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Making School Design More Ethical and Useful for Teachers

Adam Wood

When it comes to school buildings, the architect Peter Blundell Jones observed that in comparison to the “curriculum, the rule book, the head teacher’s policy, the staff hierarchy”, a school’s space is easier to forget: “We become blind to [it] once habituated in the use of a building, for it seems just to be there, and we have to make an imaginative leap to envisage how it might be otherwise.” (Blundell Jones 2015:13)

“Part of my argument that I’ll be presenting at this year’s BERA conference is that educational space is fraught with political concern both because it is easy to forget and because we are ‘helped’ to forget it”

Part of my argument that I’ll be presenting at this year’s BERA conference and that is based on an ethnography over two years in an English school, is that educational space is particularly fraught with political concern both because it is easy to forget (as Blundell Jones notes) and because we are ‘helped’ to forget it by the conceptual models that are often employed in architectural discourse and in school-building policies.

For example, ‘flexible learning spaces’ or similar are currently en vogue. These sound promising – as if their design can, in fact, offer flexibility. I argue that what is happening here is part of a larger pattern that seeks to reduce architecture to a technology of learning maximisation and, in the process, fetishizes space at the expense of recognising teachers’ (and others’) work. Drawing on data from my ethnography, I make the case that what really matters for teachers is not the claimed, theoretically-tenuous property of flexibility but whether or not a given space can be used flexibly.

This is more than a quibble over words. In the lives of teachers, ‘use’ of space is also work – a fact often forgotten in architectural celebrations of school design. Recognising the use of space as work is important both because it helps to recognise teachers’ contributions to engaging with space in creative ways (and the curricular, assessment, organisational and other constraints they come up against and often work hard to overcome), but also philosophically. If flexibility is now not an automatic, ex ante property of designed space and rather something that results from people’s interactions with architecture, we might be able to move towards more helpful conceptions and designs of educational space.

Flexibility is one example. More broadly, however, it is attractive (especially to policymakers) to see new school designs as levers of educational change: a 21st century school design sounds like it will help the schooling that happens in it to be 21st century too – whatever that might be. However, the conceptual reductionism that is reproduced in the more excited architectural and educational policy literature further helps us to forget what space really is – as much an achievement of people’s work together as it is a well-designed Euclidean box suitable for education.

Further, reductive concepts of architecture and space are used performatively to extract increasing outputs of learning (or are assumed to be able to do so). School buildings are presented in similar ways to Evgeny Morozov’s “solutionism”, a process that recasts “complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized” (Morozov 2013:5). Applied to school design, solutionism posits architecture as the answer: insufficiently 21st century? Not flexible enough? Design can resolve that.

Alternatively, design can help ‘sell’ a boost to the creeping performative spirit in both education and architecture as in this example from The Architects’ Journal, a celebratory editorial announcing a new think tank, “#GREATSCHOOLS”:

As schools behave more like private businesses they will be in competition with one another to attract the best teachers and students. Architects can draw on their experience in the private sector to help them achieve this (The Architects’ Journal, 2015:online).

At the BERA conference, I will be setting out some of the conceptual challenges facing school design in a paper “A Problem of Spatial Fetishism: how to make school architecture more ethical and effective for teachers”. As the title suggests, however, I hope to provide more than critique by drawing on architects such as Herman Hertzberger and the economist-philosopher Amartya Sen to explore spatial opportunities that could support more ethical and empowering concepts of school design for teachers and students too.


The Architects’ Journal. (2015) #GREATSCHOOLS: Think Tank [online]. Available from:

Blundell Jones, P. (2015) ‘The Development of the School Building and the Articulation of Territory’, in Pamela Woolner (ed.) School Design Together. London: Routledge. pp. 11–31.

Morozov, E. (2013) To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. New York: PublicAffairs.

Presentation details: Teachers, Pedagogy, and the Classroom Environment Wednesday 6th September 2017, 12.10 – 13.40  FUL-103