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Building smarter schools

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Grey skies and cool wet weather can’t wash away Ruth Jory’s smile.

The matriarch of Thomas Wells Public School in Scarborough has entertained many visitors. As the principal of Canada’s First LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified school – the benchmark for eco-friendly building design – Jory has toured a lot of reporters, educators and students through her facility.

The students seem alert, excited and happy too. After two years of operation, Thomas Wells remains a powerful example of the possibilities in education design.  Despite the dreary weather, daylight pours in through the windows at all angles, illuminating every corner of the facility.

“What you’ll find with kids today, apart from when I was growing up and we spent a lot of time playing outdoors, they don’t’ have that so much,” she said. “So it’s good for them to be in a building full of sunlight. It helps to create that connection.”

The school’s resource centre beams with brightness because a giant south facing glass wall at ground level reaches up to meet with a skylight facing upwards. This then faces an array of second level glass-walled workrooms on the other side.

Executive superintendent with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Sheila Penny noted that plentiful windows are a top priority when designing new schools.

“There is a direct correlation between test scores and natural light and it’s not just any light; it’s specifically natural light from more than one aspect,” she said. “So in our buildings we try and have light coming from two or three different directions into the space.”

This multi-layered approach to lighting ensures even distribution. DeAnna Radaj, a design consultant, borrows from Feng Shui to apply useful design principles that benefit the creative mind. She emphasized the importance of replacing traditional overhead with a layered approach.

“You don’t want any dark corners because that represents stagnant energy or dead space,” she said. “It’s important to have even lighting because if you don’t have a well lit space that can cause headaches and make it difficult to focus.”

Sally Augustin recognizes the positive side effect of allowing sunlight to stream into classrooms as well as a framed view of the outdoors. As an environmental psychologist, she has explored school design in the United States. She links a view of the outdoors with mental alertness.

“When kids can see out the window, particularly if it’s a nature view, they sort of recharge their attention batteries,” she said.

Augustin explained that any kind of work that requires extensive thinking can create a dearth in mental energy.

“When any human being does a lot of thinking or knowledge work, they run down their stock of mental energy,” she said. “When people can see the natural world those stalks of mental energy are restored and that makes learning more effective.”

What’s more, a view helps to break down those unnatural barriers between that natural world that principal Jory spoke of. In his book Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability, Michael Stone emphasized the importance of using educational facilities to help reconnect with the natural word. One of the guiding principles of his book – written with the Centre for Ecoliteracy – is the idea that “nature is our teacher.”

“We look at things like gardens, natural habitats, rainwater catching systems,” he said. “All sorts of things where you consider the schoolyard to be an ecosystem rather than just a playground.”

Thomas Wells School offers just that. Along with a number of “outdoor classrooms” – courtyards set up for classes to take advantage of weather conditions – Jory also points out the school’s green roof where students have created a gardening club.

“We have a really active eco-team, a green club and the students do it all,” she said.

Stone points out that studies show not only do students enjoy activities such as gardening, but it actually has a positive effect on standardized test scores – even in subjects that are seemingly unrelated. This kind of project-based learning where children can see an outcome with intrinsic value gives purpose to the assignments.

“[The result] is higher scores in reading, writing, math, science, better grade point average, improved behaviour in class, increased self esteem, improved conflict resolution, improved problem solving and higher level thinking skills,” Stone said.

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