A few weeks ago, I wrote about the impact of school building design on the behaviour of the student body. Having been to some schools in some very different settings recently, I’ve been thinking about another aspect of how the school environment can affect the educational experience: the view from the classroom window.
It’s inevitable that during their time at school, students will spend many hours just staring out the classroom window, daydreaming and longing to be somewhere else. Even if this amounted to only 5 per cent of each lesson, over the secondary school years that would add up to around 55 full school days – it’s probably even longer for the teachers…
It’s worth considering that what the students are staring at (as they avoid doing the work you’ve so lovingly prepared for them) may have an impact on their state of mind. Could it be that gazing out over all the beauty that nature has to offer will have a more positive effect than staring at a disused gasworks or the car park of the local Aldi?
I’m currently in a teaching post where I’m spending three days a week at a school on the outer edges of the city. It’s on a beautiful site with tennis courts, dedicated sports pitches and acres of lush grassy playing fields, quite beyond the dreams of its inner-city counterparts. The view from the classroom window is a sea of green bordered by a ring of handsome beech and sycamore, and just visible in the distance, the rolling fields and farmland of Hertfordshire. I think it all contributes towards instilling a sense of calm among the kids, perhaps born from an ever-present awareness of nature’s boundless and radiant beauty (providing you can screen out the noise of the lorries tear-arsing along the A10).
Over the past year, I’ve spent a few days in several brand new academy schools, many of which also seem to be located on the fringes of the city, but are more often hidden away deep in the bowels of soulless industrial estates. It’s almost as if we’re trying to keep the kids who attend these schools out of the way of everybody else. Whenever I end up in one of these new buildings, I find myself thinking about whether relocating the kids to these desolate, isolated non-places might be having some unforeseen and unwelcome impact on their psychological wellbeing (not to mention that of the staff). At the other end of the scale, attending our country’s finest public schools, with their stunning grounds and sublime architecture, surely provides the students with a sense of purpose and belonging.
Psychologists have studied the way we respond to views that inspire awe, be it yawning canyons, vast deserts or towering mountain peaks, showing that in the face of the power of nature we become calmer, more content and are even more likely to engage in altruistic behaviour. One experiment had unwitting subjects stopped in the street either in front of a huge eucalyptus tree or an ugly concrete wall, ostensibly to complete a survey. The sneaky researchers then had a stooge wander by and "accidentally" drop a box of pens in front of the subject. They found that the subjects who’d been answering questions while staring at the eucalyptus tree were far more likely to help the clumsy pen dropper than the ones who’d been looking at the brick wall.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of course, and while nature seems to perk most people up, some will be able to find joy in the urban landscape just as readily. Last week I found myself working for a day in a school with a very different view from the classroom windows, as it was slap-bang in the middle of the city. The school itself was a creaky Victorian brick building, but was hemmed in on all sides by the steel and glass edifices of tech start-ups and the offices of multinational banks. There wasn’t a tree or a patch of greenery in sight, but there was certainly something sobering about being in the midst of all that wealth and industry with the continuous roar of buses and delivery vans thundering past.
The students were a keen and industrious bunch too, and it made me wonder if rubbing up against the reality of life in the real world might have helped them focus their young minds, reminding them that time’s winged chariot is always hurrying near, so they’d better get their shit together before being turfed out to make their own way. Then again, maybe they didn’t give me any trouble because they’d all been subdued by the diesel fumes.
The writer has recently taken up supply teaching after 20 years in a full-time teaching job