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"Tackling the Crime of School Design" (7 of 8)

PAGE 7. Continued from page 6.


“Tackling the Crime of School Design”
Book Excerpt from Rena Upitis
, former Dean of Education at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario; currently Professor of Arts Education at Queen’s University.

Full biographical and contact information available on page 7.
Citations on page 8.


Here is another seemingly mundane, but highly significant issue. When I was in the middle stages of writing this book and our family was living in Canberra, I spent many hours at the Orana Rudolf Steiner School in Weston Creek talking with members of the school community about their views on school architecture. Not surprisingly, I heard common sentiments, echoed time and again; about particular architectural considerations Steiner thought important the use of oblique angles and rounded corners so students feel enclosed and safe, the use of certain colours to create feelings of warmth, and the presence of natural objects to develop reverence for living things. One of the most interesting conversations I had about school buildings was with a primary school teacher who, in response to my question, “Is there anything else you wish I had asked you about?” said she wanted to talk about toilets.

By toilets, she was referring to the shared areas - variously known as bathrooms or washrooms or water closets - where there are a number of toilets in stalls available for use by students from mixed grades. These are the toilets we see in every school, and in other public places like movie theatres, parks, and shopping malls.

This teacher - who had taught in the elementary grades for over 30 years - said toilets invite and attract threatening and cruel behavior. Threatening toilet behavior, she said, begins early, in the first grade; almost from the very moment children begin to use school toilets. The toilets are prime sites for chasing games, bullying, teasing and taunting. This is true even in Steiner schools, where there is an overarching emphasis on human rights and civility. Girls think they will be safe in the toilets but find they are not - children climb up and look over the stalls or crawl under them in their all too successful attempts to bully the occupants. Less serious, but off-putting nonetheless, was this teacher’s description of the physical difficulties young children can have in simply reaching the toilet in time. Even in schools where the toilets are cleaned regularly and religiously, there are occasions when children will say they “can’t go in there because it smells “. Ruefully she commented, “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve mopped up the boys’ toilet because a little boy didn’t get there on time”.

As this narrative unfolded, I found myself drifting off, recalling a vivid incident from my elementary school years. I was in the first grade, and had left the classroom to use the girls’ toilet for the first time. I stood in what felt like a vast and cold room, perplexed because I couldn’t find a sink to wash my hands. As I was standing there, contemplating whether I should return to the classroom with my hands unwashed (would my mother find out?), an older girl went up to what was, I suddenly realized, the sink. The large green-grey circular basin didn’t look anything like the sinks I was familiar with. A foot pedal around the circumference regulated the flow of water that came from the tiny holes punctured in the pipe, also running around the circumference of the basin. I was fascinated. When the other girl left, I went over to the basin and pushed on the foot pedal. Sure enough, the water began to flow. To my surprise, the water was warm.

As I marveled at this new discovery and enjoyed the sensation of water flowing over my hands, a group of older girls entered the washroom and pushed me away from the sink. I was alarmed and scurried quickly back to the safety of the classroom. From then on, using the sink resulted in the dual sensations of enjoyment and trepidation. I knew I was vulnerable with my back turned - yet I took such pleasure in using the wonderful sink.

Back to the conversation. I asked about architectural solutions to the toilet teasing. Would classroom toilets alleviate the problem? Yes, this teacher answered, they would. She went on to describe a classroom where there was a toilet built in, not for the teacher’s use alone, but for the use of the students as well. She claimed there was never a bullying incident when the toilet had a proper door and was designed to be comfortable and inviting. Later, I went to see the toilet she had described. The room was painted white, and the floor was covered with terra cotta tiles. There were wood towel racks, and some small plants on a small shelf above the sink. I found myself thinking such a toilet would be inviting in universities as well - where now, instead of bullying behaviour, what I encounter in the stalls in every university building I have worked in or visited is a flyer with information on what to do about harassment, rape, or where women can find temporary shelter from abusive relationships.

After this conversation, I asked teachers and architects and parents about toilets on a regular basis. Some of the comments were good reminders that toilets can also be positive places to congregate - socially engaging sites for students out of the teacher’s earshot and vision. But more often, stories emerged about how toilets were trouble. A school administrator in Vermont ruefully observed, “That’s where all the mischief happens”. An architect told me his 17-year-old son simply avoided using the high school toilet because of the smell of smoke and the bullying behaviour of the smokers. Another parent, who lives in the sleepy village of Bega, located near the verdant green farms of coastal New South Wales, talked about choosing a high school for her daughter based entirely on the toilet situation. “What’s the point”, she asked, “of sending your child to school if the toilets are filthy by nine o’clock in the morning and smell of marijuana?”

Why don’t we have toilets in every classroom? The short answer, of course, is that plumbing is complicated and expensive. But if we were to factor in the costs more difficult to quantify - teacher time spent on patrolling and maintaining toilets and the social costs paid by students - then perhaps the cost of classroom toilets is not so extravagant after all. It comes down to what we value. ( 51 )

If we admit the pervasive phenomenon of bullying in toilet areas, less expensive alternatives than classroom toilets could also be designed. An ingenious solution at the Willunga Steiner School is the use of a half-glassed door as an entrance to the stalls, so that while the stalls are private, the toilet area is visible. A similar approach is taken at the Casuarina School in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, where a crescent-shaped half-glazed wall at the back of the classroom separates the classroom space from the toilet stalls as well as a storage cupboard. This arrangement allows the teacher to be in view of the classroom when she goes to the storage cupboard, and also, for her to see the children as they approach and leave the toilets. Because of the natural light flooding the classroom area, this arrangement has the additional advantage of making the toilet and storage areas bright and inviting.

In 1969, American psychiatrist Robert Coles put together a striking collection of students’ thoughts on school architecture. ( 52 ) A young adolescent boy named Arthur, living in an unnamed urban ghetto, fervently believed each classroom should have its own bathroom. He said:

They should have one for our homeroom, one for each one, and then we wouldn’t be walking all over, and it would be ours; and that goes for eating, too. I mean, why couldn’t they have a kitchen for us, like at home? My mother said if they can build these fancy apartment buildings so you can each have your refrigerator and your bathroom, they could do it for us in school, and then the whole place would be better, because we’d have a nice room and you wouldn’t have to go a mile and then find a big bathroom and you can get lost in it and by the time you get back you’ve missed everything they’ve been talking about. ( 53 )

The same child said of his school, “The whole place, it’s pretty bad. I’ll tell you why, I will. My sister said it was like a jail the other day… I step and fall, because the floors are no good … and it’s like in a war, in a battle”. ( 54 )

Doing battle? Well, yes. Ugly schools sap the life right out of students and teachers and everyone else who goes there. School buildings tell students and teachers what societies value, what kinds of learning are important, and ultimately, what kinds of human beings we wish our students to become. Right now—no matter how valiant the teachers’ efforts - a lot of our school buildings are teaching students some awful lessons: lessons about compliance, lessons about thoughtless dominance over nature.

School architecture needs to be radically re-thought. Such a re-thinking is not just about improving lighting or creating better storage spaces, adding a bit of colour to a university bulletin board, building classroom toilets, or even about creating better school theatres. We need to design buildings and landscapes that resonate with our biological and aesthetic sensibilities, because the ways students experience schools will forever shape their paths on this precious and fragile planet.

Article citations found on page 8.

Continue reading: page 1 | page 2 | page 3 | page 4 | page 5 | page 6 | page 8 (Citations page)


Author Information:

Rena Upitis is a former Dean of Education at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, and is currently Professor of Arts Education at Queen’s University. She just finished a six-year term as National Research Co-director of Learning Through the Arts, a multi-year project that brings artists to the classrooms of over 100,000 students. Her current passions revolve around the ways in which school architecture both constrains and opens up possibilities for learning. She has just completed a book manuscript titled Raising a School. Rena teaches courses on music and mathematics curriculum methods, integrated arts and technology, and research methods. She has worked as a music teacher in inner-city schools in Canada and the United States and has been a studio teacher of piano and music theory for over 30 years. Rena frequently presents at conferences and publishes widely in academic and professional journals, mostly on issues mathematics and arts education.

Two of her books, This Too is Music (Heinemann) and Can I Play You My Song? (Heinemann) focus on teaching music in elementary classroom. Another co-authored book, Creative Mathematics (Routledge) explores ways of approaching mathematics through the arts. Her various research projects, funded by SSHRC and NSERC, as well as through foundations, industry, and government, have explored teacher, artist, and student transformation through the arts and the use of electronic games in mathematics and science education.

Rena’s research has been recognized by several awards, including the George C. Metcalf Research Award (2002) and the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies Publication Award (2005). She lives in a restored limestone village schoolhouse just outside of Kingston, Ontario with her partner, Gary William Rasberry, their two children, and a changing cast of wild creatures and household pets.

Contact Information:

You can reach Rena by email at

February 26th, 2007

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