’t need the light then and only now understand why they kept telling me that 😉

  4. Great post. This is so true. Schools many times do not look or sound like students are the center. The interesting thing about it is that it wouldn’t cost more money to make schools more kid friendly. It would just take a different way of thinking. Let’s start by having kids design the bulletin boards, set up classrooms and post their work as they decide. Let’s teach them to talk in the hallways and allow them to express their excitement. Again, great post.

  5. That’s why when I started at my current school my first job was to convince the powers that be to give me some money for a library renovation. And what a difference some paint and new furniture made, along with a new layout!

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