Our space?: Using photo-narrative to explore middle school students' perspectives of their schools' external physical environments

Year: 2012

Author: Sharplin, Erica

Type of paper: Abstract refereed



School spaces are not neutral or empty but rather act powerfully on students, pedagogy and culture. As strongly classified spaces, the physical environments of schools speak to students about their position not only in the education system but in wider society. The way young children use and behave in external school spaces has been the focus of recent studies but little research has been undertaken amongst adolescents. To begin to redress this gap, this qualitative research takes a middle school focus, investigating how these students perceive and use external school spaces, particularly in lower socio-economic contexts.


An interpretivist paradigm is used, which assumes a subjective epistemological position and a reality that is very much about perception. The student participants are positioned as active, resourceful people who have the right and capacity to participate in the construction of the narratives of their own lives.  In this way, the subjective experience in all its complexity is more able to be elicited. The participants are thirty year 9 students in two socio-economically disadvantaged Adelaide secondary schools. Each participant constructed a photo-narrative about their school's external spaces in response to a researcher-generated set of questions. The narratives are coded according to emergent themes and those that arose from the literature.


Student photo-narratives will be presented, although the discussion of findings will be preliminary.


The physical environments of schools are a current focus for researchers as recent studies suggest a relationship between the way students perceive their physical spaces at school and student engagement and connectedness. This research contributes to the knowledge base about the operalisation of school spaces and may inform change that may re-engage disaffected and disengaged middle school students.