Power of Aesthetics to Improve Student Learning
View From Denmark: Re-Imagining Spaces of Learning
by Ulla Kjærvang
Uninspiring and misplaced rooms are the reality on many schools and educational institutions in Denmark. For instance many of the schools which were built in the 60-ies were planned according to functional and financial requirements. It was very rare that the aesthetic dimension had high priority. Furthermore, many schools have been badly maintained which makes the conditions of the aesthetic even worse.
Because of an increasing number of pupils and changed requirements of the future educational class rooms, a lot of schools and educational institutions will be built and re-constructed in the coming years and this will cost billions. However, this gives us an obvious opportunity to improve the physical surroundings for pupils and students and to improve the aesthetic as well.
Appealing to the Whole of Human Life
The conception of aesthetic is not only about looking in a specific way but it is also about how the building appeals to senses of the body and our emotional life. Aesthetic comes from the Greek word: Aistehesis, which means recognition via senses. Apparently, aesthetic is not only about things that are beautiful for the eye but about influencing all senses as well. About seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting. An aesthetic which promotes the development of all senses. An aesthetic which provides architectural experiences for the senses in its proportions, scale, rhythm, light, materials, odours and colours. For instance, we could recall Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s thoughts about experiencing architecture. To recapture the school as a place to be and not a place only stimulating the intellect and submitting to the function.
This aesthetic also includes the demand of sustainability and a good indoor climate. Healthy and lasting materials which among other things ensure a good indoor climate so that the pupils do not get headaches. Or a good light which makes it possible to read a text without strain. And the temperature should be at a level where the body can relax. Not too cold in the winter or too hot in the summer.
That pupils with plenty of daylight in the class room learn up to 21 percent more than pupils with less daylight.
That noise has a negative impact on the behaviour of the pupils
That a fuzzy physical environment with a lot of strong colours results in jumpy children
That senses are activated by diversity
That bullying is worse in sad asphalted school yards than in well-ordered, challenging and varying outdoor areas.
That there is a connection between feelings and learning. A good atmosphere in the room creates better learning.
Buildings Influence Our Ability to Learn
Buildings – and the sense impressions that we get from the surroundings – influence our emotional life and ability to learn. Consequently, school buildings provide experiences which influence the activities, communication, social gathering and well-being of the pupils and teachers. This applies to the entity of the building as well as each single room.
Several pedagogics regard the influence of the room as an important aspect of the pedagogical work. For instance, the Reggio Emilia pedagogic describes the room as the third pedagogue, and many schools are working with types of learning where sounds, light, temperature and order of the learning room are important.
Schools with an aesthetic quality will give the pupils an aesthetic awareness which will make them appreciate quality in their physical surroundings in the future. Therefore, the architecture of the school can contribute to an aesthetic development of the children. Buildings of high quality also signal to the pupils that the school or the educational institution is an important place. That society regards the school or educational institution as important. And hereby signal to the pupils and the students that they are important.
In Denmark, the Act on Educational Environment for Pupils and Students was introduced in 2001. In this act it is written that all pupils and students have the right to a good educational environment in order for the teaching to take place in a way which is both healthy and safe. The educational environment must improve the participants’ opportunities of development and learning. Therefore, the Act also includes the psychical and aesthetic environment of the educational establishment.
There are several good arguments for entering more aesthetic into future constructions of schools. An aesthetic which besides fulfilling the law also fulfils our own demands of surroundings which are both healthy and safe, and an aesthetic promoting well-being which is the best condition of development and learning.
But how do we get more aesthetic into the future schools and educational institutions?
Within the last couple of years, schools have been built in Denmark which are worth studying. Which solutions do they have regarding indoor climate, choice of materials and spatial organisation. How are they perceived by the pupils and the rest of the school staff. Some schools and educational establishments can be mentioned which are worth studying because of their diversity: the “Kingoskole” in Slangerup and “Holbæk lilleskole” have positive experiences with the indoor climate among others, the “Uglegårdsskole” in Solrød and the “Utterslev skole” in Copenhagen have introduced water as an architectural element, the “Hellerup skole” has experiences with an open and flexible environment, the “Trekronerskole” in Roskilde has experiences with landscape preparation of the outdoor environment, the “Damhavens skole” in Vejle has gathered the practical rooms in an “experimentarium”, the “Nærum Gymnasium” and the “Frederiksberg Gymnasium” have entered openness into the buildings and new types of teaching.
We need to describe more standards and goals for the aesthetic in the construction programme in order to avoid that it is only the functional demands like square meters, room organisation and availability for cleaning and financial demands that are described. Demands of for instance sustainability, good and healthy materials, experiences for the senses and a good indoor climate should be made as well.
Great School Design Based on Dialogue
Schools are built as a result of dialogue between architects, builders and users. During this process, the compulsory report of educational environment, the “UMV”, can provide input to the architect from the users. In the first step of the report of educational environment the pupils value the aesthetic and physical surroundings of the school. This can be mapped by means of questionnaires which the schools use in connection with the “UMV”-work among others.
Architects collect knowledge and experience about how the room stimulates children and young people. About how materials, rhythm, textural effects and light influence our well-being. Within the last ten years, studies have been made of the development of the brain and the senses, and we now know much more about what it takes to create a good learning room.
Finally, the architects have to let go of the pictures of the schools in the 60-ies and re-think the work and content of the school. Read between the lines of the new Act of Public School and not only read the functional demands of new sizes of the class rooms and spatial organisation. Here lies also the demand of inspiring surroundings and aesthetic experiences. In the Danish Act of Public School it is written: “That the public school must seek to create such surroundings for experience, energy and concentration that the pupils develop awareness, fantasy and desire to learn in order for them to obtain confidence in their own possibilities and basis of committing themselves and taking action,” Act of Public School § 1, 2.
In an interview in the book “Aesthetic, yes please” the Instructor Jens Arentsen says: “We have to ask ourselves: Why does the body like to be in some places and not in other places? Why do we emotionally like to be in some places? Let’s find the answers to these questions. And then try to organise the school and class rooms accordingly”.
“Kingoskolen” — An Aesthetic School Example
“Kingoskolen” (the Kingo School) in Denmark is a good example of an aesthetic educational environment. Here, consideration has been made to a good indoor climate, sustainability, and a fine spatial organisation. View the Kingoskolen floor plan here (PDF format).
The smell of wood welcomes you when you enter the “Kingoskole”. All floors are covered with white pigmented planks of the wood Kerving Yang in stead of linoleum which is still chosen in most newly constructed school buildings in consideration of cleaning. Along one of the corridors, small balconies are placed at the first floor level. Here the pupils can devote themselves in a book or conversation with other pupils among the top of the big palm trees which reach the balconies. Big plants decorate the corridors of the school and all over the school it is clear that the construction of each single room as well as the entire school has been carefully thought through. There are niches and corners everywhere, or areas which have been lowered in order to make the stay there cosier. There is variation in the conditions outside and inside, and there is a nice processing of day light and the use of artificial light.
The construction of “Kingoskolen” finished in 2001. The school is the result of a very close collaboration between the municipality, the school management and staff, and the architect group Nielsen & Rubow A/S. The architectural idea was to create a school where there is a functional clearness in the main disposition. In other words, it should be easy to note the different parts which the school consists of as this provides recognition and safety and at the same time a room sequence and room processing which is eventful for pupils and teachers.
The construction of the school has been planned around an artificial lake with carps. The lake is placed in the middle of the school and it is a nice architectural element which provide atmosphere and influence the senses. From most of the central corridors, it is possible to see the water. There is access from these corridors to terraces at the lake where it is possible to have lunch for instance on sunny days.
“The whole garden provides inspiration and pleasure for everybody at the school. From all over the school one can enjoy the sight of the garden. The garden is a very good example of the fact that the pupils appreciate the physical surroundings. It is never messy out there. They never throw garbage or each other into the water, which was sceptically stressed out by several adults when the idea was originally presented,” says the school manager Per Høwbroe.
“Naturfagscentret” (the centre of natural science) is something very special. Here experiments and practical tests can be made within all subjects. The pupils can follow the function of the whole heat and ventilation facility from screens. And the pupils can read wind velocity, wind direction and outside and inside temperatures. The idea of these opportunities was that they should be a pedagogical element in the teaching.
The experimentarium is placed directly at the lake so that the pupils can collect water samples and study the biological processes. The roof catches rain water and this is led into the lake. On a rainy day, it is easy to hear the water pouring into the lake.
The competition programme demanded a good indoor climate. Therefore the goal has been to use natural materials and surface treatments which are gentle to the indoor climate. And natural ventilation has been chosen in all rooms. The rooms can be regulated individually or automatically.
“The natural ventilation is a success. We have less symptoms of allergy or cold than in the old buildings. The aesthetic of the “Kingoskole” has a positive influence on everybody at the school. Of course, we have experienced a few incidents of vandalism but generally we find that the physical surroundings of high quality makes the pupils take more care of things. Such surroundings are an obligation. Beautiful buildings have influence on the way people behave, and that is what we experience here in our everyday life,” says Per Høwbroe.
Further descriptions of the architecture and plan arrangement of the school can be obtained from “ARCHITECTURE DK” (April 2003).
Ulla Kjærvang: As a member of the DesignShare Awards program jury panel, Ulla Kjærvang brings her expertise as a trained educational architect from Aarhus School of Architecture, Denmark. Concurrently with her architect study she worked as practising architect with Dall and Lindhardtsen in Aalborg, Denmark. Ulla Kjærvang has specialised in the importance of the physical frames in the teaching and educational environment. Ulla Kjærvang is employed at the Danish Centre of Educational Environment where she provides consultancy services and supervision in matters of the physical and aesthetic educational environment: new buildings, interior design and organisation and the establishment of the schools’ exterior surroundings. The purpose is to offer schools and educational institutions better grounds to ensure a good physical and aesthetic educational environment. Ulla Kjærvang has written articles for specialist journals and the daily press. Furthermore, she has created the idea to the Danish book “Æstetik, ja tak, - en inspirationsbog om hverdagsæstetik i grundskolen” (Aesthetic – yes, please. An inspirational book about everyday aesthetic in the Danish school system). Ulla Kjærvang is also Denmark’s contact person in the Nordic network “Morgendagens skole” (the school of tomorrow) and moreover, she participates in various reference groups of research and development projects. For Ulla, the key questions when working with the physical and aesthetic educational environment are: 1) What is the value of design and decoration of the physical surroundings when it comes to the issues of learning and satisfaction? and 2) How will space, aesthetics and education be considered within the design of the school of the future?
Box of facts: The Danish Centre of Educational Environment
The Danish Centre of Educational Environment – DCUM – is an independent public institution. The task of the Centre is to gather and systematise knowledge and make it available. The Centre gives guidance and advice within issues related to the educational environment.
Box of facts: Report of Educational Environment:
The schools are obliged to work out a report of the educational environment (UMV). This report (the UMV) must be revised at least every 3rd year. The report (the UMV) must include the physical, psychical and aesthetic aspects of the educational environment. Pupils and students have the right to choose representatives of educational environment (UMR). The management of the educational institution must involve the “UMRs” in the planning, preparation and execution and follow-up of the report of educational environment.
”Aesthetic, yes please” published by The Danish Centre of Educational Environment, 2003
”About experiencing architecture” by Steen Eiler Rasmussen
”Architecture dk”, 47th volume, April 2003
”Archetectural psychology – sports room as co- and counter-player”, published by the The Foundation of Room and Facility, 2003
”The good school – ecology in the school”, published by the Danish Centre of City Ecology, 2002
”Don’t put limits to your senses, the sound and the learning environment”, published by Ecophon, 2002
November 21st, 2006