The sociology of school spaces and sounds – using ethnography and LEGO to understand how students experience wellbeing in the classroom

Alice Abrey

The Curriculum for Wales outlines six key areas of learning and experience to be implemented in Welsh schools over the coming years. The Health & Wellbeing aim directly puts students’ wellbeing into the curriculum, but is it really as easy to teach wellbeing as it is Maths or Literacy? Research in a Welsh Special Educational Needs and Disability School (SEND) suggests that schools’ aural and spatial environments play an important role in how students experience ‘embodied’ wellbeing (Meier et al. 2012:2).

Over three months in the school in question, I navigated the ins and outs of ‘Wellbeing Wednesdays’ along with the 200 or so pupils and staff members. Wellbeing Wednesdays were developed to fulfil the new curriculum’s Health & Wellbeing aim, and are an experimental take on facilitating wellbeing in fun and ‘off-curricular’ activities. These Wednesdays were filled with mornings of PSE lessons within tutor groups, before the students swarmed to new classrooms with peers of all ages and different teachers to engage in activities such as ‘Messy Science,’ ‘Yoga,’ ‘Pedal Power’ or ‘Board Games,’ to name a few.

Wednesday morning PSE lessons quickly resembled any of the Maths and English classes I observed over the weeks – a teacher pacing the space between the board and a table of students, their expressionless faces watching her write as they sink lower in their chairs to avoid being asked questions on the topic of “assertiveness” or whatever the PSE curriculum foretold for the lesson. In these classes, there was very little student autonomy, with the chance to ‘make noise’ (Gallagher 2011:55), to move or to do anything other than sit and look at the board being constantly managed by the aural and visual surveillance of the staff members present. Here, then, students learn that despite the wellbeing-focussed PSE lessons, their bodies are to be self-regulated, quiet and static, in order that ‘real’ learning of important curriculum aims can take place.

In contrast, Wednesday afternoons often seemed riotously uncontrolled in comparison, with staff laughing along with students in shared science experiments and board games, the children choosing to set up dominoes around the whole classroom floor, moving their bodies in ways usually confined to the playground, and playing music via teacher computers that could be heard along the corridors. These afternoons felt immediately more fun – and seemed undoubtedly to show more experiences of wellbeing. Looking to the lack of aural and visual surveillance measures that were enacted on these afternoons of shared fun reinforces the theorised link between experiences of agency and of wellbeing (Welzel and Inglehart 2010). For example, the lack of a school bell in these afternoons, as well as the relaxing of classroom sound and space management from teachers highlights the shift from curriculum focussed lessons to the unique and free space of Wellbeing Wednesdays.

Embodied wellbeing, defined as ‘thoughts, feelings and behaviours grounded in sensory experiences and bodily states’ (Meier et al. 2012:2) is a feature of these afternoons of autonomy when students not only chose their activities, but more importantly for their wellbeing, are able to engage how they want to, to express themselves and their needs in ways rarely seen in classrooms, to mix with a cross-section of age groups and abilities, and interact with staff in meaningful ways. Thus, within the confines of a school day teaching wellbeing in a PSE lesson fails to communicate with pupils that their bodies can experience wellbeing, but when the classroom environment and normal rules are relaxed students not only learn but experience what wellbeing is. To move and to make noise is to be in control, and to have autonomy is one step towards experiencing holistic, embodied wellbeing.

Within most schools, this chance to do such activities and move around the school is generally limited due to class sizes, staff and resources. Yet sociologically, the chances within lessons to give students a freedom to move, talk and use the classroom unconstrainedly brings the idea of ‘Wellbeing Wednesday’ into every class. While my observations as an ethnographer go some way in showing how important autonomy is for the experience of wellbeing, it is more pertinent (yet also harder) to access such expressions from students themselves. Surveys and interviews usually take precedence in such cases but often present a textual bias which ‘romanticises what research informants have to say’ (Lather 2007:136 cited in Thomson 2008:3).

I found the most powerful expression of the students’ experiences in a way that fitted their communication needs, their attention spans and their creativity was using LEGO as a visual method. Working within the existing parameters of the LEGO Build To Express format which was used in the school as a therapy tool, I asked the handful of students who I had observed in Lego Therapy sessions to build how they felt on a ‘normal’ school day and a Wellbeing Wednesday day. Guided by Gauntlett’s (2007) work with LEGO and adults, this seemed a fitting application of a visual method to SEND students. Here are a few of those responses, using Auteur Theory (Rose 2001), in which the builders explained their creations to me in order that I could analyse their images using their interpretations:

Photo: Alice Abrey

18 year old: The builder explained that they normally hate school – “I’ll be honest, I skive a lot ‘cos I don’t want to be contained, like the fence, I don’t want to be trapped for 50 minute lessons,” they point to the LEGO figure surrounded by a fence. “The ladder then is me moving through a whole lesson on a Wednesday and sticking with it because I want to, because I can do what I want instead of being told to.”

Photo: Alice Abrey

14 year old: “This is me in Tutor, which I hate, on the sofa calling my mum to come and get me. I hate being told what to do by my tutor.” The teacher is depicted with a witch’s hat and broom. The builder explains the other side of their model, full of colourful bricks and LEGO figures sat around a table together: “This is LEGO Therapy which I love because we can do arty things and have music on and have fun with Sir. This is all my friends sitting round building with me.”

Photo: Alice Abrey

18 year old: “Thomas was being so annoying this morning and Sir said I had to sit there for the whole lesson with him being a pain in my ear.” In contrast to the restraint the builder felt in this morning lesson, as shown on the right-hand side, they explain that on the left-hand side, “This was me after I’d had some lunch and could go to my activity away from Thomas.”

All of the students’ LEGO models show a remarkable distinction between the static, frustrating and confining lessons throughout the week, and the importance of agency which is apparent in Wellbeing Wednesday activities. Here they clearly show that their ability to have autonomy over their bodies and their activities is hugely important. In these moments of shared freedom, students realise that their bodies are on the curriculum and are valued as much as learning outcomes and objectives. Given this chance to self-regulate, freely interact and use the classroom for their wellbeing, they learn that school can be holistic spaces.

Understanding this from pupils in a way that allowed them to creatively express themselves without outsider interpretation shows the power of LEGO and participant-produced visual methods (Pauwels 2011) to ‘give voice’ (Thomson 2008:8) to students and their experiences. This could be a powerful tool for schools trying to understand and integrate wellbeing across a curriculum, or looking to work with students in other areas requiring decision making and student input.

Here, examining the sociology of space and sound in schools through a small-scale ethnographic and visual methods study provides an important discussion for every classroom space. Observe who in the classroom can move and talk, and therefore has power. Are there chances for students to be free of normal aural and visual surveillance, and experience embodied wellbeing and agency? And if not, how can students’ wellbeing become an integrated part of the curriculum? If in doubt, why not try using LEGO to find out.

Alice Abrey has just graduated top of her year at Cardiff University with a First Class BSc Hons degree in Human and Social Sciences (BPS). Her research interests include understanding and communicating experiences of inequalities, the sociology of education, the impact of policy, and critical social psychology. Her dissertation, ‘Wellbeing Wednesdays: An Ethnographic and Visual Methods Exploration of Agency and Embodied Wellbeing in a SEND School’s ‘Health and Wellbeing’ Initiative,’ from which this piece is drawn, was awarded the Cardiff University Social Sciences SAGE/School’s Prize for Best Qualitative Dissertation (despite the long title!). Alice hopes to continue in academia and put her research interests into practice with an MSc in Social Policy and Research Methods from UCL. Follow her here: Twitter LinkedIn

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