How Our School Environments Shape Behavior | Harbord & Khan | 3 Min Read

October 20, 2022

We challenged our students to consider how architecture can change the use and purpose of a place to develop community, as we were interested in seeing if they could connect design with action. Could a redeveloped area of our school or community space change the behavior of the user, and of course it did. The area outside our Design & Technology lab was empty and underused: it was just a walkway. In response to our design challenge, students used recycled materials to create outdoor tables, seating, and vegetable planters. Soon after, this previously neglected space became a break-time hang-out spot. When our computer lab was ready for a revamp, we invited our students to make design suggestions. A Grade 10 student with an interest in architecture presented us with a design that included standing tables for the computers. We managed to build the design during a Christmas break, and the delight on his face when he returned was wonderful to see.

Novel ways of gathering data on existing school spaces can inspire innovative solutions. Students can investigate school spaces through the lenses of sense perception, language, imagination, intuition, memory, and emotion as demonstrated in the graphic. 

Here are examples that can inspire student inquiry from the Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 4 & 5:

Hayden Annable (Founder of Curvatecture-Sustainable design):

  • Understanding space through imagination: Equality and mutual respect, for me, always brings people together and closer. A circle is an all-inclusive shape, so creating a circular building gives everybody the same position within it and the same level of inclusion.
  • Understanding space through listening: The shape of buildings not only changes the look but drastically changes the sound of the internal spaces. This is one of the most amazing differences between circular and domed buildings and makes me feel amazingly different once inside them. 

Zeynep (High School Student): 

  • Understanding a city through imagination and emotion: The soul of a city is hidden beneath its architecture and history, inside the mortar of its buildings and between the flagstones. Today’s society is too busy to notice these hidden beauties, too blind to see, and too deaf to hear the city.

Teachers should also consider classroom spaces as students head back to school. How school spaces are organized not only changes how students behave but also changes how teachers themselves behave. Jared Della Valle (NY Architect and Developer) asked: “Can architecture function as an equalizer rather than a segregator?” One way to help teachers change their teaching style from sage on the stage to an inclusive style was to remove the teacher’s desk. Teachers often unknowingly use the desk to create a barrier between themselves and the students. When the desk goes, the teacher spends more time moving around the class. You could say that it wasn’t a popular choice initially; however, after a few weeks, the teachers themselves could see how the dynamics of the classroom had been altered. Does your school still have teacher desks as the norm?

Opportunities to explore your teaching space

  • Differentiation: Think about voice and choice not just in the curriculum, but also in the physical space. To what extent can you include students in conversations about their own learning spaces?
  • Communication: We may communicate intentionally and unintentionally using body language, but what are the opportunities and challenges of an intentionally designed space? What does the physical space that your students occupy signal to them?
  • Diversity and inclusion: What does a learner-centered classroom look like? Who gets to make the decisions about the space? Do your students see themselves reflected in the space? 
  • Biophilia: Something to consider when designing spaces is Biophilia. It originally meant the ‘love of life.” It has now been redefined as “a hypothetical human tendency to interact or be closely associated with other forms of life in nature: a desire or tendency to commune with nature.”  
  • SEL: Consider social-emotional learning. How do your students respond to your classroom environment?

Of course, there have been many changes in classroom design, and some schools have well-thought-out learning spaces with a variety of different tables and seating to cater to different student learning, as well as physical and emotional needs. Do you have any autonomy over your classroom design? As an educator using the space, how does your school environment shape you?

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Harbord & Khan for Intrepid Ed News.

Harbord and Khan

Meredith Harbord EdD and Sara Riaz Khan are global educators who use ethical dilemmas to enrich and transform curriculum. Their student centric approach is driven by an ethical model and innovative tools that support critical thinking and creativity. Meredith and Sara’s collaboration as Design teachers at ABA Oman International School in Muscat, focused on sustainability, ethical design and global mindedness and inspired them to establish Harbord & Khan Educational Consultants. They develop units of work based on real world issues to engage and challenge students for diverse curriculums (IB, PBL, Common Core and Australian) and are available for professional development and to create programs to meet the specific needs of your school. Meredith and Sara have authored two teacher curriculum books ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 1, 2 & 3’ and ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 4 & 5’ (2020). Website:

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