Editor's Note: This blog was originally published on April 8, 2021 and has been updated with additional findings from the research report.
By gaining a deeper understanding of the unique BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) student experience, we can design learning spaces that feel safe and engaging for everyone. Classroom and school design alone cannot eliminate systemic and structural disadvantages in the education system, but by including BIPOC students as stakeholders in the design process and considering the nuances of their experiences, we can create spaces that give students a sense of agency.
This critical feedback from BIPOC students is captured in our 2021 research initiative, “Education and the BIPOC Experience: Amplifying Student Voices in New York City High Schools,” which was supported by a grant from the Gensler Research Institute’s recently established Center for Research on Equity and the Built Environment.
This research endeavor started with the preconceived notion that our experience in designing schools was inclusive of all students, but we realized the need to understand the nuances of the lived experience of BIPOC students. The survey responses point to a deep need to disrupt design philosophy to ensure we are creating equitable education spaces for all students.
We surveyed New York City students from 18 high schools, primarily public, to learn more about their school perceptions. The survey was organized into four main categories, which covered demographics, safety, belonging, and experience. We also asked students to compare two schools based on their physical appearance and share their impressions.
We learned that safety and belonging in educational spaces play an essential role in the lives of BIPOC students attending school in an urban setting. Many factors shape their student experience that extend beyond the classroom itself, including the safety of the surrounding neighborhood and the length and nature of students’ commutes.
Our research reinforced that a vast array of design decisions that architects and interior designers make can subconsciously amplify perceptions of the wealth disparity that is inherent in the design of the different schools. For example, materials, colors, seating arrangements, and window treatments, are all design factors that contribute to students’ comfort levels and success in the classroom.
Here are responses from students when asked to compare different schools:
Our Urban Education report findings reinforce that while embracing innovation is important, education design needs to strike a balance between high design and familiarity to prioritize creating a comfortable environment for all students.
Here are three insights for designers and educators to consider to create learning environments that enhance the BIPOC student experience:1. Designer thinking is part of the problem.
The way architects design may unintentionally amplify wealth disparity. We should more strongly consider the diversity of our clients and our project types. This leads us to explore what more we can do to create an inclusive school. We believe that the next phase of educational design will embody far more empathy and be inclusive of diverse student experiences.2. Listen to stakeholders more closely.
Student perception of classroom space and school buildings is more nuanced than most designers may realize. A substantial part of our research involved learning which subtleties of the student experience we should be examining. Our survey findings taught us that the BIPOC student experience is likely shaped more by an individual’s sense of safety and belonging than by the physical environment.3. As designers of learning environments, we must be teachable.
As we further our research, we intend to focus on the relationship between safety and belonging to ensure we are creating equitable education spaces. Our research intends to elevate marginalized voices and enhance the BIPOC student educational experience by listening to student responses rather than prescribing new best practices.
Our research intends to elevate marginalized voices and enhance the BIPOC student educational experience by listening to student responses rather than prescribing new best practices.
In the summer of 2020, the Gensler Research Institute established the Center for Research on Equity and the Built Environment, focused specifically on funding research dedicated to addressing systemic racism, unconscious bias, and social justice. The Center funded 15 projects beginning in the summer of 2020 and another round of projects in April 2021. This blog reviews preliminary findings from a grant entitled “Urban Education: Understanding the Complexities and the Impact on BIPOC Lives.”
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