Education in the time of Covid-19: who gets to decide and when? A call for increased participation in the design and adaptation of education and schools

This is a guest post by Dr Tom Bellfield, a part 2 architectural assistant at SCABAL, an architecture practice specialising in school design.  Tom’s research focusses on the relationship between education and the environments in which it unfolds.  Particularly, how space is continually negotiated through use practices, and the potential of practising spatial design in schools as a means to expose and engage in ongoing negotiations.

In opening her recent piece Mythologies of learning spaces  in the time of Covid-19 Emma Dyer frames Covid-19 as a “unique opportunity to pause and to think collectively about how schools and education might be different.”  To illustrate the scope of this challenge, she highlights the work of the architect and philosopher Giancarlo De Carlo: in particular, De Carlo’s call for questions of ‘why’ we need to build [school buildings] to precede questions of ‘how’.

As Emma notes, the need to ask and the potential of asking ‘why’ before ‘how’ is discussed by Adam Wood elsewhere on this blog.  My aim here is not to challenge this position but to expand on it by raising the questions of who and when: who gets to ask and answer ‘why/how’ questions and when do they get to do so?  In doing, I also consider the idea of ‘pausing’: how different understandings of why and how we pause, as well as of who gets to pause and when, can determine the extent to which asking and answering why/how questions matters.

Who gets to ask and answer why/how questions?

The involvement of different ‘stake-holders’ in asking and answering why/how questions most commonly occurs under the banner of ‘consultation’ and is, in certain circumstances, a legal requirement of designing and building.  Where consultation is more extensive the term ‘participation’ is sometimes used, though this term has no official relationship with the kind or extent of practices undertaken or, indeed, the agency/power that participants have.  Where they are not a legal duty, practices of consultation and participation within design processes remain uncommon.  When they do take place, practices of consultation (or participation) are frequently tokenistic, with decisions to be made often severely limited in scope and in some cases already taken: here, questions of ‘how’ are favoured over less manipulable questions of ‘why’, usually through a narrowing lens of ‘what/where’ questions.  For a vivid description of tokenistic participation, as well as a discussion of different kinds of participation, from the tokentistic to the potentially transformative, the architect and educator Jeremy Till’s 2005 article The Negotiation of Hope is an excellent starting point.  

Participatory practices are processes that enable different whos to ask and answer where/what/why/how questions, and that control the scope of such questions and the extent to which asking and answering them matters.  As such, they are a means of distributing power, in particular ways, for particular reasons: participation can be used to strengthen and/or hide prevailing distributions of power, as well as to challenge and/or reveal them, with these not being mutually exclusive.  This is why and how participation is political.

The politics of participation is visible in two recent UK school building programmes.  The current Priority Schools Building Programme (2011-present) is underpinned by a politics that increasingly seeks to exert power-over social and educational outcomes, for example through increasing centralisation (1).  In this programme, participation in design processes has been banished and standardised designs introduced: diversion and diversity are framed as negatives, serving only to increase uncertainty and cost, i.e. time and money (2).  In contrast, the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme (2004-2010), which PSBP replaced, made participation a mandatory part of design processes, framing this as the means by which BSF would achieve transformative social and educational outcomes.  Nonetheless, uses of participation in BSF were also underpinned by a politics that sought to exert power-over: diversion and diversity were permitted — encouraged — but in limited ways, with children in particular having little to no agency, especially with regards to ‘why/how’ and ‘who/when’ questions.

In light of this, I suggest two additions to Emma’s call for us to “pause and to think collectively about how schools and education might be different.”  First, to pause/not-pause is always a political act.  Second, the who/when and why/how of pausing/not-pausing are manifestations of the different politics that underpin them.   Indeed, Dr Catherine Burke’s analysis of Education secretary Gavin Williamson’s “pronouncement of the imperative that pupils, on returning to school post-pandemic, should be seated in rows” reveals clearly the nature of pause (i.e. no pause) supported by the government and the particular politics underpinning it.

To pause is not enough, we must think carefully and proactively about why and how we pause, including who gets to pause and when, and how we work collectively to ensure and maximise the agency of different whos, acknowledging that there will be difference and conflict and that this must be openly engaged with (3).

When to pause and how?

Where undertaken, the when (i.e. timing) of participation (or consultation) is nearly always given: usually by someone else, from somewhere else, and most often early within a programme but after key decisions have been made.  For example, the decision to build a new school is made and certain parameters set, various whos are invited to participate but in a predetermined and prelimited process.  Even if limits are low, invited whos are rarely expected or allowed to ask ‘why’ questions:  Why build a new school when the existing one might be extended or remodelled?  Why build a new extension when the timetable could be amended or an existing community space used?  Limits to the time allowed for participation (or consultation) work as a further control over what can be asked and answered. A question can be relevant and important yet invalidated due to its timing: asked too late or deemed to be inappropriate with regards to the time and resource (including the ‘will’) available.

Participation done reactively will always be limited by decisions already made, including allocations of time and resource.  To ensure ‘why’ questions can come before ‘how’ questions and that ‘why’ questions matter, participation must be practiced proactively as a means of opening-up and exploring problems and possibilities, with practices embedded within community life (i.e within the social and educational life of a school and its wider community). 

Life is dynamic, always moving forward.  I therefore want to challenge understandings of ‘pausing’ as ‘temporarily stopping’, after which things restart as normal, perhaps with slight changes made, and to suggest an alternative understanding of ‘pauses’ as periods of slowing-down.  There is then no ‘restart’ but a natural speeding up: ebbs and flows, rather than the binary on/off of a digital system.  Without the space to delve in further, I link here to Dr Alison Clark’s current research into the relationship between time and early childhood education, which offers a useful departure point. 

That it is not desirable to stop, however briefly, is explored by the anthropologist Tim Ingold under the concept of ‘correspondence’ (e.g. 2016).  According to Ingold, our shared world is not static but always on the move, composed of many flowing and entwining currents, human and nonhuman, all travelling at different speeds.  To stop would mean climbing out of the river and up onto the banks of life; to stop to take stock, would mean to position oneself outside looking passively in.  To slow-down, on the other hand, requires one to remain always active, always swimming amongst life’s many currents.  To change speed or direction, to turn around, to hold a position are all possible but all demand maintaining an attentive engagement with life’s forces: to maintain forward movement. 

Practices of slowing-down are not, then, about “arriving at a particular perspective or vision” but about “displacing one’s gaze so that one can see differently”, thus opening up the possibility of following and forging other paths (Masschelein, 2010, p. 44).

This, I want to suggest, is where the transformational potential of participation lies: its transformational potential lies within its educational potential, which in turn lies within its embedded use as a means to proactively raise and engage with questions that concern the why/how/who/when/what/where of education, free of limits already set, by others, from outside, and of the need to arrive at single fixed solutions by a given point.  As the architect and educator Peter Blundell-Jones writes of architecture: “Society has suffered long enough from finished architecture: buildings must be allowed to grow and change” (1987/2016, p. 1).  The same, I suggest, can be said of education and the environments in which it takes place.

Pausing by-means-of Spatial Design

So far, teachers, architects, educationalists and politicians have all stepped forward to offer and in some cases enact visions for education in the wake of Covid-19.  However, as Giancarlo De Carlo writes of architecture, education is too important to be left to architects, to educationalists, to teachers, to politicians, to pupils, to parents, to anyone alone.  

As is argued and demonstrated richly throughout this blog, there is a relationship between education and the environments in which it takes place, with a growing body of work evidencing this relationship in all its diversity and complexity.  Despite the potential for and examples of its mis-use, knowingly and unknowingly, there is also a growing body of work demonstrating the potential of practising spatial design together to effect transformational change, both social and educational.  And I want to suggest ‘participation by-means-of spatial design’ here as a methodology and method through which different whos can come together to proactively engage with difference and collectively challenge settled practices: designing together as a means to make what Peter Blundell-Jones describes as  “imaginative leap[s] to envisage how it might be otherwise” (2014, p. 13). 

When we pause to think collectively about how schools and education might be different we must do so proactively and inclusively, working together across traditional (often artificial) divides, all with a shared ethic of care.  Indeed, in the time of Covid-19 and beyond we will have to think more about ‘care’: as for education, participation and pausing, about the why/how/who/when/where/what of care and caring, the politics that underpins different understandings, and the effects of this on both the cared-for and the caring. 

Above all, the choices we make in the here-and-now should never be final or fixed but always open: open to future questioning, subversion, and adaptation.  Designing (spatially) together offers a means to do so. 

Footnotes

  1.  For example: the drive to convert schools into Academies, removing them from local authority control and making them directly answerable to the Department for Education.
  2. This was made clear in the 2011 James Review of Education Capital, as well as the then government’s acceptance of the James Review and subsequent launching of the Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) that it informed. 
  3.  The need to and potential of engaging with difference and conflict is discussed by Till in his 2005 article The Negotiation of Hope, through the idea of needing to make ‘best sense’ rather than ‘common sense’:  “The idea of making best sense thus acknowledges three things: first that that no one perfect solution exists; secondly, that others are involved in the process, it is not the work of the lone intellect or expert; thirdly, and crucially, it identifies the very contingency of architectural practice. Architecture is open to forces beyond the direct control of the architect.” (p. 13).
  4.  Time and resources will always have limits.  This is not, therefore, an unworkable call for limitless time and resource but a caution that such limits should not actively be used to apply further limits or controls.

Blundell Jones, P. (2014). The development of the school building and the articulation of territory.In P. Woolner (Ed.), School design together (pp. 11-31). Abingdon: Routledge.

Blundell Jones, P. (2016, August 16). ‘Society has suffered long enough from finished architecture:buildings must be allowed to grow and change’. The Architectural Review.

(Original work published March 1987). Retrieved from https://www.architecturalreview.com/essays/society-has-suffered-long-enough-from-finished-architecturebuildings-must-be-allowed-to-grow-and-change/10008755.article

De Carlo, G. (1969). Why/How to Build School Buildings. Harvard Educational Review, 39(4) 12-35.  doi: 10.17763/haer.39.4.r1163153200753u4

Ingold, T. (2016). On human correspondence. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

(N.S.), 23 9-27. doi: 10.1111/1467-9655.12541

Ingold, T. (2019). Art and anthropology for a sustainable world. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.), 00 1-17. doi: 10.1111/1467-9655.13125

James, S. (2011). Review of Education Capital. Retrieved November 15, 2015, from https://www.education.gov.uk/consultations/downloadableDocs/James%20Reviewpdf.

Masschelein, J. (2010). E-ducating the gaze: the idea of a poor pedagogy. Ethics and Education 5(1) 43-53. doi: 10.1080/17449641003590621

Noddings, N. (1984/2013). Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education.London: University of California Press.

Noddings, N. (1992). The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Noddings, N. (2005). Caring in education. In The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. Retrieved from http://www.infed.org/biblio/noddings_caring_in_education.htm

Till, J. (2005). The Negotiation of Hope. In P. Blundell Jones, D. Petrescu & J. Till (Eds.), Architecture and Participation (pp. 23-42). Abingdon: Spon Press.  Available here (open access): https://jeremytill.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/post/attachment/19/2005_The_Negotiation_of_Hope.pdf

Photograph from the project Made in Oakfield by MATT+FIONA with Oakfield School, Hull, instigated by Hull UK City of Culture.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for another thoughtful, inspiring blog post.
    I am really enjoying them!
    All best,
    Will

    From: Architecture and Education
    Reply to: Architecture and Education
    Date: Thursday, 13 August 2020 at 12:04
    To: “Wareing, Will (Trust Office)”
    Subject: [New post] Education in the time of Covid-19: who gets to decide and when? A call for increased participation in the design and adaptation of education and schools

    Emma Dyer posted: ” This is a guest post by Dr Tom Bellfield, a part 2 architectural assistant at SCABAL, an architecture practice specialising in school design. Tom’s research focusses on the relationship between education and the environments in which it unfold”

    Like

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