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A Bright Idea for Learning

  • E'louise Ondash Healthscout Reporter
  • Published Jan 08, 2002
A Bright Idea for Learning

 SATURDAY, Feb. 10 (HealthScout)—If you want Johnny to learn to read, let the sun shine in.

That's the advice of a growing number of educators, energy experts, and health-care providers who say that an abundance of natural lighting in classrooms creates a more healthful environment and also aids academic achievement.

Shedding light on this topic is timely because half the nation's 91,000 elementary and high schools are more than 40 years old and in need of major repairs or replacement, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. At the same time, the student population, now at 48 million, is projected to grow to 54 million in the next nine years, says John Lyons, the educational facilities program manager for the Education Department.

So as school districts face critical choices in spending funds for maintenance, repairs and construction, Lyons adds, they need to understand how classroom environments—especially lighting—affect health and academic achievement.

The impact of daylight is well known for one particular effect. Most experts agree that as the hours of daylight grow shorter, particularly in northern climates, some people develop depression, irritability and fatigue—a triad of symptoms known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. The cause, experts believe, is an alteration of chemicals and hormones in the brain.

But, in what may be the most far-reaching finding of its kind so far, a three-state study found that daylight can also make a definite impact when it comes to classroom study and academic achievement.

The Heschong Mahone Group, an energy consulting firm in Sacramento, Calif., focused on 21,000 second-through fifth-graders in three elementary school districts in Orange County, California; Seattle, Washington; and Fort Collins, Colorado. The company's study used elementary-school classes because of the highly standardized test data available at that level of schooling and also because elementary students usually stay with one teacher in one class for most of their school day.

Using student test results from the three districts, the firm evaluated the natural-light conditions in more than 2,000 classrooms and found that overall, students in classrooms with abundant natural light had better math and reading scores than students in darker classrooms.

The school district with the most diverse light conditions, for example, also had the most striking test scores.

Lighting the Way

In Capistrano, which is in Orange County, California, the researchers found that students with the most daylight in their classrooms progressed 20 percent faster on math tests and 26 percent faster on reading tests in one year than those in the darkest classrooms. Similarly, students with the largest window areas did 15 percent better in math and 23 percent better in reading than those in rooms with the least window area. And in classrooms where a skylight diffused the daylight throughout the room, students improved 19 percent to 20 percent faster than those in classrooms without skylights.

The studies in Washington and Colorado also showed that students in classrooms with abundant natural light scored between 7 percent and 18 percent higher than those in dark classrooms, and that scores were higher in classrooms where teachers could control the amount of daylight and open the windows.

Heschong deemed daylight to be the third most important ingredient in a school's success, beating out such qualities as "a good overall facility" and "a first-rate principal."

The results of the 1999 study don't surprise Jeremy Kisch, the senior director of clinical education at the National Mental Health Association in Alexandria, Va.

"We know natural light makes a difference," he says. "We don't understand the connection well enough, but it clearly has to do with neural events in (the) brain. Seasonal affective disorder is not a function of attitude."

And the study results have already had an impact on how the Capistrano school district approaches its growth plans.

"We've constructed a tremendous amount of new schools, and we use plans that incorporate skylighting as a major component of our buildings," says Dave Doomey, assistant superintendent of facilities planning for the district. "We also incorporate daylighting because of energy efficiency concerns, which is more important than ever these days."

Despite some concern that the Heschong study did not take into account the question of teacher quality, the U.S. Department of Education thinks the findings are significant.

"There has been a ream of studies on daylighting, but this one is a very good one," Lyons says. "It's been faulted because it didn't control for teacher quality, but it has such a large sample of students that I think it is one of the better studies we have."

Major Study Under Way

The question of how light and other environmental factors affect learning is also at the heart of a new major study on classrooms.

Underway for a year now in Montgomery County, Md., the four-year project is called "Health, Energy & Productivity in Schools," and is focused on three third-grades and three fourth-grades in two suburban and two urban elementary schools.

Researchers, who spent five years in pre-study preparation, are matching classes by size and students by family income, health, and racial diversity. All the students are being tested and will be tested again a year after major classroom upgrades take place during the summer break. In the summer, half the classrooms will be remodeled to upgrade the lighting, acoustics, air quality, and temperature control.

"This project is a pilot study to obtain preliminary data and to validate protocol for a later national study," explains project director James E. Woods, the founder of HP-Woods Research Institute, a non-profit center which integrates health science and building science to improve indoor environments. "We have no clue as to how important lighting is, but we did a randomized sample of office spaces, and found that functionally, lighting and (room temperature) were the two most dominant factors."

The goals of the Montgomery County project are two: to improve student health and raise academic performance by using energy-efficient designs, and to develop guidelines that can be used for decisions on allocating school budgets and improving classroom environments.

What to Do

To learn more about the Heschong study on daylighting and classrooms, visit the Heschong Mahone Group.

For more information on seasonal affective disorder, the National Mental Health Association offers this comprehensive guide.

For additional insight on SAD, check out these HealthScout stories.

Copyright © 2001 Rx Remedy, Inc.