How the out-of-classroom experience can foster social and emotional learning

By Sean O’Donnell, AIA, LEED AP
“The social universe of the school is at the center of the teenagers’ lives. That fact presents a danger … but also a promise: for school also offers every teenager a living laboratory for learning how to connect positively with other people.”—Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships

The formal process of education is often focused on classrooms and labs, but learning is not confined to the classroom alone. It occurs throughout a school or campus, throughout the day. While out-of-classroom learning may concentrate on topics discussed in class, informal out-of-classroom interaction is also an opportunity to encourage social and emotional learning—one of the keys to children’s life-long success.

Raymond Pasi, principal of Yorktown High School and author of Higher Expectations: Promoting Social-Emotional Learning and Academic Achievement in Your School, sums up the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL). “In order to live an integrated, balanced life, some self understanding, self control and interpersonal skills are needed,” he writes, “Otherwise, all the academic instruction in the world may never have the opportunity to take root and flourish.”

A Lost Opportunity
Educators have put considerable emphasis on integrating SEL into the curriculum, but how does the school environment foster such learning outside of the classroom, in informal settings, where students control the discussion?

In his 1979 book Surviving and Other Essays, child development specialist Bruno Bettelheim noted that the “public space” in schools has traditionally done “more justice to traffic flow” than to the developmental needs of students. “Corridors could educate and give the feeling that they were built as something for the children to enjoy,” Bettelheim wrote, but “they are so structured as to compel us to hurry through them. We cannot tarry to enjoy a momentary leisure, to let our thoughts wander as we stroll to develop personal relations. … A corridor is neither the place for informal encounters … nor does it invite companiable walking.”

The unsupportive quality of public space in schools often is reinforced by a conventional design process that emphasizes the important formal settings—the “program” spaces—but minimizes the “nonprogram” space as a way to control costs. Public space such as corridors can represent 10 to 20 percent of a school building, however, and is often a lost opportunity in design.

Life Between Classes
So how do the nonprogram spaces reflect what’s happening in the classroom? Can they have a positive impact on students and help create caring learning communities?

Observing a California high school, researcher Herb Childress noted that nonprogram spaces became “a seamless, connected arcade” between classes. “A lot of living went on in the five minutes between classes: secrets shared, makeup refreshed, snacks consumed, books exchanged,” he wrote in Landscapes of Betrayal, Landscapes of Joy. The informal interaction during this time is an opportunity to practice, model, and reinforce the behaviors associated with SEL.

The best colleges and universities have long understood that out-of-classroom interaction complements the more formal and structured interaction in class. At Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College, for example, buildings are designed to promote serendipitous as well as planned meetings in the public spaces. In the renovation of Trotter Hall, a new stair became not just circulation but a place that encourages students and faculty to cross paths, to stop and chat for a minute, or to linger longer as the conversation and time allow. Likewise, the halls feature spaces that let students to step out of the path of travel, pause, and converse with a classmate or teacher.

Can we design the “connective” spaces in secondary schools in a similar way to reflect our concern for development of the whole student? The first step might be to consider circulation systems not as corridors but as public places. Once we have elevated their status beyond circulation, our task becomes one of designing great places that foster positive interaction, not just movement.

Metaphorically, this is no different than designing a great neighborhood or city. While a neighborhood’s buildings should be well designed, it is the public places—the streets, sidewalks, and parks—that foster a sense of community. Just as we can analyze great public places in cities to determine how they work, we can identify some features that define great public places in a school campus.

Place-Making and the Heart of the School
Making such places doesn’t necessarily require more space. It requires thinking about allocating space differently—having a more caring and comprehensive attitude about space and students alike.

For example, high school students have told us about the social dimensions of early morning chats by their lockers. With some schools relying less on homerooms, students often gather in small groups and sit on the floor. In a conventional double-loaded corridor, this obstructs the flow of traffic and tends to aggravate others.

If we allocated space a little differently, perhaps creating a small alcove with a comfortable place to sit, students could get together before beginning the day without affecting others. If these small places were near classrooms, students could gather comfortably before class. During class, the same areas could be used as break-out spaces by small groups collaborating on a project.

We’ve also seen students eating informally in various places around high school campuses—in the halls, in classrooms, and outside. Choosing these locations may give students a sense of individuality and control and allow them to engage friends and teachers more casually. If we designed places for smaller, more intimate groups to eat lunch—one of the most social of activities—schools would feel less institutional and more like campuses designed for students and for academic and social and emotional learning.

Creating small public places throughout a campus could help organize the entire building. If they are planned in conjunction with program spaces, these informal social spaces could create conceptual neighborhoods that foster SEL and help personalize large schools.

Several of these conceptual neighborhoods could be gathered together into a “village.” Where the neighborhoods come together, we could create a public place that would be considered the heart of the school—a place recognized by the entire community as the central place on campus, a place where everyone crosses paths, where larger, informal gatherings can occur to celebrate successes, and where the learning community presents its public face.

The heart of the school could take many forms and serve many more formal functions. But like a town square, it must be central to the campus and encourage informal interaction.

‘Third Places’ and Personalization
In his 1989 book The Great, Good Place, urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote about cafes, bookstores, and other hangouts—semi-public places that foster informal social interaction and enhance social skills. Such “third places,” as Oldenburg called them, exist in schools as well as in cities. These places are not purely instructional, but neither are they considered nonprogram areas. They include cyber cafes, student unions, and areas for student activities and community services.

Third places invite drop-in visits and informal use. Situated in high-visibility locations surrounding important public places like the heart of the school, they could encourage active use of public places, feature the activities in those places, and enhance subtle security (download the article to see a sidebar on subtle security).

Finally, the ability to personalize a place is empowering for students and teachers alike. Displaying work or awards or ideas on the walls or in display cases in a public place reinforces the culture of a caring learning community and can celebrate positive SEL behavior and accomplishment. Such personalization can be fleeting—a note to a friend or a flyer about an upcoming activity—or long lasting, such as a mural created by students.

As schools and colleges increasingly emphasize academic performance, evidence mounts that performance is enhanced and even facilitated by social and emotional competencies. In schools where SEL is integrated into the formal curriculum, the public spaces are where students practice and model what they’ve learned.

Accordingly, the connective spaces in educational facilities must be designed as attentively as the formal learning settings. By creating actively used public places that foster positive interaction, we can create comprehensive settings for learning.