Effective Education: Turning the Classroom Inside Out
By Indira Dutt
s a child at school I remember sitting in a stuffy portable looking out the window to the field and houses beyond. I felt constrained: my seat was attached to the desk, the classroom was just barely big enough to fit all of us, the windows were small, and the air was stale. I also remember the playground outside. I played hide and seek in the small stand of trees beside the field; I helped friends pile up the leaves in the fall and we all jumped in; I imagined an extraordinary museum of found objects–we made displays of the natural oddities that intrigued us and told stories about each treasure.
The two sides of the portable wall felt inexorably different and though I did well in school I was often wrangy in the classroom, wanting a little more of the freedom I felt when I was outside. Funny then that I should chose a career that keeps bringing me back into classrooms.
As a teacher I notice that, when the outside and inside feel completely separate, there is a problem. My teaching needs to be both connected and applicable to the everyday lives of my students and they need to feel free enough to be creative and capacious in their thinking so they can meaningfully participate in their education.
The literal and metaphorical notions of the outdoors are vital for me and so I work to soften the edge between inside and out.
One way I can do this is by creating and embellishing meaningful indoor–outdoor relationships. Connections between indoor spaces and outdoor areas are important “so that the outdoors becomes a natural extension of indoor learning” (Nair, Fielding & Lackney, 2009, p.111). This area of school design is sometimes overlooked or minimized by architects and educators, and this negatively influences students’ relationships to the natural world (Taylor, Aldrich & Vlastos, 1988).
Indoor–outdoor interfaces facilitate indoor–outdoor relationships. These interfaces are points, areas or surfaces that serve as a juncture between the inside and outside of a building. They include features that provide connection to the outdoors such as windows, skylights, natural building materials, aquariums, plants, interior living walls and porches. Even multimedia devices connected to the outside world via the Internet can bridge the gap between interior and exterior.
In 2009 I conducted a qualitative study that explored how intermediate students’ experience of the natural world was mediated by the design of their school building. My study site was the Bowen Island Community School (BICS) located on Bowen Island, a 20-minute commute by ferry from West Vancouver. The school was built on public land, parceled out of west coast rainforest. There are numerous large cedars and Douglas firs surrounding the property. I worked with grade six and seven students at BICS and collected data from two focus groups, semi-structured interviews, photographs and field notes.
One of the major findings of this study was that a school occupant’s experience of being inside their school building extends beyond the physical boundaries of the structure. When I asked students about their experience inside the school, they repeatedly spoke about the school grounds.
From a child’s perspective the whole school site as well as the school’s immediate A school occupant’s experience ofbeing inside their school building extends beyond the physical boundaries of the structure surroundings is a substantive part of their school experience. As well as being drawn to the outside, students expressed the significance of their sense of freedom, joy and beauty. Despite a focus on the fixed structure of the school building and school grounds, the student interviews were saturated with instances in which students reflected that indoor–outdoor connections deepened their freedom of movement, solitude, expression and imagination as well as the freedom to take mini-breaks from work. At BICS these instances of freedom were always associated with their connection to the exterior of the building. Students also recounted joy and places of beauty as critical in their learning.
I believe that my experience as a child varies little from students today. It is no surprise to any of us who have spent time in the classroom with children (of any age) that students’ attention is often drawn away from the topic or task at hand. I think that as teachers we get caught up in expending energy on refocusing, directingand corralling our students into the confines of the classroom, when instead we could find ways to capitalize on students’ desire to move outside. At times this movement is literal, but students’ imaginations can and do take them out in a figurative sense as well.
At BICS, teachers work with the imaginative drive and thirst for freedom that children have. The teachers at BICS incorporate the indoor–outdoor interfaces into the teaching process; they use the view from their classroom windows to highlight relevant elements of curriculum and they bring the children out into the hallway to stand or sit under the skylight and talk about the clouds outside. There is an active engagement with the outdoors from within the structure of the school.
While BICS is situated in what some might consider an idyllic teaching environment, certain aspects of the BICS students’ experience can be generalized to any location, rural or urban. If we can acknowledge the importance of freedom in the life of our students we can start to embrace and incorporate the interfaces to which we have access instead of thinking of classroom windows as distractions and covering them up using blinds or construction paper.
As a part of my research, I asked 55 grade six and seven students to draw an ideal school building, one that they thought would foster their connection with the natural world. I asked them to label important features they included. The most dominant features of these drawings were plants and animals. During my study I found that students expressed great joy witnessing the complete life cycle of plants. At BICS students could see the garden from their large classroom window. One student exclaimed, “It’s fun to watch everything [in the garden] because you go in the beginning of the year and there are little sprouts and then you go later and there are big shoots and stuff.” At a more urban school in Toronto each class grows a different kind of seed (grade one grows peppers while grade two grows tomatoes) and later in the spring they transplant their seedlings into the garden. In both these examples students develop relationships with food they eat in addition to having an indoor–outdoor connection.
When resources permit, adding indoor–outdoor interfaces by creating a “living things zone” (Nair, Fielding & Lackney, 2009) can delight students and inspire observation and investigation. I noticed students would consistently gather around a seaquarium in the foyer at BICS and watch the sea creatures inside. One student exclaimed with joy, “You don’t see a seaquarium everyday. It’s my favourite. Sea cucumbers, yeah, they spit out their guts for protection.” Students used their excitement about sea creatures and ability to watch them for long periods of time to write daily observations and creative stories in their journals.
Living things zones can include elements such as plants, sprouts, a window farm, living walls, an aquarium and small animals. In some Waldorf classes, one daily routine (first and last thing of day) consists of each child retrieving their potted plant from a table top, bringing it to their desk for the day and then putting their plant back on the tabletop at the end of the day, watering it when need be. Each child sees their plant change over time, while having something small for which they are responsible, and they always have a living thing close at hand. Even this very small and relatively easy version of a living thing zone has a profound effect on students.
If we take a broader view of nature, and humans’ place within it, we might even conceive that the very busy urban street below a school window has natural lessons waiting to be learned. Rich conversations result when we explore what is happening beyond the walls of the classroom regardless of where our school is situated.
With our students’ best interests in mind we can utilize existing indoor–outdoor interfaces to enhance curriculum. While I feel a particular affinity for green spaces and places where dirt and water and clean air are easily accessed, in reality many schools occupy sites with precious little green or naturalized space. We can find ways to incorporate the nature outside, be it the trees or the bustle of humanity on city streets, in our classrooms to create an expanded sense of freedom and joy in our students.
Nair, P., Fielding, R. & Lackney, J. (2009). The language of school design: Design patterns for 21st century schools. Rev. ed. Minneapolis, MI: DesignShare.
Taylor, A., Aldrich, R.A. & Vlastos, G. (1988). Architecture can teach … and the lessons are rather fundamental. In Context, 18(Winter), 31–38.
Wilson, E.O. (1993). Biophilia and the conservation ethic. In S.R. Kellert and E.O. Wilson (Eds.), The biophilia hypothesis (31–41). Washington, DC: Island Press.
Indira Dutt is a graduate of the Center for Cross-Faculty (Architecture and Education) Inquiry in Education at University of British Columbia. She is currently participating in a Participatory Design Process at Cassandra Public School and working at Outward Bound, Evergreen Brickworks. This article was originally published in Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education 2010 23(2).