Why do we ignore environmental design interventions in education?

IMG_20180217_060340.jpg

“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.

What is on your classroom walls? Why?

DSCN4327

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

Selection_021
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

IMG_20171122_111417

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.

 

 

Emotional Intelligence is Founded on Emotional Knowledge

brain

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

How buildings affect us: Trump version

trump_tower_-_the_atrium
By Sebastian Bergmann [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Goldhagen is an architecture critic and the author of the new book “Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives.” In it, she argues that buildings affect us in ways that go deeper than even most architects realize. They also provide windows into the minds that conceived them. “What can you learn about Trump from Trump’s aesthetics?” she asked. “Quite a lot.”

—Sarah William Goldhagen, in “THE PSYCHOLOGICAL INSIGHTS OF TRUMP TOWER“, The New Yorker by David Owen

Smorgasbord: 3rd week of May 2017: Segregation, CTE, Curriculum, and the One Straw Revolution

crops_kansas_ast_20010624

On the 63rd anniversary of Brown v. Board of Ed, worth reviewing last year’s GAO study findings

“[Segregated] schools, investigators found, offered disproportionately fewer math, science and college-prep courses and had higher rates of students who were held back in ninth grade, suspended or expelled.

What’s more, GAO investigators found, public charter schools, a key strategy in improving education for such students, may take minority and poor students from larger more diverse public schools and enroll them into less diverse schools.

Overall, investigators found, Hispanic students tended to be “triple segregated” by race, economics and language.”

GAO study: Segregation worsening in U.S. schools, USA Today

A panel on desegregation offers insight

Jill Bloomberg: “So there were lots of questions about safety, which are really very coded questions about race and racism. We assured them that their kids would be fine.”

David Goldstein: “We would create these little Shangri-Las of these beautiful little high-performing schools that were diverse and all that. Meanwhile, all the rest of the schools got squat. And that wasn’t our plan, so we went districtwide.”

And a comparison of integration to broccoli.

Upper West Side parents gather to tackle middle-school integration, Chalkbeat NY

As in Staten Island, so in the US

When it comes to Staten Island’s North Shore, as in many other areas of our society, “We make judgements about a whole community without ever walking in the door.”

Equity for North Shore schools still a work in progress, SILive

High school admissions changes in the works for NYC may promote diversity

This is good to hear. But we’re going to need to look at zoning and the elementary school level if we’re really going to fight segregation.

Chancellor: ‘We’re reconsidering how some enrollment is done’ in high schools, Chalkbeat NY

Great data visualizations and background on segregation in Indiana

Examining the Cross-Roads

Vacations (or the lack thereof) highlight class divisions

“school vacations can highlight disparities and fracture the sense that students are equal in the ways that matter most”

This piece also points to an often under discussed aspect of school integration: it takes a lot of work to ensure kids (and staff) are interacting with one another’s differing experiences and perspectives in a constructive manner.

I know as an advocate of integration myself, I don’t usually even bring this up because the very first step: just getting kids physically (or even virtually) into the same classrooms and schools is hard enough in and of itself. But it’s an essential piece. Just getting kids together is only half the battle. Curriculum, conversational protocols, academic interventions, and social-emotional support then needs to be firmly in place.

Kids’ Vacations Highlight School Segregation, motto

Student voices on segregated schools

“My reality is gym lockers with brown rust.

My reality is the suffocating phenomenon of poverty present on a daily basis.”

‘I am a product of the South Bronx’: One student on how the city’s high school choice process failed her

“Education was my only hope for redefining my life. But it seemed like the bar was always set out of reach for people like me, and most of our time was spent elevating ourselves to reach the bar instead of figuring out how to surpass it.”

‘I didn’t realize that an A in Harlem was not the same as an A in a majority-white high school’: One student’s discovery

Jeb checks the NY Times

“Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program simply gives parents options if their children are stuck in the wrong learning or social environment for their unique needs. It is not a condemnation of public schools or a seal of approval for private schools. In fact, the McKay program includes public school choice as well.”

What the Media Is Getting Wrong About Florida’s Push to Help Students With Disabilities, th74

Recent research on wrap-around services brings to light our goals for public services

MDRC has recent research that brings into question the impact of the “community school” model — if we assume that raising test scores is the goal of providing such additional services.

But as a community school advocate notes:

“The services themselves are, of course worthwhile — don’t we all agree that having kids who have access to mental and physical health care, regular nutritious meals, and quality, safe afterschool and summer programs is inherently a good thing?”

Let them eat cake?

Community schools are expanding — but are they working? New study shows mixed results, the 74

Strange things are afoot at Deborah Meier’s school

What exactly is the problem going on here? Too progressive? Not progressive enough? More to explore here, for sure.

East Harlem Elementary Principal Is Out After a Yearlong Fight, NY Times

The need for a progressive agenda for the working class

“Democrats need a comeback strategy, and the American working class needs an ally. The solution to both problems can be the same: a muscular agenda to lift up people without four-year college degrees.”

How Democrats Can Get Their Mojo Back, NY Times

Was the high-profile LA school board president race determined by the negativity bias?

So there’s this cognitive bias called the “negativity bias.”

Aside from the vast funds that were plowed into this race, I wonder whether that played a role? Here’s a description from the74 that suggests it did:

“Zimmer campaigned on a platform that the district is improving, pointing to rising graduation rates. Melvoin campaigned on the premise that the district was failing and the board needed to act with more urgency to improve student achievement and address its financial situation.”

Education Reformers Sweep Los Angeles’s School Board Elections, Setting Up Pro-Charter Majority, the74

North Carolina Representative Virginia Foxx takes a stand for CTE

“In order for these people to thrive, we must do everything we can to change the way people think about CTE, shifting the narrative from a Plan B option to a Plan A option”

Career and Technical Ed Should be ‘Plan A,’ Foxx Says as House Takes Up Perkins Bill Today, the74

And the House takes a bipartisan stand for CTE

A nice moment of positive legislation in the midst of the chaotic destruction the GOP has been nurturing in DC.

Career and Technical Education Overhaul Bill Approved by House Ed. Committee, ED Week

Sure would be nice to see this piece of legislation on school infrastructure get bipartisan support . . .

“The legislation has six other Democratic lead co-sponsors in the House, but no Republican lead co-sponsors.”

Oh, and “The IES survey also found it was an average of 44 years since the construction of the main instructional building at schools.”

School Infrastructure Spending Plan Introduced by House Democrats, ED Week

Professional development should be based on the curriculum

“We argue the need to take the important but often overlooked step of organizing teachers’ professional learning around the curriculum materials they are using with their students.”

Makes sense to me. I go into schools to support ELA teachers, and the only way my work is able to have any traction is by supporting implementation of a curriculum.

But there’s more to it than this. Which curriculum? Why? A school needs to coalesce around its vision for what skills and knowledge it wants students to graduate equipped with — and then align their curriculum to that vision.

Instead, I see schools teaching something just because they think they are supposed to. (“Why are you teaching these texts?” “Because I’m told to.”) And getting weird directives from their bosses, such as that EL (EngageNY) or CodeX are a “reading” curriculum, then adding Teacher’s College units as the “writing” curriculum. These kinds of misunderstandings become embedded into the scheduling: a teacher is teaching EL lessons for 3 days a week, and TC lessons for 2 days a week.

If you are an ELA teacher, then you know how incredibly difficult it is just to implement one ELA curriculum with fidelity, let alone two completely different and unaligned ones.

In other words, the problem isn’t just that curriculum is detached from PD — it’s that curriculum is detached from school and district leadership and the structures and schedules they enforce.

In Washington, D.C., a Road Map for Reinventing Professional Development in Schools, the 74

And there’s mounting evidence that a coherent curriculum is an effective method for improving outcomes. Like some of us have been saying all along . . .

“There are no silver bullets in education. But a growing body of both empirical and real-world evidence makes a compelling case that curriculum is a key component of student success.”

A Compelling Case for Curriculum, US News

BASIS schools exemplify what a coherent and rigorous curriculum can do

BASIS is also doing some really interesting practices worth emulating:

Student notebooks as sources of communication and data between teachers and parents. . .

“Many schools create an online grade portal that allows parents to see how their children are performing. BASIS doesn’t. Any information about grades comes to parents because their kids have shown them the contents of their planner, which contains test scores, homework assignments, and notes to see the teacher after school for help.”

Building empathy and understanding of diverse perspectives through it’s Global Classroom Project:

“…which connects kindergartners in different BASIS schools virtually to help them learn about one another. In one project, the children exchanged pictures of their local grocery stores so they could compare them. They also sent the Shenzhen school a video of second-graders sharing a Lunar New Year greeting in Mandarin.”

BASIS: Inside the Acclaimed School Network That’s Blended Together the World’s Best Education Practices, the74

More sunlight = higher test scores

One of the central tenets of this blog are that some of the most basic contextual factors are overlooked in schooling, and here’s one that’s so basic but clearly powerful: starting school later results in better test performance.

More sunlight, more fresh air, more greenery. The best method for improving test scores? Very well may be.

Sunshine Improves Test Scores, The Atlantic

As in ecosystems, so in schools?

Look to the soil for our future.

A geomorphologist and author’s book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” outlines the drastic difference that healthy soil management practices can make, and the common practices that good soil management entails.

Not surprising at all that conventional methods (monoculture, frequent tilling) ain’t good for soil.

If you are interested in this kind of stuff, there’s a book written long before this one with the word “revolution” also in the title, in which the author lays out the philosophy and practice of no-till farming: “The One Straw Revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka.

TODAY’S MOST INNOVATIVE FARMERS ARE GETTING DOWN TO EARTH, SAYS SOIL SCIENTIST, Daily Yonder

Context in education

Implementing Lesson Study in a school effectively is all about context

According to UK Teacher Development Trust

Education policy is heavily influenced by nostalgia, emotion, and context

“. . . education policy is perhaps more vulnerable to context than many other areas of public policy.”

“Understanding emotion is more critical than ever to understanding the reality of implementation.”

Living in tune with nature isn’t about being happy

Let me be clear: I’m totally on board with the “get out into nature more” bandwagon, and I’m thrilled to see increasing research showing how much being out in nature contributes to well-being and health.

But in this interview on Wired with the writer of The Nature Fix, Florence Williams, something stood out to me as problematic in how we often approach this natural buzz:

“We don’t recognize how happy nature makes us.”

I think we need some clarity around terms. If by “nature” we simply mean “green living things,” then sure, it makes us feel good. But if we mean “nature” as in the wilderness and the brutal forces therein, then happiness may be a quixotic cause.

Living in tune with nature means having humility and respect, which comes from an appreciation for the often volatile and seemingly senseless danger and risks that are inherent in living in nature. In other words, it’s not just about something we can “get” from nature, in a transactional way, but also about recognizing and assuming our proper place within the cosmos.

That’s a point, alas, I don’t expect many people will buy into, so I understand why we focus on the transactional benefits of nature.

So while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about our children. We want them to be healthy and happy, right?

As Williams points out so well in the interview, our kids are the ones suffering the most from our lack of attunement to nature (however one defines it):

“I think our institutions need to take [incorporating nature into urban infrastructure] on, especially schools. Where I live, only 10 percent of kids get the recommended recess time. Which is appalling, because we know that kids need this time to run around and have exploratory free play in order to just pay attention later in the day.

. . . If you have kids, the most important thing you can do is get your kids outside enough to develop their love for nature. You will be giving them a gift they will have their entire lives.”

And while we’re at it, let’s help them gain a requisite humility and respect for the forces beyond our ken.

https://www.wired.com/2017/03/spend-5-percent-day-outside/

Smorgasbord: It’s Been A While

img_20170201_123425-1

I know, I’ve mostly stopped posting. A conflux of being-really-busy at work, getting-really-sick (turns out I’m allergic to a certain type of antibiotic), and being-overwhelmed-with-information (I get way too many newsletters) and needing to just kind of hit the pause button on everything. And winter.

I guess there’s some kind of game going on, but I’m not a football person, so I’m posting this instead. So here you go: