For three years I sent my children to a school nicknamed “The Prison,” an austere white concrete structure with a forbidding chain-link fence around its roof and a central courtyard packed with school buses pumping out fumes.

We overcame our initial concerns about the building’s design because of the school’s reputation for high-quality teaching, but I have wondered ever since just how important a school’s design is for learning. The architects I spoke to for this column earlier this month (“Thinking outside the white box,” March 3) believe it can have a significant effect, and many education experts agree, but it’s the space inside the classroom that matters most.

According to recent research by Peter Barrett, a professor at Salford University in England who examines the influence of school design on learning, six factors can help boost a pupil’s performance: light, choice, flexibility, connection, complexity and color. Specifically, this includes whether a learning environment has: natural light coming in from more than one direction; open spaces to encourage people to connect and interact; flexible classroom configurations; balanced but not overdone visual displays; ergonomic and student-friendly furnishings; and age-appropriate wall and flooring coloration.

Such findings are significant because children spend half their waking day in classrooms, and considering schools face increasing societal pressure to improve educational results. Erin Robinson, principal of the middle school (grades six to nine) at Nishimachi International School in Tokyo, believes the physical environments in which we place our students can transform learning. “Space is more important than we give it credit for — the space is really the container for the learning.” Barrett firmly believes that school design decisions should be based on evidence and not “just on historical precedent or people’s personal predilections.”

Ideally, schools should be purpose-built to accommodate the varied learners they support, says Robinson. “I think classroom flexibility is important — there is not one size fits all, and the makeup of the kids is different from year to year. Subject units are different — they may require collaboration, presentations, technology. Changes happen day to day, so for teachers to be adaptive to kids’ needs, they need flexible spaces, and they should not be adult-convenient.”

An examination of the physical classroom says a lot about the learning that takes place inside. For example, a classroom with desks clustered into islands and whiteboards on each wall show that active student-focused and more individualistic learning is taking place. Classrooms where desks are placed in rows facing a single chalkboard, like in a typical Japanese classroom, suggest teacher-centered learning. Classroom set-ups can also reveal whether individuality or community is prioritized, if technology is integrated into lessons and if interdisciplinary learning is occurring.

Classrooms are configured by teachers to support the learning they hope to achieve. Classroom design is “very personal to each teacher,” says Robinson. “It really reflects their educational philosophy and their values.”

In the case of Japan, the typical public school throughout the country is the white concrete building, commonly referred to as “the harmonica” by virtue of its rectangular shape and rows of square classrooms. The priority in constructing these schools was speed-to-completion after much of urban Japan was razed in World War II.

Ryoko Kurakazu, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Engineering’s Design Department at the Chiba Institute of Technology, conducts workshops with a team of researchers for Japanese teachers on how best to arrange classrooms and other areas to encourage more individualized learning — one of the Ministry of Education’s goals. For example, for a streamed math class — one taught by grouping students by ability — classrooms, corridors and stairwells can be set up as different activity zones for activities such as puzzle-solving, teacher grading, group work and completing worksheets. Kurakazu also works with schools to reconfigure empty classrooms — which are becoming increasingly common as the youth population shrinks — into customized teaching spaces rather than the glorified storerooms they have become at many schools.

Newer isn’t necessarily better, Barrett stresses, and parents should be wary that “in-fashion school designs do not necessarily produce the goods.” Instead, he says, “We should be looking at the physical classroom and what is happening inside.”

Since 1984, the Ministry of Education has been advocating more modern and flexible open-plan school designs. However, only 10 percent of Japan’s public schools reflect this new approach, having either been built or rebuilt in the past 30 years. And even within these schools, students can be shortchanged when teachers do not know how to use these spaces.

“Because both teachers and principals can rotate between schools as often as every three to four years, they are not properly trained when placed in an open-plan school,” says Kurakazu. Teachers also tend to forgo voluntary training sessions because they believe their time at work is better invested elsewhere, studies have shown.

In our March 3 column, Learning Curve looked at some of the schools at the cutting edge of this trend toward open-plan schooling. But Naomi Pollack — a mother, architect and architectural critic — is concerned that such schools might be moving too fast for their own good.

“In Japan, as the pedagogy begins to change, it seems there are architects that are exploring other ways of organizing space,” Pollack explains, “but I can’t tell to what extent it’s appropriate for architecture to be reflecting these changes — or are the buildings being created with the hopes that the teachers would learn how to use them?” Ideally, she argues, design should reflect the individual school’s teaching methods and goals, with teachers working hand-in-hand with the architects in designing the spaces they will use.

One example of a purpose-built school is Hiroo Gakuen, a private junior and senior high school in Tokyo that was rebranded in 2007 and then rebuilt in line with the school’s new high-tech philosophy. All students are required to have an iPad or a MacBook Air, the entire school is wired for Wi-Fi and each classroom is fitted with a ceiling-mounted projector for whiteboard presentations.

“The goal is to shift learning and put control into the hands of each student, so the student has an incentive to learn,” explains Vice Principal Tomikazu Ikeda. For example, in a junior-high English class that focuses on speaking, three apps are used as tools to teach pronunciation. For homework, students record their spoken English and the teacher listens to each uploaded assignment. In class, students can type in answers that are then immediately projected and shared with the entire class for correction and discussion.

Robert Bright, a teacher in the international section of the school, explained how students and teachers can interact in school and from home through the online Moodle platform, which holds lesson plans, tests and student progress-tracking tools. The school also uses Google+, Google Docs and Kahn Academy for a “flipped classroom” experience — where the lesson is done at home, leaving what used to be homework for class time, with the teacher supervising.

To further support its goal of encouraging individual thinking, the school requires its medical- and science-track students to conduct independent research. Its science labs were designed to accommodate university-level lab equipment, from a planetarium to a cell-regeneration incubator. Hiroo Gakuen’s innovative approach to teaching and learning stands out in a country where teacher-centered chalk-to-board methods are still the norm.

All this is not to say that the overall school design is insignificant, because this is patently not the case. Ideally, students should feel excited about going to school, and welcomed and inspired by the overall environment. And how classrooms are grouped within a school — by grade or subject matter, for example — affects the way students and teachers interact with one another.

However, ultimately, in line with the school’s overall approach to learning, teachers need to know how to maximize their space to get the most out of their students, and schools should be designed to meet the needs of their specific student populations. While a good educator may be able to teach effectively in any environment, give them the proper tools and training and their students will be even more likely to thrive.

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