It’s time to see the light!

In every classroom I’ve ever taught in, I’ve had complaints from students about the lighting. “It’s too bright, Miss!” or “I’ve got a headache let’s turn off the lights!” For me personally, I am not a fan of the classic high school fluorescent lighting. And I’m not just talking about the fact that it is rarely flattering. I have actually noticed that it frequently impacts student engagement. When I have turned the lights out and opened the blinds to increase the natural lighting, I’ve had comments from teachers walking past my room: “Turn the lights on in here, Ms. Ralph,” they’ll say, “the students can’t learn when it’s this dark!” Can’t learn? This got me thinking: how important is the lighting in a classroom? The research which I’ll briefly outline in this post would suggest that it is a vital, and often overlooked, component of creating an optimal learning environment.

Obviously, before electricity, schools relied on daylight to illuminate the classroom. However, gradually, classroom design became disconnected from the outside world when there was wide-spread installation of cheap, hideously bright fluorescent lighting in schools. With more and more research revealing the impact of lighting on student achievement, the challenge for school administrators and designers will be how to best incorporate natural light into the design of modern classrooms. Oh yeah, and natural light is free!

Lighting is not only related to academic improvements, but physical too. Jensen, in his fabulous book ‘Brain-Based Learning’, reveals that bright lighting, particularly, fluorescent lighting, “seemed to create restless, fidgety learners.” In comparison, “Low-level lighting seemed to have a calming effect.” Jensen also outlines a study of 160,000 children (aged 11-12), in which over 50% of participants were found to have deficiencies relating to classroom lighting. The same children were tested 6 months later, after the lighting in the learning environment had been changed, and it was found that 65% of visual problems had reduced, fatigue reduced by 55% and even posture problems reduced by 25%. Interestingly, the quality of lighting has also been found to improve attendance. A study in Alberta, Canada, over a two-year period, found that students in full-spectrum lit (lighting which emulates natural light) classrooms had fewer days of absence per year as well as enhanced health effects.

I hope that in the construction of any new school this information is taken into account. But what about the millions of schools that were built ages ago? Well, in this report about daylight in American schools, it is demonstrated that budgeting and funding can be used in inventive and innovative ways to make changes in new and older schools.

In the report, Principal Tom Benton, of Durant Middle School in North Carolina, explains the many design changes that the school underwent, including the addition of energy-saving air-circulation controls as well as roof monitors to increase daylight in classrooms. Benton explains “day lit classrooms have increased the well-being of the students and the teachers and it is at least partly responsible for the record high attendance rates.” Additionally, the school is saving $21,000 annually by saving energy. Architect Ken Kaestner of Ken Kaestner and Associates, asserts “You have to make the most of the funds you have by taking away from certain areas and putting it towards the good stuff such as the skylights.”

CY Middle School
CY Middle School – Ok so this is what happens when high-end architects  build a school! Natural light flows in from the skylight.
Fairmeadow Elementary School
Fairmeadow Elementary School – daylight flowing into the space
With bright lights and no windows, this space is destined to diminish student engagement.

One thought on “It’s time to see the light!

  1. I often like to turn the light out in my office at work, but other people walk in and turn it on without thinking. It’s a habit: you walk into a room and turn the lights on, even if there’s a window. I always prefer natural lighting. For me it is calming. Fluorescent lighting can be an assault, especially when we’re also looking at computer screens a lot of the time. Our poor eyes! I have also gotten migraines from rooms that are painted all white and have really hideous fluorescent lighting. Interesting post. How can this be implemented more broadly??


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