This question has sparked the zeal of civic minded citizens ever since a movement for universal public education and “common schools” arose in the U.S. in the early 19th century. Ever since, perennial tensions between vocational and classical education, public and private governance, unions and management, and between progressive and traditional visions have cycled yearly through our discourse, like influenza.
Public school fervor escalated to a fevered pitch between the 1980s and 2000s, first with the publication of the seminal report, A Nation at Risk, which created a national sense of dire urgency, followed by a bipartisan drive across Bush senior’s and Clinton’s administrations to set moonshot goals, such as, “All children in America will start school ready to learn,” or “The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.” The zenith of federal school reform was George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which paired performance standards to accountability measures.
Needless to say, those ambitious goals from the ‘90s have not yet been achieved, despite a concerted focus of federal funding and private market solutions. There is some debate about whether schools have improved at all as a result of those efforts—I would agree with those who have argued that they have—but a deep sense of disappointment in the results seems to be relatively universal.
Perhaps this is because public education seems to embody our society’s quest for a better future. Standing at a dynamic confluence of policy, politics, law, culture, psychology, geography, and human behavior, schools reify conflicting visions, values, and beliefs about children and what they should be taught, and how. There is a thirst to redress our society’s failures through educating our children, whether teaching them proper conduct, civics, or how to code.
Since public schools were first established, efforts to improve their ability to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse body of students have swung and cycled between competing interests, resulting in the accretion of complex and often contradictory layers of policy and practice. David Tyack and Larry Cuban, in their exploration of the pendulous cycles of education reform over the course of a hundred years, Tinkering Towards Utopia (Tyack and Cuban, 1995), put it thus:
Reforms have rarely replaced what is there; more commonly, they have added complexity. When reforms have come in staccato succession, they often have brought incoherence or uncomfortable tensions.
Yet despite the increasing complexity of schools and school systems, the primary approach of would-be reformers remains primarily linear, as if every school were more or less interchangeable, as if a school were a machine defined solely by the product of its inputs and outputs: students + funding = graduation rates + test scores.
This approach has led to a preponderance of initiatives that seek to impose a set of seemingly logical mandates from afar, such as systems for teacher evaluation, school ratings based on test scores, state-wide standards and assessments, or legal regulations for special populations of students.
Many of these are worthy efforts, and can result in positive change when enacted in tandem with the cultivation of practitioner knowledge through allocated resources and training that are sustained over time. But such reform efforts all suffer from a fundamental error: they conceive of schools as a simple unit of organization. But in reality, schools are far from simple. While the hierarchy of law, policy, and funding that schools operate within may appear orderly, schools are not defined only by how they are governed and funded, nor solely by their inputs and outputs.
Schools are highly complex organizations, and how they respond to external mandates or initiatives rarely plays out as planned.
Schools are defined primarily by the people who lead the school, and by the ever evolving relationships between that leadership and their staff, students, and parents. A school is furthermore defined by the very structure and appearance of its hallways and stairwells and windows, the quality of the air that its children breath, and the manner in which acoustics are shaped by its surfaces. A school is defined by the very place in which it sits, in that particular community, within that particular state and local policy context, in that specific time. And it influences and shapes the children within it in ways that can be nearly indefinable—in ways tremendously positive, or in ways tremendously negative.
In other words, a school could be more accurately described as akin to an ecosystem—as a complex, dynamic system. A community of adults and children interacting within a unique space, time, and place. An interconnected set of social relationships and roles governed as much by unpredictable and unseen forces as by the stable grammar of grade-levels and discrete academic subjects.
When you think of a school as a simple, linear organization, then you think that they can be improved with the alteration of a specific variable or component. But viewing a school as an ecosystem means that you recognize that changing one thing may result in a cascade of unforeseen and perhaps unintended consequences.
While this may seem daunting at first glance, it also opens up opportunities for us to explore a much broader field of study than that of the small, insular world of education, to which it has been primarily confined for too long. We can draw upon interesting principles and concepts from fields as diverse as ecology, organizational theory, and quantum physics, or from such disparate phenomenon as neurons, ant piles, avalanches, and cancer. And it furthermore allows us to be more realistic—and humble—about what results our efforts to reform a school can incur.
We can improve our schools. But in order to do so more effectively and strategically, we must acknowledge the incredible influence of the contexts in which learning occurs, both physical and social. This means looking at a school more fully as a unique ecology, within which ever evolving forces and players interact. It furthermore means looking at the context within which a school operates also as a unique ecology, in which policies and district leaders and politics collide.
What the view of a school as an ecosystem can also equip us with are significant areas for intervention that we have been mostly overlooking in our zeal for what is rational, cheap, or linear. The purely physical and spatial context in which students and teachers interact each day may have a far larger influence on student learning and behavior than has been heretofore recognized. Consider research on acoustics, temperature, greenery, lighting, and architectural and interior design, and examine how we could better (re-)design our schools for safety, well-being, productivity, and learning.
Consider research on the social context of a school, and consider overlooked opportunities for leadership, the criticality of diverse relationships, collaboration, social-psychological interventions, and social networks that enhance positive behaviors, rather than amplify negative ones. Examine the relationship between vectors, viruses, and children, and draw upon parallels from network and organizational theories.
Looking at a school as an ecosystem, once you come around to this way of thinking, can be intoxicating. But it can also provide us with a necessary dose of humility for any endeavor to improve public education. There is no silver bullet, no easy fix, no technological potion that will magically enable all kids to learn the preferred civic, academic, and social wisdom we’d wish them to ingest. Improving schools is hard work, and it plays out on the ground in the minute-by-minute interactions of the key players—our administrators and teachers and students—on the stage of learning.
The least we can do is to design our schools to promote the greatest well-being, positive social interaction, and inspired learning that we can, based on what we know from available research and from what we know we would want for our own children.
“Compared to most of the interventions aimed at relieving stress (e.g. emotional skill building, anger management, positive behavior programs), placing trees and shrubs on the school ground is a modest, low-cost intervention that is likely to have long-lasting effects on generations of students.”
—Li & Sullivan, 2016
When Joe walks around his neighborhood, he is surrounded by sepia-toned brick buildings. When he goes to bed at night, he sleeps, fitfully, to the vehicular chorus of the Grand Concourse, a symphony of sirens, revving motors, car alarms, and bass blasting from souped up subwoofers. His access to nature is primarily derived from TV shows and a small city park a few blocks away, scattered with trash-strewn weeds. Joe (not any of my former students’ real name) is a 5th grader living in a dense urban area of the Bronx.
You might be forgiven for assuming this is all so normal for Joe that he has neither any conception nor desire for the vistas his peers raised in lusher landscapes have constant access to. Yet when Joe came to interview at the middle school where I worked (we interviewed our prospective 6th graders) and was asked, “What would you like to improve in your community?”, he replied that he would like to reduce trash and noise, and, furthermore, that he would like to live somewhere with more space and trees.
It wasn’t only Joe who responded in this way. Other students we interviewed voiced similar wishes, though they said it in different ways. For one it was a desire for more flowers, for another less violence, or a bigger bedroom, or a backyard, or no upstairs neighbor who made so much noise. I haven’t surveyed all the kids in the poorest areas of the city, but I’d wager they’d also appreciate a little more peace and quiet or nature, if given half the chance to express it.
Actually, many kids have been asked, and their answers were uncannily similar to Joe’s. In the early 1970s, urban designer Kevin Lynch organized a survey of teenagers in cities across four different countries. “When children were asked to imagine the best place to live in, they often mentioned trees, and as beautiful places, gardens, and parks” (Lynch, 1977, as summarized by Chawla, 2015, p. 436).
A craving for access to a beautiful natural expanse may be an intrinsic aspect of being human. There’s even a term for this, biophilia (introduced by Erich Fromm in 1973 and expanded on by E.O. Wilson in a 1986 book by the same name), which means that we have an innate urge to connect to nature and other living things. This doesn’t mean everyone wants to go camping nor be anywhere near a wilderness. But at the very least, we are all likely sustained by an occasional walk through a stand of whispering trees or an urban garden, just as we are by a visit with a friend.
In fact, even a mere view of living green things out of a window can be vicariously invigorating, as a wide array of studies have shown in a wide variety of settings, from our homes and neighborhoods to institutional settings such as hospitals, prisons, offices and—of course—our schools.
The Impact of A Green View on Student Learning
A Room With a View
The idea that greenery could be rejuvenating was kickstarted by an influential study in 1984 by Roger Ulrich, in which he found that surgical patients in a hospital whose windows looked out onto trees recovered more quickly—and with less pain medication—than patients in rooms facing a drab brick wall.
Prison inmates similarly benefit from glimpses of nature. A study found that prisoners in cells with outward facing views of farmland were sick less often than their counterparts with views of the inner yard (Moore, 1981). Of prison inmates, there are none more deprived than those placed in solitary confinement: they are enclosed in a cell for up to 23 hours a day for days, months—sometimes years—on end. Forget windows. Just showing videos of natural landscapes to prisoners in solitary confinement can help them to remain calm and reduce violent behavior (Nalini, et al., 2017).
Perhaps it is unsurprising people confined, whether to a hospital bed or a prison cell, would benefit from a small peek at something, anything, vibrant and alive. What may be more surprising is how subsequent studies have shown that “views of nature out of an office or factory are associated with increased employee productivity, enhanced feelings of job and life satisfaction, greater psychological and physical well-being, and reduced levels of frustration and stress” (Matsuoka, 2010, p. 274). This suggests that a green vista is not only a spark of life to a desperate inmate or sick patient, but a rejuvenative force for all of us who toil indoors for the majority of our day.
An accumulating stream of studies have shown that views and access to green space can improve the well-being and learning of students in K-12 schools. Greenery around a school building supports an increase in test scores, grades, working memory, attention, and plans to attend a four year college, with a concomitant decrease in stress and criminal behavior (Matsuoka, 2010; Wu et al., 2014; Dadvend et al., 2015; Li & Sullivan, 2016; Hodsen & Sanders, 2017; Kweon et al., 2017). Furthermore, greenery in a student’s neighborhood can result in an increase in mental health and a decrease in aggression (Alcock et al., 2014; Younan et al., 2016).
Sounds too good to be true? Maybe you think this is fluffy sociological stuff written to assuage the confirmation bias of tree huggers. It certainly sounds fluffy to say greenery is calming. We could say the same sort of thing about aromatherapy, crystals, and listening to whale sounds. But the significant and positive impact of the presence of greenery has been confirmed through randomized controlled trials and longitudinal studies. Fluffy? Maybe not so much.
There’s two theories about why greenery is rejuvenative: one is Attention Restoration Theory (ART) and the other is Stress Reduction Theory (SRT). ART theorizes that green space restores focus and fights fatigue, whereas SRT hypothesizes that nature reduces stress. Both theories have evidence to back them up, so there may be some interplay between reducing stress and restoring focus.
The natural views that seem to wield the greatest restorative and calming effects are from a school’s cafeteria and hallways (Matsuoka, 2010; Li & Sullivan, 2016). Li and Sullivan’s study suggests that “a 10-min break [with a natural view] would suffice in restoring students’ attentional capacities and help them recover from stressful tasks” (p. 156). Another study found even only five minutes of exposure to nature could help to reduce stress (Barton & Pretty, 2010; as cited by Kweon et al., 2017, p. 36). Ensuring that cafeterias, hallways, and other spaces, such as gyms, have a sightline to nature could be an effective way to support students in reducing their stress and restoring their ability to focus when they return to class.
According to one randomized controlled experiment, views of green expanses from a classroom can also support the cognitive performance of students, leading to 13% greater attentiveness than students with views of a parking lot, other buildings, or without any windows (Li & Sullivan, 2016). Another study found that schools with higher levels of nearby tree canopy cover had higher scores on tests of reading comprehension (Hodsen & Sander, 2017). One study even suggests that a mere glance of 40 seconds out of a window onto a green roof rather than a concrete one can serve to sustain attention on a challenging task (Lee et al., 2015).
And we’re still just talking about the presence of greenery outside of a school building. What kind of greenery is most influential? What about greenery within a building? And what about getting kids out of a building to interact with the real thing?
It’s All In the Canopy
Greenery, or green space, could mean a wide variety of things. Are we talking grass? Shrubs? Trees? Astroturf? Let me give you a hint. It’s not lawns. It’s not athletic fields. In fact, those land features, along with parking lots, are associated with reduced academic goals and achievement, and even higher criminal activity (Kweon et al., 2017). Shrubs don’t really do much, either.
It’s those trees, man. It’s that breathing green canopy cover that is the most focusing, calming, and restorative.
This isn’t so strange, when you think about it. Dallying under the dappled shade of trees is the hallmark of the good life. That soothing sound of breeze moving through leaves. The way sunlight shimmers across a variegated green marquee. There’s just something about trees. Something magical and magisterial. They buffer us from wind and rain. They enrich and entrench the soil and bear us fruit. They even communicate to one another through their root systems (Wohlleben, 2015). Some live on a timespan so protracted it’s unfathomable to our puny human minds. Trees bestow us with a sense, however subconscious, of flourishing ethereality that we may only most appreciate in their absence.
More practically, trees also help to reduce air and noise pollution, and help get people to exercise more (Dadvand et al., 2015). Trees can do much to not only “soak up fine particle pollution from cars, power plants, and factories” but furthermore “cool down neighborhoods anywhere from 0.5 degrees Celsius to 2 degrees Celsius on the hottest summer days” (Plumer, 2016). Pleasing on the eyes? Check. Providing ecosystem services for the public health and well-being of mankind? Check.
It is possible that trees only have a restorative visual impact within a certain range of density. For example, one study suggests somewhere between 24-34% tree cover* is a sweet spot (Jiang et al., 2014). Intriguingly, this may reflect an evolutionary preference for savannah-like landscapes and acacia-like—or thin trunk, large canopy—tree forms (Falk & Balling, 2010). Another study suggests that it’s not simply about the quantity of trees, but the quality of those trees, such as how well maintained, varied, and orderly they are (De Vries, van Dillen, Groenewegen, & Spreeuwenberg, 2013). This makes more sense. You could meet any quantitative quota with a sickly or monotonous row of trees, but a healthy, diverse copse will do much more for both your health and your soul.
I suspect there’s something about the just-right visual complexity and dimensionality of a healthy tree canopy that is especially pleasing to our mind’s eye—there’s just enough subtle unpredictable movement, variation, and depth to stimulate, while just enough light and green shade to soothe. In fact, there is the possibility that it is the fractal nature of tree canopy that makes it so pleasing to the eye and the brain (Cepelewicz, 2017).
In barren environments, like the flat expanses of the interstate highway in Kansas or like most school playgrounds, our minds grow desperate for distraction. And indeed, one study found that if a school has a barren playground, children with ADHD have greater difficulty concentrating after recess (Taylor & Kuo, 2001).
Man-made visual complexity, such as urban landscapes, can certainly inspire their own form of awe and appreciation, but as of yet, our architecture can hardly replicate—in a cost effective manner—the gentle scintillations of leaves nor the myriad other environmental benefits, like air filtration, that trees provide.
I’m going to go out on a limb here. I think we need trees not only to feel most fully alive, but in order to truly live.
*Having trouble visualizing what 24-34% tree cover looks like? I was, too. Fortunately, MIT offers a nifty tool that provides percentages for the density of tree cover in cities across the world. Head to senseable.mit.edu/treepedia to take a peek. You can zoom in on a specific spot in a city that has a density within that range, then pull up Google Streetview to get a ground-level visual. Compare between spots with a large percentage of tree cover, such as 50%, to ones with barely any, such as 2%. That disparity will give you an idea why there may be a sweet spot for restorative effects, at least from a visual standpoint.
Trees and Green Spaces Combat Inequality
Here’s a riddle for you: how can you tell the difference between a poor and affluent urban neighborhood from outer space?
Yep. It’s that mass of green.
One longitudinal study found just moving to a greener urban area not only immediately improves mental health, but sustains positive psychological benefits for at least three years (Alcock et al., 2014). That’s all well and good, but there’s another compelling reason to get more trees into your ‘hood: they help raise the property value (Mullaney, Lucke, & Trueman, 2015). Even better yet, “planting 10 or more trees per city block is equivalent to increasing the income of every household in that city block by more than $10,000” by improving perceptions of health, while decreasing “cardio-metabolic” conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, high cholesterol, and heart disease (Kardan et al., 2015).
Not many can afford to move to a greener area, but even small injections of green into dense urban neighborhoods, like replacing vacant lots with gardens, can reduce symptoms of depression in local residents (South et al., 2018). A longitudinal study in 2016 by Diana Younan and her colleagues furthermore found that green space in urban neighborhoods in Southern California reduced aggressive behavior in teens. The researchers found no evidence that this effect was strongly influenced by either sociodemographics nor the quality of the neighborhood, which suggests “the universal benefits of neighborhood greenspace” (p. 9). This corresponds with research showing that “building areas with high levels of vegetation can have approximately 50% lower crime levels than areas with low levels of vegetation (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001), and a 10% increase in the amount of tree cover has been associated with a 12% decrease in crime (Troy, Grove, & O’Neil-Dunne, 2012)” (as cited by Mullaney, Lucke, and Trueman, 2015, p. 159).
Joe and many other children in our densest urban areas crave natural environments with green space and restorative shade. One of the most sustainable and cost-effective interventions we can take to support future generations of children is simply to plant more trees—most especially near homes and schools.
Bringing Greenery Into Schools
Here’s the reality, though. Most schools are already built, and whether or not they are so lucky as to have any windows, let alone views of trees, is entirely outside the realm of their direct and immediate control. We may not be able to plant trees in classrooms, but is there any way we could bring some of that green juju indoors?
Some research suggests that the presence of plants in a hospital room can increase tolerance for pain (Grinde & Patil, 2009), while indoor plants in an office may reduce fatigue and health complaints (Grinde & Patil, 2009; Ranaas et al., 2011). But most of the research on the impact of indoor plants on classroom well-being, performance, or stress reduction, while suggestive, remains mostly inconclusive (Doxey, Waliczek, & Zajicek, 2009; Han, 2009, 2018; Berg et al., 2016).
I’ve been grappling with this, given the more robust effects for outdoor greenery. Is it because potted plants in most studies are not selected and situated primarily for visual complexity? If there were more plants or greenwalls with a diversity of size, form, and color placed around a classroom, could these have greater restorative effects?
There may be a sweet spot between quantity and quality which has not yet been discovered for indoor plants. Each study uses different variations and configurations of plants. As one reviewer put it, “although the evidence suggests indoor plants can provide psychological benefits, the heterogeneity amongst the methods and results may imply the benefits are contingent on the context of the encounter with indoor plants and the participants in the experiment” (Burnard & Kutnar, 2015, p. 972).
Furthermore, no study (to my knowledge) has yet examined the two areas where green views are most likely to have the greatest restorative impact: school cafeterias and hallways. Clearly, we need further research (while we’re waiting on the research, to add some dimensionality to your own indoor plant collection, try placing plants at different heights, such as on stools, boxes, or crates, as “garden stylist” Satoshi Kawamoto suggests (Gordon, 2015)). But here’s a short quiz that may help you to determine whether or not you want to bring plants into your classroom or school:
Do you prefer a few plants near where you work or relax? Do you liven up your workspace or living room with a flower or succulent?
If so, why, and if not, why not?
Let your answer to this be your guide.
Indoor Plants for Air Filtration?
Even if they may not have the fully restorative or stress reducing impacts that views of outside tree canopy can provide, could they filter and reduce indoor air pollution? If they could, this would be huge because poor indoor air quality impacts learning. Effects reported by various studies have been a reduction in cognitive performance and the ability to make complex decisions, and an increase in sleepiness (Carrer, 2018). In other words, everything you don’t want in a classroom.
A widely cited NASA study in 1989 (Wolverton, Johnson, & Bounds) found that a wide variety of plants filtered volatile organic compounds (VOCs) often present in indoor environments, such as formaldehyde, benzene, and ammonia. Some later studies support this initial finding (Pettit, Irga, & Torpy, 2018), but unfortunately, it seems that outside of a lab setting and in the much larger, real-world spaces of offices and schools, plants do very little to filter indoor air (Meyer, 2019). Well, OK, maybe they don’t filter pollution much, but another side benefit of indoor plants is that through the process of transpiration, they can add moisture to the air, which is good for dry skin (Horton, 2015).
Overall, unfortunately, it appears that indoor plants do not provide the same benefits that outside greenery does.
Keeping plants in a school requires careful consideration, such as how much daylight, if any, is available in a given space, as well as who will be responsible for watering and upkeep, not to mention the issue of safety. Ideally, the plants you select should require little sunlight and watering, provide air filtration benefits, be visually appealing, and highly durable.
Through a survey of friends and online sources, I drew up a shortlist of promising plants for school use, most of which are within the $15-30 range if you buy them pre-potted:
Variegated Snake Plant
Cast Iron Plant
If you are fortunate enough to have access to some sunlight in your school or classroom, then look also into the following:
Succulents, such as aloe
Spider Plant (hang these from the ceiling and they can also help absorb noise!)
If you are even more fortunate and can secure funds, you could also consider the installation of greenwalls. While further research is required, there is potential in the biofiltration potential of a greenwall (Pettit, Irga, & Torpy, 2018), as well as possible restorative effects (Berg et al., 2017).
Bringing Schools Into Greenery
So far we’ve focused primarily on the mere presence of trees and greenery, which even passively can be powerful for learning and health by reducing stress and increasing attention, in addition to reducing pollution. But given our focus on education, the logical next question is: does interacting with nature amplify and deepen these effects?
The answer thus far, at least according to research on playgrounds and gardens, is “Yes.” School gardens help to increase physical activity (Wells, Myers, & Henderson, 2014), while playgrounds that are surrounded by greenery promote better cognitive functioning (Kuo, 2010), “concentration and relief from stress,” in addition to more imaginative, explorative, and socially cooperative play (Chalwa, 2015, p. 445). It should also be recognized that just spending time in nature can support the development of stronger immune systems. One study found that walking in a forest boosted anti-cancer cells by 50% or more, which remained elevated even a month after returning to everyday urban existence, while also decreasing inflammation (Li, 2010, Mao et al., 2012, as cited by Kuo, 2015, p. 4).
But there is much more to interacting with nature than the solely utilitarian benefits to health and well-being. Access to nature provides opportunities to build greater self and world knowledge. How can you truly understand how food grows, or how plants utilize photosynthesis, or what it means to cultivate microbial soil life, unless you get your hands dirty? How can you truly develop resilience, fortitude, and patience without having experienced the alternating awe and weariness of spending a day walking through the woods or up a mountain? Some studies have suggested that simply playing in nature increases the likelihood of environmental stewardship later in life (Wells & Lekies, 2006; Thompson et al. 2008). Imagine having a curriculum that includes not only reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, but moreover a scientific and aesthetic engagement with real plots of land?
Hosting school outside may sound radical at first, but ‘forest kindergartens’ are a thing in Germany, Finland, Switzerland, and . . . Vermont (Gregory, 2017; Schoolsoutfilm.com, 2012; Walker, 2016; Hanford, 2015). Given the research we’ve just reviewed, such seemingly hippie-dippy programs now seem eminently sensible. The key hurdle is whether you happen to have a forest handy nearby. But what about schools in local parks? Actually, I wrote that sentence, then poked around on the web for a minute, and lo and behold, there’s classes called Tinkergarten at a park near me that promotes learning through play in local outdoor spaces (and maybe one near you; check it out at tinkergarten.com).
Humanity now faces repercussions from the incredible stress we have placed on the natural world. The great diversity of microbes, habitats, plants, and animals our earth once carried is swiftly ebbing. Traditional ways of living and knowing are preserved primarily for entertainment, rather than as respected sources of wisdom. If developing an appreciation of nature, both scientific and aesthetic, means getting children outside into whatever local park, water feature, grassy knoll, garden, flower box, or forest you may be fortunate enough to have near to your home or school, then let’s do it. If it means bringing plants into a school via hydroponics, as teacher Stephen Ritz does at CS 55 in the Bronx (Check out Ritz’ website greenbronxmachine.org or read his book, The Power of a Plant, to learn more about his work), or via potted plants or greenwalls, or lining playgrounds, starting rooftop gardens, or even just gazing out at a natural landscape from windows or in videos . . . then, hey. We’ve got to start somewhere.
What We Can Do
Trees take a long time to grow. Unfortunately, leaders in education tend to focus on shallower, shorter-term initiatives, like tablets or teacher evaluations.
There has been a growing recognition of the general importance of greenery in our communities, and many trees have been planted in areas that were once urban deserts. Here in NYC, organizations like GrowNYC, Bronx Green-Up, Learning Gardens, and many others are available to help get kids get their hands dirty in a garden. And city-wide initiatives like Greenstreets and MillionTreesNYC have brought street trees to nearly every block.
For students like Joe living in dense urban neighborhoods, this means a lot. But having a row of street trees is not enough. We need more vacant lots converted to green space, more green roofs, more parks, and far, far greater access and opportunities to interact with nature on a frequent basis.
It may be that growing a green thumb may be one of the most beneficial things you could do to support the learning of future generations.
Greenery around a school building supports an increase in test scores, grades, working memory, attention, and plans to attend a four year college
Greenery in a neighborhood decreases stress, aggression, and criminal behavior
Views of trees can both soothe (reduce stress) and stimulate (refocus attention)
Views of trees from school cafeterias and hallways seem to have the greatest restorative and calming effects
Views of greenery from a classroom can also lead to 13% greater attentiveness
Trees help to reduce air and noise pollution, and support an increase in exercise and property value
It’s less about quantity and more about the quality of the trees and tree canopy
Indoor plants don’t seem to provide the same benefits as external greenery
Moving school playgrounds and classrooms outdoors can provide a range of benefits to health and learning, in addition to building a greater sense of environmental stewardship
Extra Credit: The Ecology of Greenery
Clearly, it’s not within any individual school’s purview alone to increase the greenery within a neighborhood, and nor is one dedicated community organization that receives some grant funding enough. It takes a coordinated effort between local businesses, governmental agencies at different levels, nonprofits, and civically engaged citizens to make it happen. It truly takes a community to plant, sustain, and scale the kind of quality tree canopy our children need.
Caring for plants—and for animals—can not only strengthen a community, but also provide therapeutic benefits for individuals.
Bill Thomas, a NY professor and physician on a mission to improve the care of our elderly, has come up with a model of elderly care he calls the “Eden Alternative” (Bahrampour, 2016). Instead of cold, clinical institutions, he creates environments that are more akin to gardens. He stocks nursing homes with cats, dogs, rabbits, and birds in addition to an array of plants. The effect is reduced need for medication, lower death rates, raised spirits, and greater autonomy.
In Baltimore, one volunteer, Gene DeSantis, has planted over 15,000 trees, overcoming a childhood of trauma while contributing to the long-term health and well-being of his community (Zaleski, 2019).
In D.C., a former drug dealer’s love of birds helps him to discover his better self. He now works with children, introducing them to the beauty of raptors, to help them learn to engage with the natural world, and in the process, also discover their better selves (Daniel, 2016).
In schools across our nation, our children are struggling to cope with chronic and acute stress, trauma, and poverty while attempting to learn in environments that offer little rejuvenation nor tranquility.
It’s not only the immediate adults around them who need to build lattices and networks of love, resilience, and calm, but furthermore the sustaining canopies and anchored roots of trees in the land that surrounds them, planted and nurtured by the many diverse people, groups, and organizations of their community.
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Bringslimark, T., Hartig, T. and Patil, G. G. (2009) ‘The psychological benefits of indoor plants: A critical review of the experimental literature’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29(4), pp. 422–433. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2009.05.001.
Burnard, M. D. and Kutnar, A. (2015) ‘Wood and human stress in the built indoor environment: a review’, Wood Science and Technology, 49(5), pp. 969–986. doi: 10.1007/s00226-015-0747-3.
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5 years ago, after the latest round of NY state test scores were released and Success Academy took 7 out of the top 15 spots in NY state, Robert Pondiscio wrote:
“What is imperative now is for serious, unbiased experts and observers to descend on Harlem and figure out how these extraordinary results are being achieved and, if all that glitters is gold, how to replicate them.”
Pondiscio has put his time and effort where his mouth was, and spent a year in a Success Academy elementary school in the Bronx. The outcome is a gobsmackingly incisive and nuanced book in which he attempts to document how those extraordinary results are achieved. This is Pondiscio at his best.
I’ve always been skeptical of Success Academy (SA), but unlike some of my district school colleagues, I don’t have a sustained interest in political nor ideological turf wars against charters. I am interested in learning from what any school or network may be doing that is effective. When I saw those phenomenal results 5 years ago, just like Pondiscio, I wanted to know what the heck SA was doing. And I wanted to know whether what SA is doing is truly successful from a long-term perspective. I came up with a list of questions:
What do the formal and informal leaders say and do? How and what do they communicate consistently? (This includes student leaders).
Is the leadership distributed?
What mechanisms are in place for students, parents, teachers, and leaders to collaborate and receive continuous feedback? How do leaders respond to feedback?
How is diversity in student ability, knowledge, and skills strategically recognized and cultivated?
What are the values and vision behind assessment and unit design?
What texts are taught in ELA? Why?
How well do topics and themes build knowledge and understanding of academic domains and the world sequentially across classrooms and grades?
How are students engaged in their community through units?
What scaffolds and interventions for students who are struggling are applied consistently both in and out of classrooms?
What opportunities beyond academics are provided for all students?
What does it feel like when you walk into a Success Academy school? What does it sound like? What does it look like?
How relevant is posted work and displays to students and their community?
What is the ratio of positive to negative language used by students and staff in the building?
How (psychologically) safe do students with special needs feel in the hallways, lunch rooms, and classrooms?
How are supportive social relationships and networks developed and sustained by the school?
In How the Other Half Learns, Pondiscio ends up answering a fair number of those questions. Read it to learn more.
What this review is and isn’t
I would love to write a more lengthy expository on nearly everything in the book—there’s certainly plenty to dig into—but realized I would never end up finishing, so I’m going to focus on a few things that struck me.
I’m also not going to spend much time on the school choice argument that Pondiscio mounts throughout the book, as interesting as it is, because most other reviews—and there are many—dig into those kind of things more in full. I’m more interested in practice than in politics.
And finally, this really isn’t a proper “review.” So here’s a proper review in short: The book is well-written and thought provoking at every turn. Do yourself a favor and read it.
That said, let’s get to my takeaways:
So what’s the secret sauce?
Let’s get something straight: SA posts amazing results, pretty much any way you slice it. But Pondiscio doesn’t shy away from reporting that a key ingredient in their secret sauce is the careful vetting and grooming of a parent population that is involved and committed enough to SA’s approach to make it sing. In fact, Pondiscio leverages that fact to underpin his key argument for school choice: “Well-intended efforts to leverage schools as a means of ending generational poverty are perversely doomed to perpetuate it—unless we allow like-minded parents to self-select into schools in the greatest numbers possible.”
They end up typically being two parent families, faith oriented, and appreciative of firm discipline, according to Pondiscio’s reckoning, drawing parallels to Catholic schools, which historically have served similarly and effectively in the poorest zipcodes.
But aside from hand selecting the parents who are most committed to SAs vision, what exactly is SA doing?
This is the key theme that emerged for me while reading this book: when all adult oars pull in the same direction—in synchronicity—around children, then amazing results can be achieved. Even if the oars or the hands pulling them are far from perfect.
“When you are surrounded by adults who are demonstrably invested in your success, who do not assume your inevitable failure or condescend because they perceive you as less than or other, who do not dwell on your deficits or perceive you as oppressed or a victim, you are pointed in a specific direction in life.”
Let me give you two examples of this from Pondiscio’s reporting of SA, one an example of great literacy practice, and the other one of questionable value.
Exemplary Literacy Practice
SA provides a rigorous balance of close reading of shared grade-level texts that are worth reading, while ensuring that each and every student reads a steady volume of texts that are more accessible. The manner in which they do this rendered clear to me something I’d been sensing but hadn’t yet been able to fully express—students need this balance to become fully literate. Yet in many schools, there is no balance whatsoever—it’s tipped completely one way or another. Either students read a bunch of mostly random books of choice at their “level,” and little else, so they build little background knowledge. Or they read a few books (or excerpts) from their curriculum that are at grade-level, but struggle to understand it and teachers receive little support on how to scaffold those texts beyond injunctions to differentiate, and their school doesn’t have the necessary expertise and resources to provide appropriate intervention.
A key lever at an SA school is that they push the preponderance of volume of independent reading onto parents, and hold parents and students accountable to it. Here’s Pondiscio:
“The guidance is specific, granular, and deliverable. Parents are expected to read six books aloud to their children every week through the end of second grade; they must monitor and log their children’s independent reading and homework through high school, emulating the habits and structures associated with affluent families.“
In the schools I work with, the common complaint is that many students don’t read on their own and they lack the proper environment or resources to do so even when they are motivated to do so.
The other key lever, which is more scalable to other schools, is that SA’s close reading methods are structured and consistent from grade-to-grade, starting from the very beginning. They have a list of concise and clear “thinking jobs” by genre that students enlist to guide their discussion and annotations, and teachers and students have a clear structure that guides their process of textual analysis. This is what could be called “test prep” when executed poorly and haphazardly with little connection to any disciplinary or world knowledge, but it’s also more generally what we call “close reading.” They study shared complex texts and engage in intellectual discussions around the structure, purpose, and meaning of those texts. So long as the texts selected are worth reading, this is an exemplary practice.
So I found this description of their practices highly useful to my own work, because it clarified the importance in both increasing volume of reading, while also reading shared grade-level text. I came up with a wee graphic to depict this which I now use whenever presenting on close reading:
I’d like to write more on this another time, but while we’re on it, just want to note there are now curriculum offerings that provide more of this type of interweaving balance. For example, Bookworms (freely accessible) intriguingly scales not only between texts at student level and grade-level, but furthermore read alouds of texts at above grade-level, such that it provides a tri-pronged attack for building knowledge and vocabulary alongside increasing volume (listen to Karin Chenowith’s ExtraOrdinary Districts podcast on Seaford, DE, for more on this). STARI, a Tier 2 intervention (also freely accessible), similarly scales between accessible, relevant texts and grade-level work. More to explore here!
At SA, having an abundance of resources and in-classroom coaching all centered around a curriculum and set practices is a given. There is that “educational infrastructure” around the classroom that Elizabeth Green refers to in Building a Better Teacher fully present across the SA network.
As Pondiscio notes, SA is built to run on the backs of extremely young and inexperienced teachers, and it manages to so so effectively, but this also is one of the factors that shows it can’t be done at scale and sustainably.
I’ve spoken to a few folks who’ve worked at SA before, and from what I can glean, it would be a great place to learn the ropes, but not the kind of place you’d want to stay in for long, because if you want to have a family or life of your own, you won’t have any time for it. (As a side note, this is why I think it was extremely shortsighted of the NY Board of Regents to nix legislation allowing teachers to gain a license directly from charter schools, rather than through traditional routes.)
Not-so-exemplary literacy practice
SA isn’t a guiding light in all its literacy practices. One of the most intense, which is quite revealing of SA in all its glory and its shame, is that kindergarten students may be held over if they do not reach Level D on Fountas and Pinnell running records by the end of the school year.
Fountas and Pinnell (or F&P as it is widely referred to) and guided reading is starting to get put under the microscope because though its leveled method appears scientific, it’s not based on solid science. Yet F&P is pervasive in the field, and kids across our nation refer to themselves as “I’m a level __” —even though F&P themselves state that the intent of the leveling system is to pair kids with books, not to define the kids.
SA disregards all of this and goes all in on leveling:
“Classroom libraries have book bins sorted by levels; children’s nightly reading logs have a column to record each book’s level. Data walls in every classroom indicate each child’s current reading level.”
And yet . . . in one scene Pondiscio describes the joyous celebration that occurs when a boy, who has been struggling, moves up a level. As he proudly shares this information with other adults in the building, and it becomes an impromptu parade, this suspect practice still can result in motivating kids to improve their reading ability, when their parents are firmly in tow.
When all adults pull in the same direction—even when the practices might be of questionable value—gains can be made, as SA consistently shows every single year. F&P and running records might not be based on the most solid of science, but they provide clear goals and progress monitoring, and when a school commits to a specific approach and goes all in, you will see impact.
I should also note that when I raised questions about their literacy practices on Twitter, Michele Caracappa, a former CAO at SA who is quoted in the book, clarified the science-based reading practices they do engage in. More here:
What I Think the Book Oversells
Pondiscio was surprised to find that the SA curriculum was not as knowledge based, direct instruction based, and central to SA’s success as he suspected. But he also determines that there is enough knowledge building going on across contents at SA that it warrants a general stamp of approval. He spends a chapter on his greatest hits on the importance of knowledge (great if you aren’t up to speed on it; I have been on the knowledge tip long enough to know it by heart – the baseball study, background knowledge, vocabulary, etc), but I think he oversells the fact that SA aligns with a solidly knowledge-based approach.
They pick books worth reading and they ensure science and history are adequately taught, which unfortunately are all areas many schools are deficient in. But I would argue that their coherence lies primarily in their practices and coaching, not necessarily in an explicit and sequential curriculum that builds knowledge.
To be fair to Pondiscio, he acknowledges the weaknesses in the curriculum, and gives a kind of mea culpa at the conclusion, which I’ll get into in a moment.
What I Think the Book Undersells
I’ve written a lot here about the importance of physical environment, and SA ensures that its physical environment is in top form. I think the impact of this goes further than you may think.
I work with a few schools that are colocated with a Success Academy in the same building, and it’s been endlessly fascinating to me how you can walk from one hallway to another and enter a completely different headspace. They always replace the older school doors with more modern, window covered doors that block out sound well and close quietly. Even this one simple change goes a long way towards reducing the amount of reverberating noise that speeds along down those long echoing corridors.
Their colors, immaculate spotlessness, focused bulletin boards, signage, etc all creates a physical environment that enables learning to occur, both acoustically speaking and in what is communicated to students.
What’s especially interesting about SA is that they have a dedicated leader in each building, parallel to the principal, specifically assigned to building operations!
While Pondiscio notes the attention to physical environment, he doesn’t dwell on it. Here’s what he notes:
The level of detail is exhausting, from checking hallway bulletin boards for ripped papers and making sure classroom posters stay up to ensuring that the overnight custodians who vacuum classroom rugs remembered to replace the “baby plugs” that keep children’s fingers out of wall sockets.
Walk-throughs are done nearly hourly by Fuoco or one of three staff members. While every Success Academy has an ops team and a BOM, the checklists are unique to the layout and physical condition of the building where each school is co-located.
Something else that I think Pondiscio touches on but possibly undersells is the importance of all the various educational infrastructural pieces that together SA does so well, such as PD, strategically mixing classes each year, ensuring intellectual preparation by its teachers, leaders who know the content well, systems for assessing and monitoring student data, and so on.
If the teachers are going to be teaching this lesson on the central idea of this poem, then the leaders need to be getting together two weeks before, and doing the intellectual prep themselves,’ even practice-teaching everything themselves so that they can then go lead that effectively with teachers,’” recalled Toll.
The Tiffany Test
In district schools, we seem to have committed all of our resources and attention to ensuring that even the toughest students are rarely suspended and spend more time in the classroom. A worthy goal, to be sure, but Pondiscio posits a “Tiffany test” that should give all of us strong ethical pause, based on a former student he had who sat quietly and did all that was expected of her, receiving little of the intellectual challenge she deserved due to other students’ misbehavior:
The weight of education policy and practice, as enshrined in impulse, empathy, and the law, comes down on the side of the disruptive child. But not at Success Academy.
A significant tension between public schools and charter schools is the question of who bears the cost and responsibility for the hardest-to-teach students.
….children who are ready for new intellectual challenges pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their less proficient and less engaged peers.
I have worked with some pretty tough students in my time, and my heart always, always goes out to them, like most other educators I know. They are the ones that keep me up at night and who come back to haunt me. If you ever corner me in a bar and get me talking about some of my former students, I will weep. I can’t help it. But I also think back to the quiet ones, the ones who sat with their hands folded as that one student cursed someone out, or threw a tantrum for the umpteenth time, the ones who quietly and dutifully filed out of my classroom and lined up along the wall when one student would go into crisis and became violent because I didn’t call on him when he raised his hand. I had to learn to handle such crises mostly on my own. I didn’t have a coach or a behavioral team who would swoop in and ensure I could continue to teach the lesson.
So his argument struck me to the core.
And yet, I also work with tough schools where they get students who are dumped on them from charter schools like SA, and they get them shipped over to them without even getting the associated funding for that student because of the strategic timing of when the charter school dumps them.*(See updated footnote on this based on feedback from James Merriman) How is that fair? And these are often the toughest students to teach, all concentrated in that local school because we have to take them, and we do, and we serve them the best that we can, with the limited support and resources we have, because schools like SA can’t or won’t.
This is the Tiffany test, and the Adama test, and it is a tough ethical dilemma worth pondering in depth, and Pondiscio forces us to grapple with it through this book in a meaningful and provocative manner.
On the one hand, there are the students who struggle who will simply not do well at SA:
“For those who try and try and can never get out of the ‘red,’ Success Academy is not for them”
But on the other hand, SA is serving the students and parents who have committed to it and can rise to its challenge, and are raising the bar so high the entire state cringes to look directly at its achievement.
There’s no clear answers here, but I think Pondiscio has some strong medicine here that needs to be more deeply considered on all sides.
It’s the Culture, Man
Pondiscio lands in an interesting place at the finale of the book. SPOILER ALERT: He concludes that what makes SA tick is not scalable, and its not scalable because what’s really happening at SA has more to do with an adaptive, squishy thing like culture, and less to do with technical things like curriculum. And this was a hard thing to come to terms with: “School culture is freighted, hard to define, harder to impose, and nearly impossible to shape through public policy.”
Here’s the money quote for me, and I think you’ll see why:
. . . a comprehensive and equitable system of public education does not require that every school be exactly the same; it requires an ecosystem of schools that collectively can serve the need of every child.
In addition to using the word that gives this blog its name, he acknowledges the key issue that this blog has been focused on conveying for some time: schools and school systems are complex. Imposing a prescription at scale is unlikely to improve the majority of our schools, and the real work is at the ground level. It’s adaptive work, in addition to highly technical work. We need to cultivate and sustain conditions that will enable that hard work to bear fruit and thrive more widely. And ultimately, this requires we think far more flexibly beyond static divides like school district boundaries, charter vs. district schools, and private vs. public funding and institutions.
If there’s one thing we can thank Success Academy for, it is that it shows what can be done when all the adults, from the parents, to the staff, to the leadership, pull in the same direction. It’s a machine that not everyone can hold onto, and it leaves a bloody trail in its wake, but it’s certainly a sight to behold.
*Update 1/1/20: James Merriman gave me some important corrective feedback on my comment on charter schools dumping kids on district schools and keeping the money. I’ll admit I threw out that comment based purely on anecdotal information, not on empirical data, and with little of my own direct experience with this. You can view his comments here in this thread:
This is an updated version of an earlier post, based on new research I included. The decision-tree has been updated! You can find a Google Doc version of this here.
Student Grouping: What is Effective?
How do we leverage student grouping to best promote achievement?
This is a question teachers and administrators ask themselves almost daily. Unfortunately, there are few clear or easy answers. But we can draw out a few general principles from recent research and other sources of knowledge that may help to inform our instructional practice.
It’s important to acknowledge there’s often a steady pressure on teachers to utilize group work. And for some teachers, grouping students by ability can make serving a wide disparity of different levels of students more manageable.
But there’s an often unstated assumption: group work is inherently superior to whole class or independent learning. But is group work always better than other modes of learning?
Tom Bennett, a British behavioral specialist, argues in an article in American Educator, “Group Work for the Good,” that there is little research to suggest group work is better for academic learning. Bennett cautions teachers to only “use group work when you feel it is appropriate to the task you want your students to achieve, and at no other time.”
OK, but what are the times when group work is appropriate?
“. . . an understanding of memory systems has profound implications for instruction, which include creating systematic and intentional scaffolds of students’ understanding rather than leaving them alone to discover information independently. That’s not to say that students should not work together in collaborative learning; they should. We have argued for productive group work in which students interact with one another and generate ideas to produce individual works (Frey et al., 2009). But this work must center on the consolidation and application of content that students already know. It’s neither the time nor the place to introduce new information. Doing so would overload the working memory system and fail to ensure learning” (Bold added).
In other words, Fisher and Frey suggest that new concepts and information should not be introduced during group work. Group work should instead be used for reinforcing, consolidating, and applying information students have already been exposed to.
But I later came across another study by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller, Femke Kirschner, and Jimmy Zambrano, “From Cognitive Load Theory to Collaborative Cognitive Load Theory,” that contradicts this. Instead, Kirschner et al. suggest that working as a group creates a collective working memory, and that therefore group tasks should be more complex.
They state, “… learning in a team is more effective than individual learning if the complexity of the to-be-learned material is so high that it exceeds the limits of each individual learner’s working memory.” They furthermore suggest that greater complexity will make the task more engaging for the group: “Collaboration will occur when the task is complex enough to justify the extra time and effort involved in collaborating with others.”
Therefore when assigning group work, ensure that the task is complex enough to warrant collaborative effort.
So we’re engaging groups of kids in complex tasks. Now how do we ensure students are productive during the times when they do work as a group? Here it can be instructive to look at some of the analysis coming out of the business sector. Fostering productive teams, after all, is critical to the success or failure of many modern businesses.
One finding from the business realm that will make immediate sense to educators is that creating a context that fosters shared identity promotes productivity. You can read more about this research in “Spaces the Signal Identity Improve Workplace Productivity,” in the Journal of Personnel Psychology. We know that giving our students a sense of belonging and recognizing who they are and what they bring is critical to fostering a positive school community. But it’s good to know that it also can improve group performance.
Another finding is that how a team communicates is what determines its effectiveness. As presented in an article, “The New Science of Building Great Teams” in Harvard Business Review, effective teams communicate more equitably and with higher engagement. And even more critically for consideration in a school context, socialization outside of formal meeting time has a huge influence on team effectiveness. What this means for educators is that fostering effective group work requires time and training. Furthermore, as described in a passage “Group Dynamics for Teams” by Daniel Levi, this training requires norming, socialization, and building cooperative skills. Educators know that many of our students struggle with social skills and working productively together. These skills must be taught and developed.
Similarly, moving into research from higher education, in “What makes a ‘good group’? Exploring the characteristics and performance of undergraduate student groups” the authors argue that if “team working skills” are “important as a learning outcome, they must be assessed directly alongside the task output.” In other words, if a teacher is going to utilize group work for a task, they must establish explicit learning objectives for the skills practiced in the group work itself, not only for the content of the task. This again reinforces the idea that when we do use group work, we must do so strategically.
This builds off of Robert Slavin’s review of educational research, as outlined in an ACSD article, “Cooperative Learning and Student Achievement,” which suggests that not only must effective group work have group goals and rewards, but also must hold each individual accountable for their contribution. Group work which incorporates only one aspect of those two critical components (group goals and individual accountability) demonstrates little benefit to learning, whereas group learning which incorporates both is far more effective.
This latter insight, that diverse teams are more productive, may be one of the most useful within a classroom context. Various studies, as presented in an article on Harvard Business Review, “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter” by David Rock and Heidi Grant, suggest that ethnic and racial diversity makes for more effective, deliberative, and innovative teams. This is an important consideration for teachers when forming groups.
“. . . teachers’ goals and expectations for small-group discussions should guide their decision to compose the groups homogeneously or heterogeneously. For example, if teachers desire to focus on enhancing students’ basic comprehension or if they desire to support students’ engagement in the discussion, they may find that grouping the students homogeneously is more advantageous for low-ability students. Alternatively, teachers should employ heterogeneous ability grouping if their focus is on building students’ high-level comprehension of the text.”
In other words, group homogeneously to engage low-skilled students; group heterogeneously to deepen comprehension.
However, it’s important to note that research on homogeneous vs. heterogeneous grouping is mostly unclear. Ultimately, how a teacher chooses to group students must be strategic and based on the task and learning outcomes. But overall findings seem to suggest that our default should be mixing students of different backgrounds and ability.
A synthesis of findings on effective group work
Ok, so we’ve reviewed a fair amount of information on grouping. Let’s summarize what we have so far:
Use group work only when it is necessary to achieve the task you are planning
When assigning group work, ensure that the task is complex enough to warrant collaborative effort.
Create a classroom and school environment that fosters a shared identity
Provide norming, time for socialization, and training in the cooperative skills students will require to work productively as a team
Set explicit learning targets for group work skills when engaging in a group task, while holding each individual student accountable for their work within the group
Group students heterogeneously to promote greater critical thinking and creativity
Cheruvelil, K. S., Soranno, P. A., Weathers, K. C., Hanson, P. C., Goring, S. J., Filstrup, C. T. and Read, E. K. (2014), Creating and maintaining high-performing collaborative research teams: the importance of diversity and interpersonal skills. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 12: 31–38. doi:10.1890/130001. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1890/130001/abstract