… and then our structures shape us

Clay Burell has guest blogger Bill Farren discussing the hidden curriculum of school architectural design. He asks what hidden messages are our schools themselves asking by their inherent design:

  • Did the building’s designers take into consideration its location?
  • Who decided how (if) it should be built?
  • Does the building make an attempt to connect students with their outside world?
  • What does the formal, intentional curriculum teach?
  • How is this formal, intentional curriculum taught?
  • How is the school run?
  • How is security portrayed?
  • What is sold or advertised on campus?

I was reminded of the critical nature of school design this week when I received an invitation to the School Building Expo in Chicago (April 1-3), which I passed on to the Department of Education, considering that they’re hiring a future school infrastructure analyst.

There was an article I read many years ago, but don’t see cited very often, about designing learning environments. It’s Rodney Fulton’s SPATIAL model (1991) [my emphasis added]:

While a body of knowledge does exist that documents the relationships between learning and physical environment, there are problems that need to be resolved before the present level of understanding can be systematically advanced. One problem is that common vocabulary does not exist. Thus, in the literature, concepts are often described with similar but not identical terminology. Conversely, the same terms are used for similar but not exactly the same concepts. But this confusion in vocabulary is only a symptom of the fundamental problem: the lack of a conceptual model that explores relationships of physical environment to learning rather than to behavior in general. Architectural models address built environments, emphasizing both interior and exterior features of building design that allow, encourage, prohibit, or inhibit various behaviors. Psychological models discuss environmental attributes that set conditions for or even control human behavior. Sociological models emphasize the importance of environment in terms of how it facilitates human interactions. By emphasizing individual appreciation of the environment, aesthetic models address the relationship of values to human behavior. Workplace training models, including human factors engineering, emphasize the fit between environment and person and seek out optimal conditions for performance.

Each of these perspectives can add to a global understanding of the learning environment; however, a model that addresses learners in learning environments is a needed first step in refining educational research. The model described here–satisfaction-participation-achievement-transcendent/immanent attributes-authority-layout (SPATIAL)–can serve as a fundamental basis for organizing research designed to identify relationships between and among components of the learning environment and attributes of the learner. Further, this model has potential for weaving together findings from architectural, psychological, sociological, aesthetic, and human factors engineering studies.

In A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan (1967), John Culkin said that, “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”


Photo by Atelier Teee

9 Responses to “… and then our structures shape us”

  1. Karyn Romeis

    Good post, Harold, and it addresses a very valid issue: does teaching look much like it did in the 50s (and the 1850s) because schools look much like they did then?

    For some reason, your Winston Churchill quote made me think of Jethro Tull: “and on the 8th day, man created God in his own image”

  2. Karyn Romeis

    So now I’ve discovered two interesting things about the New Brunswick contingent: Harold plays (played?) the flute and Stephen is a dab hand at carpentry.

    Who’d a thunk it?

  3. Jon

    Hey, I know that quote.

    So very true, imo. And the points you raise .. there’s so much change necessary to how we learn, tech and guide people, at least in terms of institutional structures.

    A lot depends, I think, on what “institution” comes to mean over the next ten or twenty years.

  4. Jennifer Nicol

    “There’s a ghost in the girls’ bathroom” my daughter informed me with a serious face yesterday. She attends the same elementary school I did, in a building that dates from 1895. “Stall 14”, she said. “It’s there for sure.” A metaphor, perhaps, for the idea that the buildings form us long after their guiding principles have died? I can’t say I remember the ghost, but we agreed that the bathroom window contains a small hole through which boys can peek from the schoolyard.

  5. Rodney Fulton

    I found it very interesting that some 17 years after
    I published the SPATIAL Model in a Jossey-Bass
    publication there was discussion that included the model. I am not aware of any significant use of the model or of any real impact on the field of Adult
    Education in the United States. I have longe since
    moved on from the field of Adult Education and am now very involved in Public Education at the Elementary level in the US. But again, it was gratifying
    to see my model referenced in 2008. If you know of
    any other people using or interested in the model, I’d
    be happy to hear from you. Thanks Rodney Fulton


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)