The identification of the built environment’s impact on the learning progress is a major new finding in school’s research (Barrett et al, 2015, 2013). Utilising University College London Academy as an exemplar, state-of-the-art public secondary school, the blog will focus on the interplay between strong and weak boundaries and their impact on the learning process. More specifically, it will draw on concepts of classification and framing, as described by Bernstein (1971), making a reference to spatial and social configurational elements, and the way these are affected by movement economies (Hillier 1997).
The main principles of the Academy’s organisation are already manifested from the outside (see Fig.1a). Colour coding reflects the house system, which is based on five constellations. Every student belongs to a house for the duration of their time at the Academy. The identity component is very strong within the school itself; both socially by house identification, and spatially, by the five staircases that link all floors, each belonging to a different house (see Fig.1b). Moreover, educational development is also reflected in the school’s layout; sixth form students take up the top floor, seventh year students the floor beneath, and the rest of the floors are used by everybody else (see Fig.2). ‘Framing’ therefore, in terms of group selection and organisation is defined by strong boundaries.
On the contrary, the nature of teaching and learning is characterised by weak boundaries. Teaching happens in the ‘superstudios’; a group of open plan, linked spaces that encourage students to move between activities, working collaboratively and across disciplines (see Fig.3a and Fig.3b). Individual effort and group learning are both important aspects of the Academy’s agenda. There is also high inter-visibility among pupils and visual control of what is happening inside the class by both teachers and students. The fact that the teachers’ offices are transparent and located immediately opposite the ‘superstudios’, emphasise the blurred thresholds between teacher-pupil interface. This is also obvious in the ‘enclosed’ teaching spaces, such as the dance and music studios, where glazed partitions enable visual surveillance from the corridor (see Fig.3d). Another interesting spatial element is the integrated toilet space, used by both genders; the fact that it is exposed to high movement flows, has significantly reducing bullying (see Fig.3c).
As far as ‘classification’ is concerned (or what Bernstein (1971:231) terms as ‘the degree of boundary-maintenance between contents’), although there is a strong specialisation of the school’s curriculum towards STEM (10% of which is controlled by UCL, acting as an intellectual sponsor), there’s also emphasis on an interdisciplinary progression, enabling students to build their own educational agenda. Learning is negotiable and teachers become facilitators of information. Even if the curriculum initially shaped by the building, the flexibility of its internal space over time enabled teachers to adapt it according to their needs. Furthermore, different styles of furniture accommodate a diverse teaching style, illustrating the ability for both teachers and students, to personalise the learning process (see Fig.4).
Overall, UCL Academy can be characterised by the ‘strength of weak ties’ (Granovetter, 1973), since its social system lies in strong organisational boundaries, such as the House System, but weak overall spatial structure. High levels of movement flows enhance its social dynamics, maintaining a multi-cultural environment that thrives on openness, equality and inclusivity.
- Barrett, P., Davies, F., Zhang, Y. and Barrett, L. 2015. The impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning: Final results of a holistic, multi-level analysis. Building and Environment. [online] 89, pp. 118-133. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360132315000700 [Accessed 12 December 2015].
- Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J. and Kobbacy, K., 2013. A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils’learning. Building and Envrionment. [online] 59, pp. 678-689. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360132312002582#fig1 [Accessed 12 December 2015].
- Bernstein, B. 1973. Class, Codes and Control. London:Routledge.
- Granovetter, M. S. 1973. The Strength of Weak Ties. The American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), pp. 1360-1380.
- Hillier, B. 1997. Cities as Movement Economies. In: P. Droege (Ed.), Intelligent Environments: Spatial Aspects of the Information Revolution, Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 295-344.
All images by the author, except Figure 1a:
Penoyre and Prasad Architects. UCL Academy, London. Work Report, http://www.penoyreprasad.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Project-sheet-Schools-UCL-Academy-Penoyre-and-Prasad.pdf [accessed on 12 December 2015].