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Abstract

Following research on deleterious effects of surroundings on the behavior of users of other institutions, a naturalistic study of classroom-student interaction was conducted. Instructor-experimenters observed and recorded the behavior of university students in a laboratory which had been slightly altered to maximize difficulty of movement in the room. The amount and frequency of student alteration of the inhospitable furnishings was compared with person-furnishing distances in a non-institutional, personalized setting. The results indicated a strong tendency for students to accept without alteration a rather uncomfortable classroom arrangement. A brief discussion of possible implications for student attitudes toward school follows, one of these being that a specific inhospitality may lead to a diffuse negative feeling and may affect communicative behavior.
Environmental Numbness in the Classroom
Author(s): Robert Gifford
Source:
The Journal of Experimental Education
, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Spring, 1976), pp. 4-7
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
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ENVIRONMENTAL NUMBNESS
IN THE CLASSROOM1
ROBERT GIFFORD
University of Guelph
Guelph, Ontario
ABSTRACT
Following research on deleterious effects of surroundings on the behavior of users of other institutions, a naturalistic study
of classroom-student interaction was conducted. Instructor-experimenters observed and recorded the behavior of university
students in a laboratory which had been slightly altered to maximize difficulty of movement in the room. The amount and fre
quency of student alteration of the inhospitable furnishings was compared with person-furnishing distances in a non-institutional,
personalized setting. The results indicated a strong tendency for students to accept without alteration a rather uncomfortable class
room arrangement. A brief discussion of possible implications for student attitudes toward school follows, one of these being that
a specific inhospitality may lead to a diffuse negative feeling and may affect communicative behavior.
HOMO SAPIENS is commonly and correctly regarded
as the greatest living shaper of the natural environment.
Especially in contemporary society, when one gazes over
a skyline, expressway, or dam, the image of "conqueror of
the environment" (3) seems a truism. People have tre
mendously altered certain of earth 's elements in active
pursuit of the comforts and amenities first envisioned by
the inventive members of the species.
Only recently has a broad awareness come that the
shaper is, in part, shaped by his creations. When planners
are proportionately few and users are not consulted in the
design of a building, *a danger arises that the needs of those
who must spend large parts of their day in the structure
will not be met. Mankind conquers while man lives; be
neath the imposing skyline, micro-environments of dubious
comfort and dignity exist. Not all these are in slums and
ghettos; new and architectural award-winning structures
have come in for their just share of the criticism (1).
Sommer (4) has discussed numerous types of buildings,
including schools, in which the arrangement of furniture
has apparently played an important role in behavior and
communication. He found no malice on the part of in
stitutional authorities, but rather an ignorance of the
principles of design coupled with a de facto default in this
matter on the part of maintenance workers, who are not
interested in facilitation of learning in the users.
Users of public and semi-public buildings seem to de
velop an "environmental numbness" (5) to unpleasant
sounds, sights, and arrangements. In one informal exper
iment, visitors were seated in front of a very annoying
fan. None complained, but when finally the sound was
consciously brought to their attention, nearly all acknowl
edged its unpleasantness. Sommer (4) feels that prolonged
exposure to an institutional setting tends to lead to "in
stitutional sanctity " or the feeling on the part of the
user that whatever the setting, unpleasant or not, any
change is regarded as improper by the user. The genesis
of institutional sanctity is related to the same societal
more which leads to the stiff suppression of user-initiated
changes in the design of the environment, as in the case
of People s Park in Berkeley and the custodian s everyday
war on graffiti.
A previous study (2) of student reaction to surround
ings found that students will, in their dormitories, handle
an unliked but school-owned piece of furniture (a stiff
chair and study desk) by ignoring it. Most students, and
especially those with the higher grade-point averages, were
found to study on the floor, the bed, or a lounge chair.
The present study was designed to investigate student
behavior in a situation where no alternative was available;
they had to either accept or alter their surroundings. It
was hypothesized that in the institutional setting, the
students would not substantially change an inhospitable
arrangement, despite their membership in a relatively
high environmental awareness group.
Method
A university course in experimental psychology routinely
conducts a didactic experiment in short-term memory early
in each semester. The laboratory used for this purpose af
fords an opportunity for naturalistic observation and ap
propriate mis-arrangement of furnishings. The tables and
chairs in the laboratory are of light construction, which no
student would have difficulty in moving. The floor con
sists of waxed and polished tile.
The laboratory procedure calls for a pre-experimental
discussion, the memory experiment, and a post-experiment
discussion of results. The first and third parts take place
in the open center area of the room (see Figure 1), and the
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GIFFORD
5
Figure 1.-Schematic Diagram of Laboratory
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Gap of 6 - 7 inches
Seating Space 12 inches
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6 JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL EDUCATION
experiment occurs in cubicles constructed from movable
partitions along the sides of the room. During the exper
iment, pairs of students test each other, alternating E and
S roles.
Prior to four laboratories sections, the tables and
cubicles were carefully arranged as in Figure 1. This ar
rangement was on the whole the same as the students
had previously experienced, except that all passages were
reduced to the minimum necessary for a slender to
medium-sized male to pass through without being forced to
move the furniture. Thus, at each asterisked gap in Figure
1, the distance between articles of furniture was set at
6-7 inches. In order to pass, as the students had to do to
move from central tables to cubicles, it was necessary to
turn sideways and, depending on girth, maneuver carefully
to avoid moving furniture. Of course, all students also had
to pass through the frontal barrier from the entryway to
their seating places at the beginning and end of the class,
or to consult with the teacher if he happened to be in
front of the barrier of tables.
Inside the cubicles, further "tight squeezes" were
present. One side of each cubicle was arranged so that the
distance between the back of the chair and the nearest
table edge was 12 inches. The other chair, because of the
size of the cubicles, had a much greater distance, allowing
its occupant plenty of room to move. Although this 12
inch distance seemed certainly too close for ease of move
ment and comfort, a small naturalistic investigation of
chair-table distances was made in situations where people
felt free to set this distance, or at least had no impediment
physically blocking the back of their chair.
In an academic office complex, an observer walked
through the corridors and at every open door quietly asked
the occupant, if they were involved in deskwork, not to
move. After explaining that it was not a hold-up, the
observer measured the distance where the person had been
sitting (back of chair to edge of desk). The mean distance
was 19.1 inches, with a standard deviation of 4.8 inches.
Only one of 32 people sat at 12 inches or less. It was ob
served, incidentally, that a strange sex difference seems to
obtain in desk seating patterns. Nine of the 32 people sat
at an angle to the desk (their distance was to the center
of the chair back), and eight of these were male. The sam
ple was equally divided between males and females. This
difference did not seem to be task-related as all people
except one were reading or writing?the one typist cannot
explain the female tendency to sit with evenly placed
chairs.
In the carefully designed inhospitality of the laboratory,
the instructors measured how often and how much fur
niture was adjusted. The cubicles were examined after class,
and the central area tables were examined after the pre
experimental discussion (while the students were involved
in the experiment in the cubicles), after the mid-experiment
switch in E-S roles (which necessitated students coming
out of the cubicles and, often, through the frontal barriers,
as well as switching chairs in the cubicles), and after class.
The observation and measurement was done covertly. At
these times, the inhospitable distances were reset when
they had been adjusted and recorded.
Three instructors participated after explanation and
training in the experimental procedure. Thirty-four students
unwittingly served as Ss. The following week they were in
formed of the experiment and queried as to their recol
lections of the experience.
Results
The two measures used, frequency and amount of
furniture adjusted, were applied to two types of furniture,
the central area tables and the cubicle chairs. Since the
cubicle chair distance could only be increased by pushing
the cubicle tables away, the data actually consist entirely
of amount and frequency of table movement.
An estimate of total tight-squeeze passages was first
made, in order to compare that number with central area
table movements made. Each student had to enter and
leave through the frontal barrier, and make the return trip
once in mid-class for picking up role instructions in the
memory experiment. In addition, each student had to make
three entries and exits from a cubicle for the same reasons.
Beyond that, students often emerged from the cubicles
with a question, but as no count of the exact number of
these queries was made, they are not included in the total.
The total, a conservative one, is 238 passages through bar
riers no more than 6-7 inches wide (7 passages X 34
students).
The frontal barrier table gaps were adjusted by students
exactly twice. The cubicle-entry7way passages were adjusted
twice by moving tables and three times by moving a cubicle
wall panel. In all seven cases, adjustment just sufficient for
passage without turning sideways was made. Thus, slightly
more than 97% of all passages yielded to the position of
the table and whatever else formed the other half of the
tight gap. In less than 3% of all passages did students fail
to accept this Scylla and Charybdis situation. And then
they only moved the tables barely enough to squeeze
through themselves. None of the 34 seemed remotely close
to suggesting that the whole situation was uncomfortable
or changing the room as a whole. Of course they had never
received any direct communication that such behavior was
not allowed.
The cubicle chair-table distances were, if anything, rel
atively tighter than the central area table distances, and a
little more adjustment was observed. The mean adjustment
from 12 inches was 1.9 inches. When the distribution,
however, was skewed, 70% moved their distance 2 inches
or less. Essentially, a few people moved the table quite a
bit and most moved it not at all or only incidentally,
perhaps accidentally. The most adjustment, to 17 inches,
was done by three subjects. This is still 2 inches less than
the mean of the naturalistic observation. The difference
between the means of the 32 naturalistically observed
people involved in deskwork and the 17 students' chairs
(used by 19 students because some two of them switched
chairs when the E/S roles were switched in the memory
experiment) was significant (t - 4.17,p < .001).
Discussion
The data suggest quite strongly that students in a class
room will repeatedly (seven or more times) accept an im
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GIFFORD 7
pediment rather than adjust it to levels of comfort. Most
of these students also accepted, in the same space of about
90 minutes, an uncomfortable seating arrangement in cu
bicles. They spent a great majority of their sitting and walk
ing time in the class experiencing and yielding to minor
barriers of furniture. None of them made more than a
short-range adjustment of tables and chairs to accommodate
his or her own body at the moment, and even these subjects
were very rare. One instructor-experimenter noted that
two of the seven adjustments were a necessity?the student
was simply too large to fit through a 7-inch gap.
All the observers noted student efforts to avoid moving
the furniture, such as grunts, swiveling of hips, and willing
ness to line up for passage through a tight squeeze. The
tables came to seem magically immobile; one knew they
required only a tiny amount of effort to move, yet they
withstood over 238 carefully maneuvered people-passages.
The following week when all students were told of the
experiment and asked to recall their experience of it, sur
prisingly few (one) even remembered there being any form
of impediment. Others were at a loss to recall it, although
one volunteered the explanation that perhaps the tables
were "supposed" to be that way. In their previous classes,
tables and chairs were relatively disordered, with large
handy gaps, as the author discovered when he began to
set up a thorough system of impediments. If the present
results are generally valid, one wonders how long it would
take for students to get the tables disordered! (Of course
maintenance workers might change table positions in the
course of their duties.)
Why students adjust to furniture rather than adjusting
it is not clear. The differences between the naturalistically
observed deskwork situation and the experimental situation
provide several hypotheses worth further investigation.
Possibly, in student perception, institutionally owned
furniture is not a part of the student's personal area of
control. Yet the offices, where movement had been observed,
also contained furniture not owned by the individuals. The
differences which are salient are (a) that furniture is
perceived as within personal control in an office and not
in a classroom and (b) that the office is an individual (or
perhaps a twosome) domain, while the class is a group of
people. Probably the office group was an older group,
and this indirectly or directly mediated the results. How
ever, there is little doubt the experimental distances were
below the comfort range for most people.
If task-involvement in the memory experiment, to the
detriment of personal comfort, is advanced as a hypothesis,
another implication arises. Though no check of student
attitudes was made in this study, one would expect such
repeated minor discomfort to develop into a variety of
irritations and negative attitudes among the students. If
they do not know why they feel badly toward a given class
or situation, they are apt to ascribe it to whatever is most
handy?the teacher, the school, their classmates. This
could be the beginning of an unfortunate deterioration in
whatever valuable relationships other efforts in the school
had begun. The example used in this study, slight frequent
altercations with tables, is not in itself significant; yet it
may typify a range of subtle frustrations in classrooms
which are below the threshold of awareness for all con
cerned. But if they are pointed out or discerned through
a careful survey of the physical plant, even a new award
winning one (4), they can often very easily be changed
or at least ameliorated.
FOOTNOTE
1. The author is grateful to Dr. Roger Blackman and Mr.
Steve Richmond for their assistance as experimenters. This re
search was supported in part by grant W72-5414, The Canada
Council. The experimental study was conducted at Simon Fraser
University, Burnaby, B. C.
REFERENCES
1. "Comments on an Exhibition of Alex Colville, G. Smith, and
Arthur Erickson," Simon Fraser University Art Gallery, May
1973.
2. Gifford, R.; and Sommer, R., "The Desk or the Bed?"
Personal and Guidance Journal, 46:876-878, May 1968.
3. Proshansky, H., Introduction to H. Proshansky; W. Ittelson;
and L. Rivlin (vas.), Environmental Psychology, Holt,
Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1970.
4. Sommer, R., Personal Space, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs,
N. J., 1969.
5. Sommer, R., Design Awareness, Rinehart Press, San Francisco,
1972.
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... The individuals' behavior in relation to his environment and the spontaneous adjustment to the environment to improve comfort must also be considered important factors in the attainment of ideal conditions. Thus concepts of environmental numbness x environmental awareness were created to demonstrate the users' possible reactions to the environment (Gifford, 1976;Hawkes, 1997). ...
... Environmental numbness, or apathy toward the physical environment, causes a type of paralysis in the individual, where the user rarely exercises any attitude in relation to unpleasant situations (Gifford, 1976). With environmental awareness, or active perception of the physical environment, the opposite happens. ...
... Participation by users is essential. Gifford (1976) considers man to be the great modeler of his environment and considers that a high level of perception is necessary for man to intervene and model his environment adequately for his own comfort. A well-designed environment, able to be manipulated by users, is considered important by Hawkes (1997). ...
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... However, when finally it is brought to their attention, the findings show that they acknowledge on the unpleasant design factors of public square. This suggests the theory of environmental numbness by Gifford (1976) where the adaptation and familiarity with certain environment make the users lack of awareness. This may happen because the users are exposed to the environment and are very responsive to unfriendly environment. ...
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Assertions that studying is done best at a desk rather than on a bed are largely untested. In the present study the GPA of students working at their desks was compared with that of students studying on their beds. There was no difference in the GPA's of the two groups. The assumption that there is a single type of study environment optimal for all students appears unwarranted. Since a sizable number of college students use their beds and even the floor for studying, the use of softer and more comfortable furniture in libraries and study halls deserves consideration.
  • R Sommer
Sommer, R., Personal Space, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1969.
Introduction to H. Proshansky; W. Ittelson; and L. Rivlin (vas
  • H Proshansky
Proshansky, H., Introduction to H. Proshansky; W. Ittelson; and L. Rivlin (vas.), Environmental Psychology, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1970.
Comments on an Exhibition of Alex Colville
  • G Smith
  • Arthur Erickson
"Comments on an Exhibition of Alex Colville, G. Smith, and Arthur Erickson," Simon Fraser University Art Gallery, May 1973.