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.
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 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.
The school year in NYC just ended on the 28th; summer school begins this week. I’ve been facilitating training for summer school programs the last few days so have been pretty busy, but I’ve still got a few ed-related links worth reading compiled for you.
I’m waaay late to this, but this NTCQ report on what teachers need to learn in ed programs is excellent
I’ve had this PDF sitting on my desktop since January and just finally got around to perusing it.
The 6 strategies, based on extensive research, are deceptively simple. And yet, barely any of them, aside from asking probing questions, are covered in most teacher prep textbooks or courses.
Here’s the 6 strategies:
1. Pairing graphics with words.
2. Linking abstract concepts with concrete representations.
3. Posing probing questions.
4. Repeatedly alternating problems with their solutions provided and problems that students must solve.
5. Distributing practice.
6. Assessing to boost retention.
These would be a good focus for any sustained PD for a school. And I would argue that numbers 5 and 6 would be the biggest bang for your buck if you looked across the curriculum of a school.
What do most teacher prep textbooks focus on? Stuff like, “How teachers and students should organize themselves (e.g., inquiry learning, direct instruction, or cooperative learning).”
You know what? That’s what most professional development focuses on, too.
Amanda Ripley forwards a wonderful idea for promoting tolerance and understanding diversity: cultural exchanges within the US
Over the last year, I spent a lot of time thinking about the problems of segregation across New York state, and something I found under-explored and often trivialized by integration advocates was how to address rural and urban divides, as well as other students who are geographically isolated in urban areas.
Plus, it must be said that the reality is that there isn’t enough affluent or white kids in our public schools to spread around, if we’re going to start counting beans. So we need to look at more than only getting kids of different backgrounds in the same schools, though that can go a long way. We also need to look at how we can bring kids together in other ways.
Kentucky is bringing people of all ages together through a Rural-Urban Exchange. This is something other states should emulate, most especially for our children.
“It’s harder to demonize someone once you’ve stayed in their homes and shared meals and stories together.”
How did this DC public school get to 100% college acceptance?
System-wide support and money.
“a strong support system within D.C. public schools made it a reality. Staff tracked students, often working side by side with them to apply for college in the library. It also took a lot of money. Grants, donations and district funds took kids on college tours, and the school incentivized students with pep rallies, T-shirts and free food.”
Rural youth are leaving (and pushed to leave) for greater opportunities
“Researchers have found that the hollowing-out of heartland communities is the result of a push-pull phenomenon: Ambitious students are drawn to the attractions and opportunities of major cities, but they’re also encouraged to leave by teachers and parents who see college as a chance to escape stagnation.”
“I was taking a class called Latina Leadership Initiative — that class is all about empowerment. When I saw that I had access to these programs to bring them to Perry, I kind of let go of [my] shyness and said – this is something I need to do.”
“The ‘hidden costs’ of carbon dioxide emissions are no longer hidden, since now we can see them clearly in the data,” said Jina, a postdoctoral scholar in the department of economics at the University of Chicago. “The emissions coming out of our cars and power plants are reshaping the American economy. Here in the Midwest, we may see agricultural losses similar to the Dustbowl of the 1930s.”
What’s fascinating about this is that it seems to present a real-world solution to a problem commonly referred to as the “tragedy of the commons,” in which the self-interest of individuals leads to the destruction and overuse of shared natural resources.
Spatial patterning often occurs in ecosystems as a self-organizing process caused by feedback between organisms and the physical environment. “The centuries-old Balinese rice terraces are also created by feedback between farmer’s decisions and the ecology, which triggers a transition from local to global scale control,” explains Lansing. “Our model shows for the first time that adaptation in a coupled human-natural system can trigger self-organized criticality.”
This is absolutely fascinating, and it’s interesting to consider this in relation to other ideas on a “self-organizing criticality” that we’ve explored here before, such as in brains and sand piles.
For proponents of ed reform who argue against centralized control, this seems like it could be worth digging into further.
The aspect of fractals here is also tantalizing. After chatting with a colleague about the article, he referred me to Ron Eglash, a mathematician who has studied fractals in African history and culture. Do yourself a favor and watch his TED talk, it will blow your mind.
Eglash raising an interesting point about self-organizing principles: they can be wonderful, as in Google search, or our brains. But there is also a dark side, such as in the spread of HIV or the damaging effects of capitalism. He suggests that the fractal algorithms employed in Africa could present us with “robust” “ways of doing self-organization — of doing entrepreneurship — that are gentle, that are egalitarian.”
I’d love to explore more about how the fractal design of school structures and systems could be utilized for a productive purpose. Please share if you’ve got more on this.
Their study and modeling seems to suggest that smaller self-segregated communities within a society are desirable in the long-run.
They found that the downside of the segregation is that it increases the social disharmony throughout the society as a whole. The upside, however, is that the social disharmony within each community becomes very low. In some communities, individuals are more likely to keep cooperating with each other—using the shared resource fairly—compared to the situation without segregation. These results were very similar to what the researchers observed in the segregated society of the Balinese subak.
This seems to be a dark side unmentioned in the more recent study on how the Balinese farmers exemplify a self-organizing society in harmony with nature. Or perhaps this isn’t a dark side — it’s a suggestion that some self-segregation can be positive.
But I don’t know anything about the Balinese subak, either, so not sure how much to read into this. Certainly worth going deeper into this. If any readers have knowledge of African fractal algorithms or Balinese subaks, please share!