Building school spirit

How architecture affects your child’s education

Date published: 9/29/2011 12:00:00 PM

If your child is bored at school, it may not be the teachers’ fault. According to SSHRC-funded researcher Rena Upitis, the design and layout of the school might actually be to blame.

A professor of arts education at Queen's University, Upitis is also a world-leading researcher in the relatively new field of educational architecture. “We’re still building schools the way we did a century and a half ago,” she says. Most Canadian schools, she explains, feature egg carton-like corridors with classrooms on both sides that limit what can be taught.

“You can’t dance in a classroom if there’s no room. You can’t play instruments if you’re going to disturb somebody next door,” she says. “If we want to teach kids about food production, we can’t do it in a schoolyard that’s covered with asphalt.”

Upitis’ research explores the extent to which school buildings influence what is taught and what can be learned. She became passionate about her new field when she came to the realization that teachers want to do more interesting things, but are stymied by school buildings. “Most schools are stark and ugly indoors and lack facilities for students and teachers to gather informally,” she says.

A timber frame carpenter who designs environmentally-sensitive homes in her spare time, Upitis says she’s seen beautiful schools in Scandinavia, Germany and Australia—with tree-filled atriums and spaces for everything from carpentry to cooking—but very few Canadian examples.

One exception, she says, is the Seabird Island Community School in Agassiz, British Columbia. The heart of the school is a large kitchen, where students attend classes and where the whole community gathers for traditional celebrations. And while there are typical classes focused on writing, reading and arithmetic, the building’s design also allows for courses on cooking, woodworking, sewing and dance.

“In terms of changing how schools are designed, it’s still early days,” she says. “It’s embedded in our culture to accept schools as they are.” But, Upitis says, she’s made it her mission to build awareness about school design. Beyond her own design work, she also acts as a consultant for a school board in B.C. and recently published the groundbreaking book, Raising a School: Foundations for School Architecture.

“Schools should be places where students and teachers can work and play—indoors and out—where they can be provoked by the challenges of nature and calmed by its beauty, and where they can be accepted and inspired.”