Mythologies of learning spaces in the time of Covid-19

The closure of many schools around the world in the past few months has given us a unique opportunity to pause and to think collectively about how schools and education might be different. Architects, philosophers, educators and academics have already laid the foundations of this task in recent decades. Adam Wood, who co-founded this blog, has engaged with the work of the Italian architect and philosopher Giancarlo di Carlo to unearth new insights into how school could be different. You can read Adam’s posts about di Carlo here and here this short extract from di Carlo’s writing indicates the scope of his challenge: 

We cannot deal with problems of ‘how to’ [build] without first posing the problems of ‘why’. If we were to begin discussing immediately the best way to build school buildings for contemporary society without first clarifying the reasons for which contemporary society needs school buildings, we would run the risk of taking for granted definitions and judgements which may not make sense anymore and our speculations would turn out to be sandcastles” (1969:12).

Catherine Burke, in her reflections about ten mythologies of schooling in times of Covid-19 also delves into the ‘why’ of education. Her post aims to

stimulate an enhanced awareness or consciousness of what we accept without question about our arrangements for education to stimulate a critical resistance, at least for a time, to the ‘taken for granted.*

She does this by proposing ten entrenched but, in her view, false ideas about school that blind us to the possibility of change. Her focus in defining these mythologies, she explains, is to elucidate ‘what the barriers to change look like’

Not only does Catherine’s list suggest ten examples of deep-rooted assumptions about education that she would like us all to rethink but also, in creating this a list, she cleverly offers an template to help us to reflect upon our own unrecognised mythologies: the barriers against change in our own fields. These may be collective myths or they may be based on our personal experiences and insights.  

Making a list of mythologies and narrowing it down to ten key points is a useful device. It offers a method of distilling all those things that we constantly run up against into an easily digestible summary and creates an opportunity for original thinking at a critical time.. 

As I put together my own false commandments of schooling, I recognised an emerging theme: that it is the children who struggle the most in the context of formal schooling (for a variety of reasons) who are almost always the ones who are most compromised and disadvantaged by these particular mythologies. This is because it is these children and young people who are so often siphoned off into the liminal, disregarded nether regions of the school for much needed extra tuition, therapies and support or alternatively to be isolated and excluded from their peers. When I visit schools and see children working in dingy corridors, dark hallways, echoing dining rooms and tucked in a corner by the toilets, I see how the school building could so easily seem like a prison for them or, at best, an adversary rather than a space for respite, reflection and inspiration. Of course, it isn’t always so: there are wonderful schools that consider the design of the whole school consistently and thoughtfully.  Special schools often lead the way in this respect and can provide models of excellence that suggest radical new directions for designing learning spaces.

Writing a list like this also usefully channels my frustration about confusing new recommendations delivered from on high by the Department for Education (in England) in covid-times. For example, the recommendation that pupils should now sit in rows facing the teacher rather than being able to sit safely distanced from each other at square or round tables, might seem to conflate guidance on safety with guidance on pedagogy. 

Like Catherine, I recognise that if these mythologies, old and new, aren’t articulated and addressed on a conceptual level, then these habits and patterns will continue to persist and propagate. In my work I have frequently noted that all learning spaces are designed by someone, even if this design work is done by default and following mythologies that are inherited from personal experience or intuited by osmosis. My own list of discarded mythologies has a different emphasis from Catherine’s but acknowledges a debt of gratitude to her approach. 

Please share your own lists with us here!

10 mythologies of schooling

  1. Schools are public spaces where all learning should be visible and measurable and children should be seen to be learning at all times. 
  1. Children can learn to read and write anywhere in the school building (e.g. corridor, dining hall), even if they find reading and writing difficult, because the type of space does not have any significant consequences for their ability to learn. 
  1. The qualities of the spaces (privacy; ventilation; dimensions) where children go for therapy or emotional support in school have no bearing on the success of the therapy. 
  1. Schooling should be strictly age-related i.e. if you are six years old in an English primary school, most of your learning will take place sitting at a table or on a square of carpet.
  1. Young children love sitting on a brightly coloured piece of carpet for hours, listening to teachers talking. 
  1. Children who display anger and disrupt lessons need to be taught how to behave well: taking them to an isolated, confined, uncomfortable exclusion room will help them to learn that they need to keep their emotions in check at all times. 
  1. Children are much smaller than adults and need much less space: English children especially need far less space than children in other countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland.
  1. Architects know how schools work from their own experiences of being at school: they do not need to know about the current curriculum, the social and emotional needs of children and special needs and the people who work in this way. 
  1. Cosy, nurturing spaces are fine for primary schools but not necessary in secondary schools and definitely not for colleges and FE because young people don’t need spaces like these. 
  1. It’s fine to interrupt children and adults when they are working together in school because school is a public space.
  • from a personal email 7/7/2020
  • Image: A photograph of the front cover of ‘No One Belongs Here More Than You’, a collection of short stories by Miranda July published in 2007 that has nothing to do with school design but I love the book and the title seemed very pertinent here.

5 Comments

  1. What a brilliant thought provoking list. Thank you for this. Must have chatted before but I work in designing facilities for pupils with ASD.. Have been variously called inclusion or integration centres. Getting new thinking into how spaces relate – flexibility, ‘accidental’ learning places, has made lots of difference as has everything to do with the lighting daylight acoustics thermal comfort ventilation, colours etc etc. Will reflect on your list…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. I’d love to read your own list … or your thoughts more generally about designing for pupils with ASD. It’s an area I’m very interested in. In my ‘day job’ I work with a lot of families and schools with children with ASD and ADHD as an education advisor (not an architect or designer) and I see so much thoughtfulness in some schools and in others, very little understanding.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I so love your list of Ten Universal Truths, and am intrigued by my own responses – from those which make me boil with fury to those at which I laugh out loud for relief, especially No. 5. (While No. 7 is obviously true, for my only close Finnish friend is a lovely large lady.) Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Musing further, at the core here, there is the way we categorise our fellow humans – your Power of Ten suggests absurdness in some assumptions between different age groups. But also we see different social groups; different occupational groups too who are categorised by us and then often solidified by architecture. ’10 mythologies of …’ could insert many words for ‘schooling’, more or less tweaked as required – factories, housing neighbourhoods, prisons, offices, you name it.

    There was a time when it was fashionable for subtle architects to bring all their skills to form quality spaces for the nurturing of communities of university students, spatial concerns which would never be considered for housing communities of less-affluent young families, a category for whom such concern is (in your terms) ‘not necessary’. Half a century later, however, beyond the very privileged, students are now increasingly housed in appalling high-rise anti-social hutches which are not even categorised as (and thus need respect the minimal laws about) housing standards. Yes, we can easily change the social status of categories (and cut the unnecessary primary school carpets – or change the grade of civil service office which deserves one – anyway).

    But for myself, having missed out on cosy nurturing anythings at primary school myself, I can at least try to repair that as I struggle to become more adult. Thanks for starting me off.

    Liked by 1 person

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