Why do we ignore environmental design interventions in education?

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“Initially, medical audiences I spoke to in the 1980s listened politely, though probably some were dubious and did not really accept the findings [that views of nature improved patient outcomes]. But today, after so much progress in mind-body medical research, few would seriously question the notion that if an environmental design intervention is shown to reduce patient stress, then it could also foster better clinical outcomes. The idea that stress-reducing interventions improve clinical outcomes has become mainstream knowledge that medical students learn.”

—Researcher Roger Ulrich, in a 2010 interview by Healthcare Magazine

And yet, for those of us who work in public education, this understanding is not so widely embraced even still in 2018. Despite the clarity of research in our field around the impact of toxic stress on children’s learning, we pretend that the design of the physical environment of our classrooms and schools has little bearing.

We may be ignoring what may be one of the most direct and sustainable methods to improving outcomes for kids — designing our schools to foster and promote health and well-being.

Shifting from Single to Twofold Vision

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Seeing a school as an ecosystem is akin to shifting from a “single vision” to a “twofold vision,” as William Blake outlines it and Philip Pullman explains it:

. . . when it comes to vision, we need to be able to see contrary things and believe them both true: “Without Contraries is no progression” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), despite the scorn of rationalists whose single vision rejects anything that is not logically coherent. Blake was hard on single vision:

Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulahs night
And twofold Always. May God uskeep
From Single vision and Newtonssleep!
(“Letter to Thomas Butts”)

Fourfold vision is a state of ecstatic or mystical bliss. Threefold vision arises naturally from Beulah, which, in Blake’s mythology, is the place of poetic inspiration and dreams, “where Contrarieties are equally True” (Blake, Milton). Twofold vision is seeing not only with the eye, but through it, seeing contexts, associations, emotional meanings, connections. Single vision is the literal, rational, dissociated, uninflected view of the world characteristic, apparently, of the left hemisphere of the brain when the contextualising, empathetic, imaginative, emotionally involved right brain is disengaged or ignored.

William Blake and Me, Philip Pullman / The Guardian

We ain’t shooting for ecstasy nor poetic inspiration here, necessarily—not when it comes to school improvement. But if we can begin to see the wider complexity of connections and contexts beyond the linear machinations of everyday humdrum mundanity, then we might be getting somewhere.

A few things about segregation

I can’t even keep up with all the discussion, critiques, and calls for desegregating our public schools — and that’s a good thing.

Errol Louis calls out limousine NYC liberals on MLK Day:

Today’s festival of liberal self-congratulation, in which members of New York’s establishment pat one another on the back, actually isn’t very King-like. To truly follow in the great man’s footsteps would mean summoning the courage to tackle the same issue he fought and died for — unraveling our city’s web of segregated housing and schools.

Honoring King would mean finally pressing for passage of a City Council bill, bottled up and ignored in past years, that would require boards of the city’s 300,000 cooperative apartments to abide by the fair-housing laws and provide applicants with the reason they were accepted or rejected.

A citywide housing lottery that gave equal preference to people based on need rather than zip code would begin to break down the city’s segregated patterns. A lawsuit has been filed by the Anti-Discrimination Center, a civil rights organization, but the progressive de Blasio administration is fighting the case tooth and nail.

Our pro-segregation progressives, Errol Lous / The Daily News

Even if you develop affordable housing in a currently exclusive neighborhood, it you don’t address the social processes that lead people to sort themselves into those neighborhoods, it’s pointless. You have to address those social sorting processes as well.

DOES SEGREGATION BEGET SEGREGATION?, Dwyer Gunn / Pacific Standard

These uncomfortable facts are often lost in school desegregation thinking. Too often, integration activists propose feel-good solutions to segregated schools that run aground on the sturdy self-interest of privileged white families. If we hinge a desegregation effort on white families’ good intentions, altruism, or willingness to change their minds … we can pretty much guarantee that it won’t work.

Some Practical — If Uncomfortable — Solutions to the Stubborn School Segregation Mapped Out by Vox, Conor Williams / the74

The NY Times editorial board calls for NYC Mayor De Blasio to fight the segregation of the city’s schools.

Some Bright Hopes for New York City Schools, NY Times

The real problem of teacher shortages: retention

Our research revealed no obvious, simple way to improve teacher retention. The differences in retention rates that we saw across districts are not explained by easy-to-observe factors such as student demographics or teacher salaries. But related research shows that teachers leave schools with poor working conditions where they feel they cannot have success with their students, and they stay in schools where they feel supported by their colleagues, their principals and their school culture. Working to build more supportive school environments can both help students and ameliorate the retention crisis plaguing some of our urban school systems.

Other View: America’s teacher shortage can’t be solved by hiring more unqualified teachers / Times-News

Emotional Intelligence is Founded on Emotional Knowledge

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An interesting piece in Nautilus makes the claim that cognition and emotions are not distinct functions of our brains (and challenges the concept of a “triune” brain), nor does associating physical sensations or signals confer a deeper read on emotions. Instead, understanding the emotions of others and ourselves stems from learning “emotion words” and making predictions based on the context of a situation and our past experiences.

The idea that you can increase your emotional intelligence by broadening your emotion vocabulary is solid neuroscience. Your brain is not static; it rewires itself with experience. When you force yourself to learn new words—emotion-related or otherwise—you sculpt your brain’s microwiring, giving it the means to construct those emotional experiences, as well as your perceptions of others’ emotions, more effortlessly in the future. In short, every emotion word you learn is a new tool for future emotional intelligence.

People who can construct finely grained emotional experiences have advantages beyond the expected social ones. Children who broaden their knowledge of emotion words improve their academic performance as well as their social behavior, according to studies by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

This is an interesting idea. It certainly lends itself to the idea that reading a wide range of literature can do much to build our students’ vocabulary of emotional words, and thus, of an understanding of the perspectives and feelings of others.

Though if this is true, then why is it that there are those who are widely read and yet are “bookish” and awkward in social situations? Perhaps it is because they are inundated with a much richer and denser swarm of emotional signals than the common nincompoop? Or perhaps it is that there needs to be some balance of immersion in translating the vocabulary and experiences one learns from books into real social situations in order to gain fluency with navigating that greater emotional granularity.

Emotional Intelligence Needs a Rewrite, Lisa Feldman Barrett / Nautilus