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.

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What is on your classroom walls? Why?

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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.

 

Listen to the music: Some things are universal

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Vivek Pandya, a 12 year old, slaying the tabla at the Ragas Live festival in 2016.

A central argument posited by this blog is that context matters. In order to truly understand a school as an organization, you have to account for the physical and social factors of that specific school.

This argument pushes back on the dominant narrative in ed reform that schools are more or less comparable, and if not universally comparable, then at the very least, by grouping according to “peer groups” by similarities in demographic inputs, such as free-and-reduced lunch or ELL populations.

Yet there is a risk, too, in taking such an argument too far, and claiming that local context is everything — and that meaning can therefore only be determined subjectively by those who exist within that local context. Such an extreme argument would suggest that there are no universal statements that can be made about schools.

We can see this play out with music across the world. Is the meaning of music solely determined by the culture that produces it? Or are there traits of music that are universal?

Interestingly, cognitive psychologists side with the latter (universal), while ethnomusicologists fight for the former.

A recent study suggests that ethnomusicologists are being too precious, and that there are universally recognized traits of music. At the very least, people from across the world can identify whether a song made by a small-scale society is a lullaby, dance, made for healing, or an expression of love.

Similarly, I think there are universal traits and principles of effective and ineffective schools that we can discuss. So while I stress—and this blog hinges upon—the importance of acknowledging the strong influence of local context, I also don’t want to take that argument to an extreme.

Context matters—I believe much more than we generally recognize when it comes to schools and many other things—but it’s not everything.

A Study Suggests That People Can Hear Universal Traits in Music, Ed Yong / The Atlantic

The Historical Legacy of Place

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We’ve spoken here often about the need for a long-term perspective in education reform, as well as explored the concept of hysteresis.

A recent study,Towards Conceptualizing and Empirically Examining Legacy of Place: An Exploratory Consideration of Historic Neighborhood Characteristics on Contemporary Dropout Behavior” provides a novel look into such a perspective by examining the historical legacy of neighborhoods and how that legacy relates to inequality.

We argue that legacy of place is formed through historic economic and racial residential segregation, which influences economic and social status resource allocation in the present day. . . . School segregation influences the amount of social capital resources available to a neighborhood, which contributes to the existence of clusters of high poverty and high dropout rates among neighborhoods with low levels of social capital.

After testing their theory through multiple analyses, the authors found “that students living in legacy neighborhoods had over 16% higher odds of dropping out of school compared to their peers not living in these types of neighborhoods.”

“these findings should provide inertia for the creation of policies that address the lasting influence of historic neighborhood racial and economic segregation. Such polices may help to equalize racial educational outcome gaps considering minorities are more likely to reside in legacy neighborhoods compared to whites.”
This wider context is critical to bear in mind, especially in light of another recent study that challenges the benefit of in-school integration. As reported by the NY Times, “In School Together, but Not Learning at the Same Rate,”Nicole Mader, the co-author of the study, said the lingering achievement gap demonstrates that just having different kinds of students together in the same building is not enough to have true integration.”
Indeed. It’s bigger than that. It is the historical legacy that have led to segregated neighborhoods that must be actively fought.
But school diversity, even when it’s not enough, is at least a step in the right direction.

 

 

Two things to read

I’ve realized that part of the reason I don’t post much anymore is that whenever I do think of something to write about (which is all the time), it just feels too big to dig into with the limited time I’ve got.

So I’m just going to start posting tidbits, whenever I can.

Here’s two awesome articles today that excited me because they are both about topics I  care deeply about.

  1. We can draw school zones to make classrooms less segregated. This is how well your district does., Alvin Chang / Vox

Some amazing work with the interactives on this one. It tailors to the data of your own school district.

2. Public school buildings are falling apart, and students are suffering for it, Rachel Cohen / Washington Post

We need to keep banging the drum on this one. The greatest overlooked area of education reform.