A few weeks ago, a middle school in the Bronx that I work with had a visit from their superintendent. She blasted them for their disorganized learning environments, and for good reason: classrooms were cluttered with charts serving little purpose aside from demonstrating the residue of what was once taught.
I also happened to speak recently with a pre-K teacher of children with autism who emphasized the importance of a calm, uncluttered environment for her students. She kept her walls mostly bare. She said that the idea that classroom walls need to have something on them is “old-fashioned thinking”; such educators think that “if I have a lot on the walls, then kids are learning a lot. But it’s more about the teacher than the kids.”
This teacher thinks deeply about what her students need, and she has realized that having very little up on the walls is critical to creating an environment for learning for students sensitive to visual stimulus.
I think at some level most teachers recognize this, when they are asked. At that middle school I mentioned, the leadership and then staff discussed what an effective classroom environment looked like, and the importance of a lack of clutter was raised.
Yet in all too many classrooms, especially in struggling schools, walls are strewn with the bricolage of lessons past. How many of those charts are actively referred to by students?
A small study in 2014 by Carnegie Mellon, as reported by NBC News, backs up the idea that clutter on classroom walls can have a detrimental effect on learning. They found that:
In the sparse classroom, the kindergartners got distracted by other students or even themselves. But in the decorated one, children were more likely to be distracted by the visual environment and spent far more time “off task.”
In other words, young children are easily distractable. So putting a bunch of stuff up on the walls will distract them even more. In heavens name, why would we deliberately make it harder for our kids to focus and learn?
And yet in too many classrooms and schools, we do exactly that. We create environments that make it harder for students to focus, rather than easier.
And why do we do that? Because all too often, we put things up for other adults, rather than for our students.
Look at all we are learning!, our classroom walls scream.
The irony: all those artifacts make it harder for students to learn.
Teachers, take an honest look at your classroom walls, and ask yourself: What is on my classroom walls? Why? Who is it for? How often (if at all) do my students refer to what’s there?
Here’s a rule of thumb to combat distraction: If what is up on your wall will not be referred to by your students in the next week or two, then take it down.
Take a picture of it if you want a record of it, or do like one great teacher I worked with did and tape it to a wire hanger and hang it in a closet or on a clothes rack for past anchor charts that you can bring back out as needed.
How did New York end up so segregated? As part of my NY Policy Fellowship, I did a little bit of research to try and answer this question.
The Great Migrations
During WWI, industrial urban cities in the North actively recruited Southern black laborers due to labor shortages and war production demand. By the 1920s, Harlem housed 200,000 African Americans and became an epicenter of black literature, music, and visual arts. NYC’s black population expanded from 140,000 in 1910 to 660,000 by 1940. Only a quarter of that 1940 population were born in New York. Economic demand during and after WWII similarly spurred a large influx from southern states. By 1970, NYC’s black population was at 2,350,000, and Buffalo’s at 108,000. Meanwhile, “NYC’s Hispanic population increased by almost twenty times between 1940 and 2010, while its total non-Hispanic White population decreased by over 60% over the same time period.”
After WWII, the Federal Housing Authority provided funding for homeownership for many white working class families. However, some banks would refuse to lend money to aspiring black homeowners. The practice of “redlining” refers to maps banks would keep of neighborhood racial demographics, which they would use to determine “bad investments.” Banks would then deny services to African American families, or selectively raise prices. This practice furthered racial segregation, and also guaranteed that many black neighborhoods were either underdeveloped or left in disrepair.
Urban Redevelopment and Highways
Robert Moses engineered passage and amendment to the 1942 Hampton-Mitchell Bill (enacted as the Urban Redevelopment Companies Law), which allowed the displacement of communities (typically low income) by private developers. The NY State Court of Appeals, in a 1949 case, Dorsey v. Stuyvesant Town Corp., later upheld the right of private property owners to discriminate by race. The court ruled: “It is well settled that the landlord of a private apartment or dwelling house may, without violating any provision of the Federal or State Constitutions, select tenants of its own choice because of race, color, creed or religion … Clearly, housing accommodation is not a recognized civil right.”
In a trend-setting development, Moses built the first highway through a crowded urban center, the Cross Bronx Expressway. This development, like the Stuyvesant development on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, resulted in the displacement of lower-income families and reinforced segregation.
Other cities in New York followed suit, with the Skyway in Buffalo and the I-81 in Syracuse similarly stranding low-income families in noisy, polluted inner cities, while creating swift escape routes for suburban commuters. Coupled with strict zoning rules and the lack of affordable housing and public transportation options in many suburban areas, poorer families found it difficult to gain the means either to leave or improve their high poverty neighborhoods.
Loss of Industrial Jobs
While the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made redlining practices illegal, the stagnation of the economy in the 1970s, coupled with deindustrialization, spurred the flight of white and middle class families to suburbs, leaving behind inner city neighborhoods with few employment opportunities and resources. According to EdBuild, twenty nine of the country’s 50 most extremely segregated school districts are in the Rust Belt, with New York State number 6 on that list.
Fruitless Fights for Integration
In the 1950s and 60s, a Reverend in Brooklyn, Milton Galamison, fought for integration, first as chair for the Education Chapter of the NAACP, then as founder of the Parent’s Workshop for Equality in New York City Schools. His group “presented a series of integration proposals to the New York City Board of Education, none of which were implemented.” In 1964, Galamison led a group of civil rights organizations to boycott NYC public schools, but he did not gain the support of the teacher’s union and later lost the support of national civil rights groups. In the late 60s, he began fighting for community control of schools, creating tension with the teacher’s union, the Al Shanker-led UFT. This tension came to a head in Ocean-Hill Brownsville in 1968. Tensions between labor rights and community control advocates, as well as between advocates of integration and of black separatism, created fissures in liberal thought that shifted key narratives and perceptions of public education. As Dana Goldstein notes in her book, Teacher Wars, “Ocean Hill-Brownsville created rifts between teacher unions and black civil rights groups, as well as between liberal elites and the union.” These rifts and tensions continue to reverberate today, especially via the critique of teachers unions and traditional district schools offered by parental choice and charter school advocates.
NYC has never been under a desegregation order. There were a few efforts made to increase diversity through an open enrollment program or by shifting zone lines, but the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and subsequent white flight ended any further efforts until very recently.
In 2014, State Commissioner John King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch initiated the Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program (SIPP), providing grant funding to school districts that sought to integrate student populations by socioeconomic status. A number of school districts are now implementing programs, including Manhattan District 1.
Beyond Race & Class: Special Education Segregation
From 1894 through the mid 1900s in New York state, increasing attention was paid to the identification and specialized support for students with disabilities due to legislation. In 1967, a “handicapped child” was defined “as an individual who ‘because of mental, physical or emotional reasons, cannot be educated in regular classes but can benefit by special services and programs.’ This definition summarized state policy, which since the early years of the century had favored removing handicapped children from regular classrooms and schools, and placing them in ‘special classes,’ home teaching, or private schools.” The policy of segregation and outsourcing of support began shifting in the 1960s. Federal legislation, culminating in the 1990 IDEA act, pushed states towards inclusion in a “least restrictive setting,” and NCLB in 2001 introduced school accountability for educating students with disabilities. However, in an IBO report as of 2013, 25% of students identified with a disability continue to be educated in separate, “self-contained” programs. The outcomes for self-contained students are not positive, while some research seems to suggest that including students with disabilities in general education classrooms has more positive outcomes for them, while not harming the outcomes of general education students. Yet the populations of students with disabilities are far from evenly distributed between schools.
In a recent post, “On Knowledge and Curriculum,” we reviewed a few disruptive ideas from cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, with the most incendiary implication being:
a school needs to come to a consensus on the topics, texts, vocabulary, and concepts that are most essential to know within and across each academic domain and carefully sequence and reinforce those concepts across classrooms and grades.
So how can a school embark upon this quest? In this post, I will attempt to provide some guiding ideas and protocols for this work.
How Do We Reinforce Knowledge?
First off, a few guiding documents to equip you with the cognitive principles of affirmative testing, which are essential to reinforcing knowledge over time:
How Do We Determine the Knowledge that is ESSENTIAL?
Folks are going to disagree about this, including the “experts,” so ultimately, this determination should be made collaboratively within a school (and beyond). The key is that the school comes to a consensus on this essential knowledge, then teachers carefully sequence it across the curriculum and quiz it repeatedly in a low stakes manner.
There’s a useful frame, known as threshold concepts, for drilling down to this “essential knowledge” within a specific academic domain. Threshold concepts come out of higher ed academia, and it’s admittedly a bit esoteric in the literature, but I think it’s a useful lens with practical implications. Threshold concepts are very much related to Wiggins and McTighe’s “big ideas,” but with a few interesting twists.
I first stumbled over the threshold of these concepts in blogs from UK educators, to whom I’m indebted for starting me on this journey:
I love this idea of viewing a student’s passage through a threshold concept as akin to a hero’s journey. In considering this journey, what are the troublesome obstacles and bottlenecks that student will face? The idea of “bottlenecks” comes thanks for the link immediately below. In thinking through this, I also think we need to acknowledge that bottlenecks may not be purely conceptual — they can also be procedural, in the form of skills required to complete academic tasks, as well as social-emotional (this can be a tremendous and often unaddressed barrier for many kids).
In this sense, then, we can expand the notion of crossing a threshold to not solely refer to concepts, but furthermore experiences. As educators, we seek to design experiences in which students engage in an academic form of a hero’s journey, learning to overcome barriers and gain the intellectual accomplishment of mastering skills and knowledge.
OK, So How Do We Discover These Threshold Concepts and Experiences?
But we still need some kind of process for distilling away all the cruft and getting down that 20% of the most essential knowledge within a content and grade.
Here in the US, we have a general list of skills we use as guidance in the form of state standards. And as I’ve done with the Common Core standards, we can do a deeper analysis to begin unpacking what that knowledge might be.
But this can still be at a pretty abstract level, and we want this to be relevant to classroom teaching. By focusing on the topics and texts that will be studied, we can make this more concrete.
Because English Language Arts is my specific area of expertise, I’ve focused my efforts in this area, especially since this content area is probably the most difficult to pin down in terms of a progression of knowledge.
There’s two ways we could utilize this protocol: 1) unit of study, or 2) over the entire school year.
1) Consider the topics and/or texts that will be taught.
2) What will be the product or products that students will be expected to create that can demonstrate their mastery of learning? (This product could also be a performance).
3) What are the primary modalities that this product is focused upon? In literacy, of course we’re focused on all modalities, but it helps for a department to focus upon the one they consider most essential.
4) Now consider the standards that your district adheres to. For the Common Core, they are helpfully broken up by modality, so turn to that modality. Then, narrow down which specific, few standards you will primarily be targeting.
5) What are the bottlenecks, most especially those that are conceptual and specific to this content, that students will encounter?
6) Evaluate the list of items you have generated. Do they fit the criteria of a threshold concept or experience? Are they transformative, integrative, and troublesome? If not, they may not be essential.
7) You don’t have to do this, but I find that at this step it can be useful to phrase the threshold concept in the form of a message or lesson, akin to a theme statement.
For example, for an upcoming professional learning session I’m working on about supporting struggling middle school readers, I’ve identified the following threshold concepts:
Students that struggle with reading comprehension also often struggle with a lack of academic and world knowledge. An English Language Learner can also be understood as native English speakers that do not understand the language of math, science, social studies – i.e. academic, formal, domain specific language.
A teacher must work through a task/text in order to identify key takeaways, key vocabulary, and potential barriers to learning, regardless of whether a curriculum is provided.
All learners can be engaged in reading and comprehending complex academic texts through well-designed activities, tasks, and resources.
An environment in which a student feels safe to take risks in front of peers is a prerequisite for learning — most especially for struggling readers.
Learners should be explicitly equipped with strategies and mindsets for when they encounter challenging vocabulary on their own.
It’s important to note that threshold concepts will vary completely depending on any teacher’s specific set of knowledge, perspectives, and interest, and I think that’s OK. What’s most important is that once these most essential concepts and experiences have been identified and voiced, they will not only help to focus that teacher’s instruction on what they feel is most important, they will serve as a basis for arriving at a consensus as a department and as a school.
Here’s a few really basic examples at a unit level of study:
Now that threshold concepts and experiences have been identified, here’s the really hard part:
This is where the rubber hits the road. This is the part that is so very contrary and disruptive to the norms of public education.
I hope some of these resources in this post are useful to your work. The slides outlined above and the protocol are accessible and downloadable here:
Forget the presidential debates, this is more important.
I attended a PD today that featured cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. It’s pretty rare that my employer, the NYCDOE, offers professional learning that has someone presenting from the academic research realm, so when I saw this was happening, I jumped on it.
I’ve been following Willingham’s articles in American Educator and have read Why Kids Don’t Like School, and I’ve been convinced of the importance of a strong curriculum and building knowledge for a while now, but it was nice to get a direct and clear reminder of what really matters in literacy, especially when that message is so very rare.
There were a lot of great ideas and takeaways on motivating children to read at home and on reading comprehension in general, but there were two main points that especially struck me during his presentation (the summary and phrasing is my own):
Knowledge needs to be “in the mind” in order for reading comprehension to be effortless, rather than a problem-solving struggle to determine meaning.
We can only build the broad, world knowledge required for literacy through a carefully sequenced and structured curriculum.
If you take these points to be accurate, then the implications are quite revolutionary in comparison to the regular practices of most schools and districts.
Let’s break down why this runs so counter to the norm.
Here’s what would need to happen:
If knowledge must be “in the mind” (rather than on Google) than that means the knowledge considered worth studying must be reinforced and revisited, tested, interleaved, sequenced, and spaced throughout a school’s curriculum.
That means across classrooms and across grades.
Therefore, a school needs to have come to a consensus on the topics, texts, vocabulary, and concepts that are most essential to know within and across each academic domain.
That means that each teacher (or at the very least, a department head or team) will have to have invested a substantial amount of time, both individually and collaboratively, into studying those texts and topics themselves in order to know how to design a learning environment, projects, activities, field trips, and interim assessments that will provide the access to and reinforce that knowledge for all students.
This would of course be accompanied by adjusting the curriculum periodically based on an analysis and reflection on interim assessment data and student work.
Sound pretty straightforward? No. Here’s the norm in most schools:
What most prioritizes a school’s focus are external assessments, such as state tests. ELA tests in this vein consist of random passages of text that are meant to focus on isolated reading skills devoid of knowledge. Therefore, what is taught and focused upon are the practice of skills devoid of knowledge.
That’s what constitutes an ELA curriculum for many schools.
A teacher is either not provided a curriculum, or is provided a curriculum but no support, or is provided a curriculum and support but the curriculum is not oriented around sequentially building knowledge.
Even when a curriculum might be provided and might be relatively well-crafted (this is a rarity, and if you know of such a curriculum, tell me. I can name two. Maybe three), I have yet to have seen any curriculum that still does not require a teacher to revise and adjust it substantially based on the needs of their students, the circumstances of their school or classroom, or their own particular style and knowledge.
Thus, in those rare schools where there is even a coherent curriculum “in place,” the point made above about investment of time still holds. A substantial amount of time needs to be spent in designing and continually molding the school around and in support of that knowledge embedded within the curriculum.
Most of what is taught in different classrooms in a school has little coherency across a school.
What is a taught in any given classroom is rarely reinforced via low stakes quizzing across an entire school year.
See the problem? From what I’ve seen in much of the professional development sessions and focus of schools and districts is a focus on individual teacher strategies and practices. But let’s get real. If a school does not come together to determine and design it’s mission around the knowledge and skills it will teach sequentially and systematically, then there will be little impact.
Andrew Rotherham, aka Eduwonk, advises us to “buckle up” and expect more of the sort of suburban bred “local control” fearmongering against diversity and federal intrusion seen in this op-ed.
For more context and history on the racism that underlies that brand of fear, as well as to understand how it relates to crusades for local control of public land, read this excellent longform piece.
Federal protections can backfire, however, such as in this sad irony of fair housing laws used to prevent “community preference” in lotteries for affordable housing in San Francisco.
Even in diverse schools, students of color can still be denied a quality education. The question seems to be: how do you “create a more equitable environment and also keep the most powerful parents happy”? It’s a sad question to have to ask, but finding a solution to it will determine the success of future efforts in increasing school diversity.
Diversity is worth it, though, at least when it comes to working on a team. The work feels harder, but the outcomes are better. (This parallels the idea of fostering “desirable difficulty” in classroom learning.)
The inimitable E.D. Hirsch, Jr., makes the case that “good teaching can often depend more reliably on the coherence of the wider system, and on the cooperation it brings, than on virtuoso performances.” Stop blaming the teachers, and start developing better systems and curriculum.
Doug Lemov interviews Tim Shanahan, who articulates the nuance of teaching reading strategies, provides a sound definition of close reading, and dispels the myth that leveled reading is worth any teacher’s time.
At the Windward School in Manhattan, they are using gesture and movement to teach reading to students with disabilities, and having powerful results. There’s something to this connection between corporeal movement and conceptual understanding; in the math realm, research suggests the same area of our brain that counts on our fingers continues to be activated when we move to higher level problem-solving.
Speaking of bodies, traders who are more effective listen to their bodies when making decisions under stress, rather than their minds.
We always hear from business leaders about how we’re not equipping our kids enough in K-12 with the high-level skills they are trying to hire for. But the FiveThirtyEight argues that there’s less of a skills gap, and more of a lack of job-specific training provided by those businesses.
In the most positive and exciting news in this presidential campaign thus far, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are strongly committed to investing in infrastructure.
Our brain’s connectivity and wiring may be determined by its physical structure, not simply by its chemistry.