At the time of writing (Spring 2021) the Big Conversation is all about getting our children back to school safely and getting their education back on-stream after a lost year caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. But what do we mean by ‘education’ in this context? Is it just a case of filling heads with facts or – as many experts are saying – is it about bringing young people back into a social environment where communication skills matter as much as the Three Rs?
What do we need from the educational environment and what role can lighting play in achieving those ends?
The principles of learning are the same whether we are eight or eighty years old. We learn by observation; by interaction; by application, whether that be in the classroom, the science room, in an online teaching session, or standing in a field. Of all our senses, SIGHT plays an enormous role in understanding.
If we cannot see clearly then it becomes difficult to interpret information properly. Poor lighting makes it difficult for us to identify visual images or to read facial expressions and to interpret body language. Light supports what’s going on beyond the obvious practice of ‘learning’ by providing us with the means to see what’s going on behind the words.
How does that work in practice? How do we see to learn? More to the point . . . how do we see at all?
External stimuli is what it takes; the knowledge of things that exist outside of us that we assimilate through our senses in order to understand them. It’s reckoned that 80%+ of our sensory input is visual, with 10%+ coming via our hearing. Smell, touch and taste make up the rest. But there’s something else going on. It’s also estimated that our visual perception is made up of 80% memory and only 20% direct input through the eye. So most of our visual understanding of the world comes from our internal memory banks – we see what we remember. And that puts a lot of emphasis on us getting the direct visual input correct in the first place.
And that is where good lighting comes in. Let’s look at a few of the educational spaces that concern us.
There’s more to the modern teaching space than the conventional classroom, but visual requirements remain the same. To learn properly we need multiple inputs; its not just about staring at the white board or screen. What is equally important are our surroundings. Everything that we see and understand is seen against something else – we learn in context.
There is a cultural aspect to this as well. The quality of the learning environment also plays a huge role in how much we learn. If the UK government is serious about Building Back Better, then the educational built environment needs to be at the top of the list for improvement.
As the Italians (nearly) have it: “Give children a fish and you feed them for a day. Teach them to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.” This is important stuff.
Learning in the formal Teaching Space.
The focal point of learning may still be a teacher at the front of a group of students and the lighting need is still to make that focus as comfortable as possible. But we need to light in a way that supports a decent attention span. We don’t teach by pouring information down a tube and, paradoxically perhaps, visual comfort comes from things other than what we’re expected to look at.
Learning in the informal Social Space.
The experience of the pandemic has highlighted the important of social interaction among young people . . . we may say, among all of us. Learning goes on all the time, though the nature of that learning may differ. We all continue to learn when we spend time with other people, whether with our peer group in a school setting or enjoying a break in a coffee shop. This may be ‘soft learning’ but it is learning none the less.
Teaching within a closed box is not conducive to good learning; we all need to be able to ‘look away’. Classroom lighting isn’t like a night at the theatre or cinema, it is more akin to a walk in the park. Our teaching spaces need lighting that supports ‘looking away’, whether that be the relative close viewing of the peripheral surroundings or a view out of a window to a distant landscape, this is all vital for good perception.
The visual quality of the social space needs to support these social interactions. We may choose to use a semi-decorative lighting language, with pendants and wall lights, rather than employing the conventions of the formal learning space. But we mustn’t imagine that time spent in these spaces is learning time going to waste. We just learn different skills, that is all.
We have seen the advent of social spaces in new educational architecture. Well lit, these spaces can provide a very different atmosphere; more relaxed, so less stressful; less focused, so more conducive to broader thinking.
But we need to be careful about these spaces. When indifference creeps into design thinking (there’s nothing going on in these spaces so we don’t have any task illumination to think about) then we forget the crucial relationship between the quality of our environment – the furniture; the acoustics; the ventilation; in the lighting – and have the ability to bring people, children, adolescents and adults, to an open and receptive state of being.
The private learning space.
Home learning has been the bane of many young people’s lives over the past year. Our homes aren’t usually set-up for long periods of close study – unless we’re watching a 3-hour movie on the TV or trying to get to grips with a particularly difficult jigsaw puzzle. But these are singular activities that engage us (or not) depending on the imagery. We can learn from a TV, if it’s the latest David Attenborough documentary, but it’s rare that the screen alone can provide a suitable environment for our personal learning. We need to look beyond Zoom, and that brings us inevitably to what the private learning space looks like.
We’ve addressed this issue in a previous article:
If we’re to take the private learning space seriously, then we need to look beyond the ergonomics of the bedroom. A laptop and a duvet do not make a decent learning environment. It may work for short periods of time, but we really need to establish dedicated learning spaces within and outside of the home. We need to make that possible. Ideally, we should be looking at a learning spaces with sufficient space to take all the paraphernalia of education and – yes – it should be lit properly, using localised task lighting.
The starting point will be the home, of course. And it will work for those homes that have enough space to dedicate a room, or part of a room, to a learning space. We can create those ‘learning pods’ within the home by developing package designs that meet the scale of domestic architecture.
And there are many thousands of children who do not have the benefit of a generously proportioned home. For those people, we need to think outside the current box of ‘home learning’. We have a high street that is being hollowed out; retail tenants are falling away, leaving empty spaces with no obvious purpose. Except that we’re looking for a decent private learning space for those who can’t access formal spaces (for whatever reason) but who also need to sustain and develop their social skills. The term ‘learning pod’ is intended quite deliberately. If we reconfigure commercial space to become secondary and tertiary learning spaces then we bring new life to the centre of our towns, while providing a good quality learning environment for everyone concerned.
By the way: we also need to look at how we manage our lighting; it can’t always be a switch by the door.
We’ll take care of that in our next article.