Why Do You Look Down At Me?

Yesterday, as I sat in a dark auditorium with chairs that were in rows and professors who were standing on a stage and looking down at me, I realized, for the first time, that the unequal architectural relationship between my professors and I will negatively impact my academic performance. Partly, because my subordinate position made me feel detached and uncomfortable.

Though I managed to control such emotions, the feelings of inferiority, alienation and spacial anxiety made it difficult to focus and achieve good note-taking. And worse, was how defensive and hostile the situation had made me. No matter how hard I tried, I could not stop viewing everything that they were telling me as a threat to my person and to the things that I knew to be true.

To alleviate the stress, I lashed out at the professors and questioned the sincerity of their course requirements. “I understand your concern about the word count,” one professor responded behind the podium, “but this is a 4-credit course and 750-words is lower than what it used to be in the past.”

Indeed, I should have left it at that, but I just could not get over the fact that they were delivering their messages while looking down on me. It felt dictatorial and insincere. “I get that,” I replied. “but what if we can summarize our opinions of the films in less than 750-words; would that work?” That line of questioning garnered a lot of laughs from students. In fact, I overheard one of them say: “This guy’s funny.”

In retrospect, I suppose that my line of questioning might have been funny to some students or irritating to the professors, but there was nothing funny about how I was feeling in that moment. If I could have turned off how uncomfortable I felt, I would have. But, unfortunately, I just could not let it go. Moreover, what I found doubly frustrating than the unequal spatial relationship between myself and the professors, was how other students reacted as if our unequal spatial arrangements were okay; keeping silent when they could have easily mentioned it. Fortunately, and to my surprise, one of the professors did mention the spatial inequality between themselves and us but, sadly, the damage was already done.

As crucial as that moment was, and as interested as I am, right now, in unpacking some of it, I can not get to the bottom of it, until, I first, talk about the field of Environmental Psychology, and the effects that certain built environments, specifically, the learning environment, have on the academic, temporal, and cognitive successes of students. Together, those things will shed some light on why the above space made me feel uncomfortable, hostile and irritated

Environmental Psychology is the “interdisciplinary field that focuses on the interplay between individuals and their surroundings.” The first to make mention of the phrase “environmental psychology” was Willy Hugo Hellpach, a German physician, and psychologist. In his book, Geopsyche, Willy Helllpach wrote about how the sun and the moon effected humans; the impact of extreme environments, and the effects of color and forms. “We know from experience, ” wrote Willy Hellpach, “that, for instance, the atmosphere before a thunderstorm causes laziness, sleepiness, whereas, the fresh ozonized air afterwards is felt as invigorating.”

Apart from Willy Hillpach and others who shared his passion, many people, from writers, political figures to physicists have long noticed how certain spaces affected human beings. One such person, and who environmental physiologists often quote, was Winston Churchill. He wrote; “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Then, theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, observed that: “The field is the sole governing agency of the particle.” The “fields” being, tiny atoms, ions, and other subatomic particles, while the “particle” being, us, human beings.

As expansive and intriguing as the field of Environmental Psychology was, the validity of some of its early findings, however, were seriously questioned. Partly, because the scientists never bothered to venture outside of the laboratory; all of their discoveries, back then, were non-applicable to real life. Nonetheless, and aside from its early mishaps – which has long been fixed – many in the field never doubted what they were doing. To paraphrase Arthur Conan Doyle; the world was full of too many obvious things that nobody, by any chance, ever bothered to observe, and so, because of that, they felt that they needed to keep discovering.

In hindsight, it is a good thing that such persons never gave up their research, because their efforts have turned out some incredible discoveries in the field of Environmental Psychology. And such discoveries, ranging from the effects of color, light, sounds, temperature, and even, seating arrangements on human beings, are astounding, to say the least.

One particular discovery, having to do with sound, revealed that noisy rooms not only had a negative impact on the learning outcomes of young children but it also affected the overall mental development of those occupants. “In the case of young children,” noted Che-Ming Chiang and Chi-Ming Lai, both environmental scientists, “they have not yet developed enough executive skill[s]in activities involving communication channels, like speech comprehension, use of language, and written and oral skills.” Therefore, “Noise undermines reading, writing and comprehension skills, as well as overall academic performance, as noise makes it hard to focus on the task being performed.”

Though that particular study was conducted on young children, I wonder if it could be applied to older participants who are engaged in any academic pursuit. Namely, because I have been in some learning environments that were so noisy – thanks to a broken air conditioning unit – that impaired my ability to focus. That said, when you suddenly awake from a loud bang and realize that the air conditioning unit was humming the entire time, it is difficult to argue that that noise did not impact your mental development in some way, shape, or form.

Elsewhere, a study on the effects of color on people’s cognitive development revealed that certain colors, such as the colors red and yellow, tended to distract people from their assignments. On top of that, such colors also increased people’s blood pressures and caused them to have faster pulse rates. In short, they triggered the participants to feel anxious, which in turn, caused them to display poor concentration. Alternatively, such study also revealed that the best color[s] for learning was green, blue, and baker-miller pink because, when exposed to those colors, participants reported feeling balanced, patient and mentally sharp.

As much as exposures to certain sounds and colors may negatively impact or improve our learning outcomes, what I am more interested in is the effects of seat-arrangements on academic learning. And secondly, how those architectural differences effects and communicates what the roles of each party should be towards each other.

Social scientists, Mohammad Haghighi and Mahmud Jusan, observed in their study; “Exploring students behavior on seating arrangements in learning environments,” that the arrangement of desks and chairs had an effect on students’ classroom behaviors, “such as hand-raising, discussion comment, questioning/pupil request, listening, out-of-order comment, and speaking; and on their off-task behaviors, such as disruptive conduct, withdrawal, and aggression.”

The possible desk arrangements used in their study “were clusters, rows, and circles.” And the “results showed that students seated in circles showed the most on-task behaviors. The second-best arrangement of desks and chairs was a cluster arrangement, and the least effective was desks arranged in rows.” In other words, circles worked best because they encouraged students to interact with one another and to see themselves and their teachers as equals. And the reason why seating arrangements that were placed in rows did not work was that they made the students feel isolated and detached from the learning experience.

That begs the question; was that how I was feeling when I was forced to sit in rows and looked down on by extremely, elevated professors? Nonetheless, I believe it is high time to address my two, earlier questions of why I was so combative and could not disengage from a debate with one of the professors and, why, I also, found it annoying that the other students were not questioning nor challenging the unequal spatial arrangements.

One possible reason to why I appeared hostile or aggressive, was because the arrangements of the seats, i.e. in rows, did not feel as if I was in a participatory relationship with the professors. And the fact that they were physically elevated above the rest us, gave me the impression that they had all the answers, and that whatever they had to say was “above” anything that I could ever come up with. Secondly, and what I have come to realize as my Telic style of learning; focused, goal-oriented, and relaxed setting, was the opposite of what I was experiencing. In other words, the room that I was in was too loud, crowded, and overstimulated.

Furthermore, because my ability to change the environment that I was in – this process is sometimes referred to as “Reversal Theory” – in order to suit my learning style was not possible, I resorted to aggression and verbal-sparring to alleviate the stress that I was experiencing. Moreover, it should also be noted that during that class I was also feeling hungry, tired and exhausted and, perhaps, the combination of all of those things, coupled by the ill-designed space that I was in, made the situation feel tenser than it ought to have been. Nonetheless, it happened the way it happened and my reaction, though uncharacteristic, was telling.

As far as why some of the other students were not challenging the professors; I think it had much to with their acceptance of their role as students. In other words, they have been so conditioned to the subordinate relationship of teacher-to-student that when the professors were telling them what they wanted them to do, it all registered as normal to them. But nothing about that moment or space was normal. We, the students, ought to the ones in the driver seat of our own educational experiences, not our professors dictating what we should do and what we should know. Further, our university should design better spaces that not only makes people feel easy and welcomed, but can foster and enhance group participation.

With that in mind, I believe that is what makes the study of Environmental Psychology so important to look into because it gives us insight into how we should design our physical spaces. And especially when it pertains to learning, we ought to design spaces that make people feel less anxious, trapped, unequal, or isolated, but more engaged and attentive. In hindsight, I should have done a better job at controlling my emotions. However, that does not mean that the space that I was in should not have been welcoming, either.

For those who are great at adjusting to any space that they find themselves in, the design flaws in architectures may not concern them, but for those of us who need to feel welcomed in order to learn or to improve ourselves, it is important that our spaces, and the people within them, progressively shape the way we interact with our environment.

Image by Jonas Jacobsson from Unsplash

Sources:

Environmental Psychology, Willy Hugo Hillpach

Acoustical Environment Evaluation of Joint Classrooms for Elementary Schools in Taiwan.

Exploring Students Behavior in Seating Arrangements in Learning Environments

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