The hidden curriculum of space


March 29, 2011 by Willy Cardoso

In the past ten years, I’ve grown very fond of architecture, urbanism, spatial design and analysis, these kind of things, and lately I have started to study a bit of that applied to education. There are amazing case studies of school buildings that apparently after improvements had influence on learning outcomes, and also disastrous projects that – I don’t know how – managed to make the school building an even less comfortable place.

Think outside the box, but study inside one.

That’s more or less how I see school buildings.


So, the other day I was also taking a look at some academic discussions about hidden curriculum and found a very interesting connection to school architecture.

The hidden curriculum of space:

–       Relatively little attention has been given to analyzing the influence of the spaces provided in schools on educating.

–       Teachers’ rooms may indicate a great deal about them and their views of education.

–       Many teachers show limited environmental competence: room arrangements often fail to back up the teachers’ intentions.

–       Buildings may outlast the theories of education on which their design was based, and create problems for later users who have different ideas (Meighan and Harber, 2007)

Environmental competence: (a) a person’s ability to be aware of surrounding environment and its impact on him; and (b) his ability to use or change his settings to help him achieve his goals without inappropriately destroying the setting or reducing his sense of effectiveness or that of the people around him. (Steele, 1973)

There were also these very good questions:

  • Is it hidden intentionally to manipulate and persuade?
  • Is it hidden because no one notices or recognizes it?
  • Is it hidden because it has been forgotten or neglected?
  • Is it hidden because the originator has left?

And I thought that in any case, teachers need to talk more about it. Don’t you think?


With an architect mom and LEGOing being my favorite pastime* as a kid, I don’t know why I didn’t want to become an architect.

*wait, there’s no pastime before you have to go to school and have to do your homework, there’s just time and it’s a very different notion of time as far as I can remember — oh I know, it’s the hidden curriculum of time.



8 thoughts on “The hidden curriculum of space

  1. Cristina says:

    The “hidden curriculum” is perhaps the least tackled issue in the education system and I think it is due to financial reasons.
    Regardless of its importance, it is buried under other tons of problems schools need to solve.
    Sure, everyone wants FLUID spaces that allow for movement, wandering, collaboration, wondering, too! (I envisioned lots of stuff being placed here and there just for the pure sense of wonder!) – but who is willing to pay for them? The “ideal”school environment is far from sight under current circumstances.
    What irritates me though is WHAT is being displayed in the classrooms. 90% of it is TEACHER’S work, teacher-made materials, boring repetitive “bulletin boards” that show the same assignment, the same task, the same students. In these classrooms everything speaks about the teacher not the student. How sad is that?….
    Angela Maiers have asked that very question: Is Curiosity Valued in Your Classroom? (in relation to the visible part of learning)

    • I sympathize, but I see it a bit differently. In some cases, and as regards space, it’s not about money or time or any other resources, it’s about not knowing better how space influences learning, a bit like teaching methods, we don’t know which is better, we think we know and so we do it the best we can and we do it for ages and ages.

      School buildings are like that, a total mirror of an industrialized world: departments, grades, subjects, squared classrooms, school bell, designated areas for specified activities and so on. And I think that for that purpose they worked quite well. But it’s outdated now.

      How would an ‘information age’ school be? It’s maybe early to say. Maybe, information age doesn’t even depend so much on schools as an industrialized age did.

  2. Cristina says:

    OK. Misspelling. *argh@ me!* Angela Maiers HAS…

  3. Cool as cucumber. You’re right, Willy; space is so important. Think of modern schools with paper thin walls and doors, flat walls with no alcove so that ‘classroom space’ is maximised and you can get as many bodies in the room as possible. How does that facilitate learning.

    I’ve got a nice anecdote re modern vs old fashioned school buildings, but will save it for a bit later as I’m on my phone at the moment.

    Back later!

  4. Wonderful post Willy!
    You really have introduced a new concept to me, well, perhaps brought it to the forefront of my attention. I often make sniping remarks to myself about how bad the classrooms are at my university; the dilapidated chairs, the stained white walls, the stink of the loose hanging curtains… definitely not conducive to learning in my opinion.
    But what will the ‘information age’ school be like? Now that’s a good question. Is it better to have your school at your house, the office, or wandering through a local park with wi-fi. Is the fact that new technology allows us to choose where our classroom is an advantage, or is the classroom even more restricted and restrained by the four walls of your laptop/ipad/phones. Are we trying to break down those walls. Pink Floyd & James have now entered my head and I’ve lost my train of thought… ah well.
    Great post.

    • Thanks a lot for dropping by!

      It would be interesting to see a school in which all classrooms have 3 walls instead of four.

      Regarding technology and your questions, Scott Thornbury proposed some critical questions a couple of days ago at ISTEK Conference.
      To start with we can think:
      What is the problem to which technology is the solution?

  5. monika hardy says:

    cool post.. and comments guys.

    wondering – what if we don’t really need more resources.. in order to have new spaces. what if it’s more a mindset.
    a mindset of noticing..

    i think the walls we need to open up are in our heads..

    i love your title Willy – the hidden curriculum of space.

  6. Thanks, Monika!

    “the walls we need to open up are in our heads” <- That's very true! There's some sort of tendency in 'developmental' attitudes and initiatives to keep it all in the head, and with some luck in the body as a whole; however, we can’t neglect that the layout of our homes, the street grid of our town, and even how supermarket goods are displayed all influence our perception of things and how we behave. It’s no improvement changing these things if we cannot “notice” them, so yeah, a mindset of noticing!

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