Research Summary

The Teaching Green School Building: a framework for linking architecture and environmental education

Creating School Buildings that Teach and Encourage Sustainability

Environmental Education Research

In the last several years, an increasing interest has led to increased resources being put into making school buildings more sustainable. The majority of these efforts have focused on the physical elements of green building, such as reduced energy consumption and indoor air quality. There has been much less attention given to the social dimension of what it means to create green schools and how building design can facilitate that. This article explores the idea of using school design to teach about, and support the teaching of, environmental issues. The author proposes a framework called the Teaching Green Building Model for Learning (TGB model). This model can be used to consider dimensions of how a school building, the people within it, and various teaching strategies can all interact to encourage environmental education within a school.

One of the most common ways to use a green building to teach about environmental issues is to put up signage that provides, for example, information on environmental features of the building or reminders to recycle. Although this is a good place to start, this type of teaching is passive and individual and allows limited opportunity for discussion and activity. One of the author’s primary goals in this paper was to expand the sense of possibilities for how to use a building to teach by including space for social interaction, discussion, and physical engagement. To do this, the author researched several schools that have already instituted TGB features. She also incorporated theory from environmental education, architecture, and museum studies.

The TGB model presented in this paper includes three spectrums of engagement: (1) formal to informal engagement, (2) passive to active engagement, and (3) individual to collective engagement. Engagement in all of these cases can involve person-environment interaction (personal context) and/or person-person interaction (sociocultural context); all are supported by the physical environment (physical context). Finally, these educational strategies can also be considered along a spectrum of passive/instructional strategies to active/experiential strategies. The idea behind this framework is to create a variety of possibilities that work together to support student engagement with environmental issues in and around the school building. The article then includes examples of how to consider and contain elements along each of these spectrums in school and curriculum design.

The TGB model can be used for both formal and informal learning. Formal teaching can include lesson plans designed around green building features, such as maintaining a school garden, or studying features of the green building, such as solar energy production. The building can also be used in nonscience classes, such as arts and humanities. This can be done, for example, by sketching the school campus or writing a history of the school grounds. The green building can also provide a backdrop for informal learning that goes on between classes, such as with signage, energy feedback monitors that provide real-time energy information, or play structures made of recycled materials, which can serve as reminders about environmental awareness. Additionally, informal learning activities can be held, such as gardening clubs or environment-awareness clubs.

A second dimension considered by the TGB model is the degree to which building features solicit active versus passive engagement from students. Signage, as mentioned, is a passive, unidirectional way of teaching. A more active approach could be accomplished by offering guided or self-guided tours of the building and grounds, pointing out environmental features of the design. Another way to encourage active engagement is by teaching students to help maintain the environmental performance of the buildings, such as by turning off lights, lowering thermostats in the colder months and raising them in the warmer months, or operating windows to optimize heating and cooling of the building.

A third consideration is the degree to which each student has opportunities to engage with the green building individually versus in a social setting. Offering students opportunities to engage on their own can allow for reflection without the distraction of other people. On the other hand, social interaction and observation with other people has been shown to offer opportunities for increased understanding and shifts of perspective in educational research done in other settings—such as museums. The author highlights two ways to consider the social aspect of green buildings: social interaction and social norms. Social interaction refers to thinking about ways the building, as a space, can encourage social interaction, exploration, and learning; for example, the building can include physical spaces for student groups to meet. The building can also be designed in such a way so it encourages unplanned interactions, especially around teaching green features. Social norms can also be considered; this relates to encouraging positive behaviors, such as recycling. Building design and features can encourage the development of these social norms by making behaviors like recycling highly visible and convenient.

The author also discusses other aspects of building design considerations, such as architectural configuration and design. She discusses, for example, how the aesthetic choices of the building communicate the underlying philosophy and values of a school.

Finally, the author discusses the role of the culture of a school, which can institute guidelines and mission statements that demonstrate and support commitment to environmental sustainability. She also notes that it is important to consider the space and time that students have outside of formal class time. If students are so busy that they do not have time to linger between classes or for self-directed learning, many of these informal environmental education features may be ineffective.

The Bottom Line

The Teaching Green Building Model for Learning (TGB) offers a variety of mutually supportive ways to create and use a building—in particular, a school—to enhance environmental learning. Specifically, the model suggests three spectrums of student engagement to consider including in building and program design: (1) formal to informal, (2) passive to active, and (3) individual to collective. These suggestions provide a framework for considering ideas that go well beyond signage on walls to incorporate opportunities for interactive behaviors and activities, such as school gardens, building tours, art projects, and environmental clubs. Although many of the ideas speak specifically to the design of new school buildings, many can be implemented regardless of how green a building already is. This framework, for example, could encourage the creation of visual displays, hands-on activities, or activities outside the building that are tailored to the existing school environment.