Advancing Environmental Literacy in the Green School Building

Presented by: Laura Cole

David Orr posits that “academic architecture is a kind of crystallized pedagogy and…buildings have their own hidden curriculum that teaches as effectively as any course taught in them.” Through his provocative writings on the pedagogy of architecture, Orr offers a call-to-action for green building scholars and practitioners to investigate the educational potential of the built environment. With a focus on the experiences of youth and interior spaces, this study contributes to this larger question of how green buildings teach us about themselves and the greater prospects for environmental stewardship. In particular, this work focuses on Teaching Green Buildings (TGBs), or buildings specially designed to engage building occupants in green building themes. These buildings aspire to high levels of environmental performance and invite occupants to learn about – if not participate in – the day-to-day operations of the green building. This type of engagement typically occurs in the building interior as signage, interactive kiosks, building material displays, and so on. Such features ideally lead to a more informed, or green building literate, occupant. This presentation will feature results from an ongoing longitudinal study in which the researcher followed middle school students from a conventional school building into a new construction TGB. The study focuses on four major features of environmental literacy: knowledge, affective dispositions, behaviors, and educational context, comparing the study school to its own baseline and to another local, non-green school. The research design employed a mixture of methods including survey research (n=124) and a student photography project (n=33) in which students photographed their own campus and shared their perspectives in writing and interviews. Survey results show increases in knowledge, behaviors, and positive assessments of the educational context. Interestingly, affective dispositions toward the environment did not change over the study period, and were comparable to those of students in a nearby non-green school. Review of student photography offers an additional window to student experiences, uncovering aspects of the school environment that emerge as important for youth. If a green school can be said to have a “hidden curriculum,” the work here seeks to make the outcomes of that curriculum increasingly tangible. Given the 5-year study period, special attention will be given to the shifts that occurred from year one to three in the new school building to illuminate outcomes that are amplified or diminished once the novelty of new construction fades. The data collected to date reveal the unique challenges and strengths of using the interior environment – alongside school policies, operations, and cultural practices – to catalyze a value shift toward green building practices.


  • Nair, P., & Fielding, R. (2005). The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21st Century Schools: Designshare, Inc.
  • Orr, D. W. (2004). Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect: Island Press.
  • Taylor, A. P., & Enggass, K. (2009). Linking architecture and education: sustainable design for learning environments. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.