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Can school design affect kids’ grades?

4 years ago

2 experts and 1 parent have answered

Tom Baker writer
Tom Baker Quib.ly Staff Writer Derby, UK

‘It’s not my fault I got an F! It’s the layout of the school!’ Believe it or not, the design of a school could effect a child’s academic development.

I’m not talking about, say, schools that have large windows in the classrooms (all the better to stare out of and daydream), or ones modelled on an MC Escher painting, which’d be pretty distracting. Experts say that environment plays a key role in learning.

‘It has long been known that various aspects of the built environment impact on people in buildings,’ says University of Salford’s Professor Peter Barret, ‘but this is the first time a holistic assessment has been made that successfully links the overall impact directly to learning rates in schools.’

The study, conducted by the University with Nightingale Associates architects, looked more at the basics – such as amount of natural light, noise, air quality, temperature – of a classroom, as well as the more ‘feng shui’ elements of their layouts and such.

Six of the factors they were looking for – namely colour, choice, connection, complexity, flexibility and light – had a direct impact on grade scores. How much of an impact? Well, a badly designed school meant students did around 25% worse, whilst those blessed with surroundings worthy of Extreme Makeover: School Edition did 25% better. Stats like those are pretty difficult to ignore, huh? (Unless you’re the UK government, anyway)

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Fact 4 years ago
expert answer
Dr Dylan Arena expert
Dr Dylan Arena Chief Learning Officer US

The short version: This study, while interesting, didn't actually prove anything, because it didn't use a research design that would allow it to make causal claims.

The long version: What the study found--which is undoubtedly interesting--is that school design was associated with academic progress. But the article linked above goes WAY beyond the data to claim that the study "proves" that school design can "affect" academic progress. Those claims are simply false.

It's a cliche in statistical research that "correlation doesn't imply causation." The reason it's a cliche is that stats geeks like me have to say it a lot, and the reason we have to say it a lot is because of the very natural human tendency to conclude that if two things co-occur, one must be causing the other.

But it's not true.

To give an exaggerated and simplified example, imagine looking at 25 pristine new schools in posh school districts: These schools have skylights, letting lots of natural light into the classrooms. Then find 25 dingy old schools in poor school districts: These older schools tend to have design features popular when they were constructed (let's say late Middle Ages just to be completely overboard with our comparison). If a research team followed students from these two sets of schools for a year, they might then produce a data set showing that the presence of skylights predicted, say, 75% of the variance in academic achievement--and they'd be correct. But it would NOT be correct to claim on the basis of such a study that skylights "cause" improvements in academic achievement.

To produce the claims this article makes, one would need to randomly assign students to schools with various design features and then track their progress across the school year.

People may be tempted to think that my straw-man example doesn't apply here. But the best doctors in the world spent decades recommending that post-menopausal women get hormone-replacement therapy (HRT) because of correlational studies showing an association between getting HRT and living longer. Then they finally ran an experiment and realized that HRT actually causes women to die sooner.

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Fact 4 years ago
expert answer
Roberto Catanuto expert
Roberto Catanuto Teacher, Club Instructor CH
Education expert

A famous school in the UK has been carrying on a great experiment about this topic. It's the Monkseaton High School, where even the architecture is designed to take into account the biological life style of students.

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Fact 4 years ago

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