An educational paradox: where beginner readers learn in school

As a collaborative* doctoral research student in the field of architecture and education, I’m often asked to explain what my research is about. I’m always surprised by how much my answer changes according to who I’m talking to, when and where we’re talking and how I’m feeling about what I’m reading and writing at the time.  Far from having a polished elevator pitch, my thoughts about what I’m up to change and develop week by week.

As I’m currently contemplating the writing of my final thesis, I thought I might try and compress my research into a short description here for this blog, offering it in a spirit of exploration and curiosity (mine, as much as yours, I suspect).

paper model nook

I’m interested in where children learn in schools. There hasn’t been much academic or professional research in the field of education about that, although there are some notable exceptions**. Of course, there are regulations about heating, lighting, ventilation and so on that relate to the quality of different spaces in schools but beyond that, many teaching and non-teaching spaces in schools are often regarded as neutral by the people who manage those spaces. I also often wish that educational policy makers would take Mayall’s*** observation to heart that children “take their bodies and emotions as well as their minds to school each day” because I believe that children (and people) should have the experience of and choice of a variety of spaces where they feel comfortable and safe in the places where they spend significant amounts of time on a regular basis like school (and work).

I’m also interested in how design (including architectural design) can bring a new perspective to educational research and how that perspective can address educational problems and paradoxes. The particular paradox I’m investigating in my own research is about beginner readers and where they learn to read in schools. When children are learning to read, they need to practise reading aloud so that their mistakes and misapprehensions can be corrected. But reading aloud is a delicate and difficult matter for many beginner readers. Children who are falling behind their peers in learning to read often receive extra support from classroom assistants or other adults but their classrooms can be noisy and distracting or, conversely, too quiet so that children practising reading aloud can feel as if they are performing to the rest of the class.

Sometimes a resource room is available for practising reading outside the classroom. But these rooms are in constant demand, not only for reading practice but also for meetings and consultations. This means that the children who leave the classroom with an adult to read  often end up reading in non-teaching spaces such as echoing corridors or the corner of a dining hall, where distractions may not only be unwelcomely loud, but also sudden and unexpected.

And here’s the paradox: the children who are most in need of support with reading and most in need of a quiet, secluded space to practise reading are the children who are also the most likely to be learning to read in a space that isn’t suitable for that particular activity at all.

Whilst investigating this paradox, I’ve found the perfect design research framework (Fallman, 2008)**** to help me structure my research. Fallman’s framework has three nodes: design exploration; design practice and design studies. Design studies (the academic side of this research) has taken me into the realm of children’s geographies and the history of education and the latter has given me a sense of how architects have approached the design of safe and secluded spaces in schools in the past.

I’m very lucky to be working in collaboration with an architectural practice, SCABAL, who have not only backed my idea of investigating the paradox of the beginner reader and the spaces where they learn in schools, but have also helped to design a small, secluded reading space where children can practise reading, known as a “reading nook”. At the moment we have models and soon there will be fully-sized cardboard prototypes, made by Jenx, a company that designs and manufactures developmental equipment for children in schools. Those cardboard prototypes will be installed into classrooms so we can work with children to develop a reading nook that they would like to use: participatory design with children is a key feature of the research and we also want to talk to teachers and to find out what they have to say about having a secluded reading nook in their classrooms.

So, that’s my research, or at least, that’s what it seems to be today as I sit in a comfortable office chair at SCABAL on a moderately sunny day in Hatton Garden, sitting next to two architects who are designing a saki brewery, feeling quite full after lunch but thinking that a cup of tea might now be a good idea …

* With SCABAL architects

** Authors who have been particularly influential in my own research include Pamela Woolner, Catherine Burke, Alison Clark and Rosie Parnell, all with different perspectives about school design and all of whom have valuable and exciting things to say about school design.

*** Mayall et al. (1996) Children’s Health in Primary Schools.

**** Fallman (2008) The Interaction Design Research Triangle of Design Practice, Design Studies, and Design Exploration. Design Issues 24 (3).

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