Facility Planning: An Eye-Opener

We look, but we don't see.

Do students and teachers experience the physical environment without realizing what they are seeing? Would unnoticed improvements to the learning environment enrich the educational experience? What an architect's trained eye sees is not necessarily what an occupant sees. For most people, architecture is experienced unconsciously rather than consciously.

The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) is providing valuable information on the influence of the physical environment on teaching performance and student achievement. An ANFA workshop looked at several basic premises:

  • Brain development between ages 5 and 12 is significant and understood. Cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists are intrigued with how cognitive capacities change with age.

  • There is an intuitive, but not well-documented, understanding that the architectural attributes of classroom spaces affect cognitive (learning) activity.

  • Neuroscience research is likely to provide evidence to support this intuition — including the advantages of classrooms geared to stages in brain development.

One activity in the ANFA workshop focused on attributes of the spatial environment that would enable and positively affect learning:

  • Schools should offer a hierarchy of spaces, from private to large-group, in an adaptable structure.

  • Control of the environment is essential to the teacher and the learner; manipulability of space can enable active participation of the learner.

  • A school should reflect the culture of the community.

  • Appropriate scale matters to the learner and the learning activity.

  • Space affects students' sense of self and others.

  • A setting that evokes strong emotion may improve recall.

  • An environment that offers balanced qualities may be most satisfying and conducive to learning, e.g. security and risk, prospect and refuge, active and quiet, social and individual, indoors and outdoors.

  • When activity is intentional, learning may be stronger. Therefore, allowance for choice in activity and environment may optimize learning.

Our perceptions are influenced by the physical environment. The brain responds based upon each person's culture and generational traits. Each generation has distinct attitudes, behaviors, expectations, habits and motivational buttons. Therefore, incorporating generational traits with human factors in design emphasizes people-oriented design in behavioral terms as they interact and use spaces.

Architecture affects our intellect and emotions, influences our performance and motivates achievement — mostly on a subliminal basis. We become conscious of our environment only on a need-to-know basis: We look, but we don't see.

James E. Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].

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