The Effects of Daylighting in Schools
In the first part of our series on the effects of daylighting we did a high level overview, but now let’s take it a bit further. Think of your time in school. What did your classrooms look like? If you got your education in the United States, chances are good that your classroom had off-white cement walls, drab carpet, and small (if any) windows. The lights you sat under were probably harsh fluorescent panels. Did those help you concentrate? Probably not. In recent years, more and more people have been pushing for the use of natural light in the classroom – and they’re right to do so. Natural light elevates mood, increases concentration, and can even help raise average grades by up to 25% !
It seems to be a universally accepted fact that students can’t concentrate in the classroom. You hear stories about children acting out or sleeping through their classes. Usually, the blame for this is placed on the students themselves – the typical consensus is that students are too bored, tired, or distracted by technology. This is not necessarily true, however. Many schools are built with small windows that tend to be covered with blinds. Even worse, some older schools have classrooms with no windows at all. So, students in today’s classroom receive less sunlight than they should. This lack of exposure to natural light, and the Vitamin D deficiency that is a consequence of that lack, has catastrophic effects on the education process.
Exposure to sunlight increases concentration. Basically, this is due to the fact that the body has to divert less energy to stress responses, which are brought on by the release of cortisol. This release of cortisol is triggered by exposure to fluorescent lights . This increase in concentration drastically cuts down on distractedness and the number of students disrupting class out of boredom. Studies have shown that students exposed to natural light not only concentrate better and for longer periods of time, but they also tend to learn faster and more efficiently as well. They retain the information that they are taught. If a student cannot concentrate, the information they are trying to learn will only stay with them for about 8 seconds  – in other words, it will go in one ear and out the other. But throw natural light into the mix, and that information will move from their short term memory to their long term memory, allowing the student to retrieve that information later. This will, in turn, raise grade averages among the students who are exposed to natural light during the school day. That’s not the only benefit of daylighting in the classroom, though.
Students exposed to natural light usually have more energy throughout the day. If an individual is consistently exposed to natural light, their circadian rhythm is more in sync.  This means they get more restful sleep and have less fatigue throughout the day. One study stated that exposure to natural light during the day can lead to 46 additional minutes of restful sleep . Adolescents need 8-10 hours of sleep a night to function properly. However, most students in this age group report getting around 7 hours per night . If a student is sleepy during the day, their grades suffer. According to researchers at McGill University, students who got enough sleep – and, presumably, enough exposure to natural light – performed up to 14% better  than their peers who got poor or inefficient sleep.
Studies have proven that artificial light takes an enormous toll on productivity. One such study, conducted by Dr. Mirjam Münch, proved that productivity in an artificially lit environment decreases drastically over time . This is extremely important to keep in mind when considering daylighting in schools. Both students and staff spend five days a week under artificial light. By designing schools to utilize natural light – or taking steps to utilize natural light already present in the classroom – productivity of both students and staff will increase. That means there would be more effective teachers and more effective students.
There is an additional benefit of natural light that improves the human element of the educational environment. It may sound simple, but exposure to natural light makes us happier. Navigating the complicated maze of adolescence is hard enough without symptoms of depression being thrown into the mix. As many as 1 in 13 students show symptoms of depression.  Artificial lighting can bring these symptoms on, and exacerbate symptoms that already exist in an individual. This lowered mood keeps students from concentrating in the classroom, keeps them from participating, and can actually make their brains process information and stimuli slower than someone without depression would . A classroom that successfully employs daylighting has a mood-elevating effect. This would combat symptoms of depression, and allow students to participate in the learning process once more.
In addition to this mood-elevating effect, natural light also sparks the release of a molecule in the blood called beta-endorphin . This molecule evokes feelings of joy and contentedness. Though studies have found that this molecule does not last long in the body , its effects would still be very prominent in the classroom. Over time, students who are exposed to light and experience the effects of beta-endorphin will begin to relate this flood of positive feeling with the classroom, making them feel comfortable in their educational setting. Students who are content are able to focus more of their energy on their lessons and, consequently, earn higher grades than students who are in classrooms lit by fluorescent lights.
One factor that is not necessarily examined when talking about daylighting in classrooms in the cost. In the mid to late 20th century, there was a movement to remove windows from classrooms – the general idea being that having no windows would keep students focused and decrease the energy burden of inefficient windows . Recently, however, there has been a push back towards the use of natural light in the classroom. Keeping efficient windows in the classroom would cut electricity costs drastically, though. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that the use of effective lighting in the classroom can lower the cost of lighting by 30-50%.  This independence from fluorescent lights also increases mean test scores, which will inevitably increase the school’s chances to receive more funding.
Finally, the use of smart glass cuts the cost of heating and cooling the building. This is due to the fact that smart glass reduces the amount of heat transferred into the building, which means the cooling system does not have to be used as heavily. The U.S. Department of Education estimates this would cut cooling costs by 10-20% . These savings total up to $1.5 billion per year . The converse is also true with heat escaping the building in colder months. So it’s obvious – smart glass is the most cost effective solution when considering daylighting in the classroom.
Both students and staff would clearly benefit from the use of daylighting in the classroom. If every classroom utilized natural light, test scores would go up. Mood would be elevated. And, perhaps most importantly, school would be a comfortable and pleasant place.
This is the second part in a series on daylighting. Please be sure to connect with us and not miss out on the rest of this series as we will investigate the benefits of proper daylighting in healthcare next time.
If you’re interested in learning more about daylighting, get in touch with Suntuitive Glass! Visit www.Suntuitive.com or call 616.662.7216 for more information.