An Editorial on Societal Culpability for Have-Nots

Graham Horn [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

A couple of years ago, I’d mentioned a study by Harvard Public School of Health which suggested that people with more education had greater resiliency against cognitive damage from toxic solvents.

A recent Danish study builds upon this theme, suggesting that greater amounts of education (as well as more cognitively demanding work) counters the deleterious effects of aging.

Developing our cognitive capacity through education can empower us to become more resilient against toxic chemicals and enables us to thrive well into older age. It also potentially shields us against perceptual illusions.

Education is that important. And cognitively challenging and engaging work is that important. But these studies also point to a darker side to this story.

The truism that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” bears tragic relevance here. If your brain rarely has the opportunity to develop resiliency and rich interconnections due to toxic or barren environments, then you are even yet more susceptible to the cruel vagaries of existence.

Think of those of our nation’s children growing up in environments of acute and chronic stress, some of whom will not graduate high school or will drop out of college. They are caught in a terrible catch-22. Those children desperately need to develop deep and robust reserves of social, emotional, and cognitive capital, yet may have little opportunity to develop anything but survival skills to meet daily exigencies.

It’s frequently suggested within the field of education that we can control little beyond the small confines of our school. And we often throw up our hands in the face of the utter devastation our children sometimes can face in their daily lives. We triage the psychological and physical needs of our students each day as best we can, but . . . they must go home at the end of the school day, and so must we. Often on the opposite sides of our societally staked fences. Because the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. So it goes.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can control the environments our children are raised within. We can design and structure our urban spaces and architecture to include greater access to greenery, commerce, and fresh air. We can develop policies for housing and transportation that prioritize the needs of the many, rather than the few. We can provide greater access to nutritious food sources.

Or we can keep telling ourselves that we will save the world within the confined spaces of our classrooms while our society’s more fortunate further segregate their lives into enclaves of ever increasing serendipity, and our society’s less fortunate live desperate half-lives on the outskirts of their happenstance pity.

If we truly want our children who struggle the most to gain access to the greatest of opportunities, then we must move beyond pity, beyond blame, and into shared living spaces and implement systems of collaborative decision-making and problem-solving. Shared, because so long as we don’t experience and live our lives in shared environments, then we will have little impetus to change systems nor environments. Collaborative decision-making and problem-solving, because diversity leads to better decisions.

What began as a post in reference to an article on aging has morphed into a fulmination against the strictures of our society. But as irrational and vague as my flight of rhetoric might be, the undeniable reality is that we can do better. Our system of capitalism can be much more robust and equitable, our democratic republic can be much more inclusive and effective, and our state mechanisms for deliverance of public services can be much, much better.

Over and out. Back to writing lessons for the classroom.

How a Lack of Natural Resources Can Affect a Child’s Education

By Matthew Hoelscher (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

An interesting article in the New Yorker, “Spare the Rod, School the Child” by Michelle Nijhuis, gives us urgent lessons with implications not only to our swiftly changing ecological environments, but also may bear lessons for our educational environments as well.

Possible lessons we can derive from the article:

In Ghana, it was discovered that a decline in fish populations could be directly correlated to a rise in children kept at home from school. Why? Because baboons were causing so much damage that “many Ghanaians were keeping their young children out of school to help guard family farms.”  Why were baboons destroying farms? Because their populations had grown since their competitors were becoming bushmeat. Why were people increasingly eating bushmeat? Because fish populations were declining.

The native Ghanians knew that fish were the cause of this. The researcher who ended up verifying their knowledge with his research at first dismissed their perceptions. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, but these uninformed people aren’t aware of some bigger dynamic.’”

In the world of education, it’s very easy to get caught up in big idea debates at the level of policy, politics, and research. An important lesson from this article is the reminder that we always need to find a way to ground and center our discussions around those whose lives are impacted the most. In the case of education: students and their parents. How can we do that? By asking them!

As Melinda D. Anderson so very neatly put it on Twitter:

Scarcity of fish can be traced to other causes of social ills across the globe: “indentured servitude and child slavery” and “fishing militias” in Thailand, HIV positive women in Kenya exchanging sex for fish, and in West Africa, “child labor and child slavery are increasing.”

Yet “these linkages are rarely discussed in academic circles, or even in the popular press. ” Why is that?

“The science side is very focused on natural-resource trends and not really thinking about social consequences, while the policy side is looking at Somali pirates or elephant ivory, and totally disconnected from the root causes.

Again, there are obvious parallels to the world of education policy and research here. As biologist Justin Brashares puts it in the article, “Our whole research and policy response system is really poorly equipped for the future.”

Why are our institutions of education failing? Ask the students. Ask their parents. Take a walk in their communities. It might be something as starkly simple as a scarcity of a natural resource.

Let Them Eat Cake

By Marcus Quigmire from Florida, USA (Eating Cake Uploaded by Princess Mérida) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

In an article by Ron Nixon on NY Times earlier this month, “Nutrition Group Lobbies Against Healthier School Meals It Sought, Citing Cost,” we learn that the School Nutrition Association has “sold their souls to the devil,” as one commentator squarely put it.

The School Nutrition Association says it still supports healthier options for schoolchildren whose lunches are subsidized, but a major problem, the group said, is that children are simply throwing away the fruits and vegetables. The waste amounts to $684 million each year, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the group. That money, she said, “is enough to serve complete reimbursable school lunches to more than 228 million students.” [bold added]

Hey, I’ve got an idea. Rather than considering WHY children may be throwing away fruits and vegetables away, and seeking to better design the presentation of the food and the students dining experience, how about we just let them eat cake? Yeah! That’s the right thing to do.

Can Schools Tame the Chaos of the Mind?

By W. Goeree ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve investigated the concepts of randomness, disorder, and chaos and how they might relate to complex and dynamic systems here before. The obvious connection to a school, in case you’ve never worked in one, is that you can never quite anticipate what’s going to happen on any given day. Schools are complex systems rife with social and emotional and cultural and political and psychological interdependencies and turbulence. Yet it is this very complexity that makes working within them so very compelling.

An interesting article on Nautilus by Kelly Clancy, “Your Brain Is On the Brink of Chaos,” the concept of chaos is examined in its relation to the brain. Clark lays out some principles worth exploring further. For example, she lays out the following definition of chaos:

Chaos is not the same as disorder. While disordered systems cannot be predicted, chaos is actually deterministic: The present state of the system determines its future. Yet even so, its behavior is only predictable on short time scales: Tiny differences in inputs result in vastly different outcomes. Chaotic systems can also exhibit stable patterns called “attractors” that emerge to the patient observer. Over time, chaotic trajectories will gravitate toward them. Because chaos can be controlled, it strikes a fine balance between reliability and exploration. Yet because it’s unpredictable, it’s a strong candidate for the dynamical substrate of free will [bold added].

This made sense to me based on some other ideas on chaos we’ve examined before. For example, in a quote from Simple Really: From Simplicity to Complexity — And Back Again by John D. Barrow, an essay within a compilation of essays on the Royal Society, Seeing Further: Ideas, Endeavours, Discoveries and Disputes — The Story of Science Through 350 Years of the Royal Societyedited by Bill Bryson, Barrow states the following:

An important feature of chaotic systems is that, although they become unpredictable when you try to determine the future from a particular uncertain starting value, there may be a particular stable statistical spread of outcomes after a long time, regardless of how you started out. The most important thing to appreciate about these stable statistical distributions of events is that they often have very stable and predictable average behaviors. . .[bold added].

So through careful observation and analysis, chaotic systems can be predictable, even if they are quite unpredictable on an immediate basis. I thought Clancy’s explication of chaos as actually deterministic was also enlightening. This idea that it’s present state determines its future also lines up with what we’ve examined in terms of the possibility of an underlying mathematical simplicity of complex systems.

In that post, “A Self-Organizing Criticality, Somewhere Between Boredom and Chaos,” we also examined Per Bak’s concept of a “self-organized criticality,” in which complex systems spontaneously transition between states of order and disorder, which Clancy echoes in the following quote about the brain:

The critical state can be quite useful for the brain, allowing it to exploit both order and disorder in its computations—employing a redundant network with rich, rapid chaotic dynamics, and an orderly readout function to stably map the network state to outputs. The critical state would be maintained not by temperature, but the balance of neural excitation and inhibition. If the balance is tipped in favor of more inhibition, the brain is “frozen” and nothing happens. If there is too much excitation, it will descend into chaos. The critical point is analogous to an attractor.

This notion that a complex system hovers somewhere in the balance between chaos and order is a fascinating one, especially when you connect it to the idea of a school. It reminds me of a joyous classroom of students engaged in meaningful and challenging work. There’s a warm buzz of controlled but spontaneous activity and creativity. Students can very easily go off the rails, and it’s the teacher’s job to hold them in that “hinterland between the inflexibilities of determinism and the vagaries of chaos,” as Barrow eloquently phrased it.

Order and disorder enjoy a symbiotic relationship, and a neuron’s firing may wander chaotically until a memory or perception propels it into an attractor. Sensory input would then serve to “stabilize” chaos. Indeed, the presentation of a stimulus reduces variability in neuronal firing across a surprising number of different species and systems, as if a high-dimensional chaotic trajectory fell into an attractor. By “taming” chaos, attractors may represent a strategy for maintaining reliability in a sensitive system. Recent theoretical and experimental studies of large networks of independent oscillators have also shown that order and chaos can co-exist in surprising harmony, in so-called chimera states.

This idea of attractors is also fascinating to me. As I read this passage on the subway on the way to class this morning on my little smartphone screen, I thought back to the idea of perceptual illusions and their relation to powerlessness. I also thought about the effect of isolation on the brain. And I wondered if this concept of “sensory input” stabilizing chaos that Clancy just outlined can be taken almost literally, as in how the loving touch of a mother has been shown to be important in brain development. And how beyond touch, the tone and manner in how adults and students speak to one another, the colors displayed on the wall, and all the other contextual factors of the environment can be so fundamental to “taming” the chaos that lies both in extreme isolation (ever been alone in the wilderness? Your mind goes nuts) or in overcrowded, confined spaces (the ghetto). Schools can provide that stabilizing influence.

Again, we find echoes of this idea of harmony and symbiosis in Barrow:

. . . Chaos and order have been found to coexist in a curious symbiosis. . . . At a microscopic level, the fall of sand is chaotic, yet the result in the presence of a force like gravity is large-scale organisation.  . . Order develops on a large scale through the combination of many independent chaotic small-scale events that hover on the brink of instability. Complex adaptive systems thrive in the hinterland between the inflexibilities of determinism and the vagaries of chaos. There, they get the best of both worlds: out of chaos springs a wealth of alternatives for natural selection to sift; while the rudder of determinism sets a clear average course towards islands of stability.” (Bold added)

Now that I’ve geeked out on chaos, back to work . . .


How Contexts Influence Our Experience of Wine, and Schools

A glass of port wine by John Sullivan

We talk a lot about the influence of the environment on this blog, and how contexts can impact learning.

Well, turns out contexts can have a strong influence on how we taste wine, too. In an article in The New Yorker, “What We Really Taste When We Drink Wine,” Maria Konnikova elaborates on nueroscientist Daniel Salzman’s premise that “With something like wine, all sorts of societal and personal complications come into play.”

Even before you open a bottle to experience the wine itself, you already have an arbitrary visual stimulus—the bottle and the label—that comes with non-arbitrary emotional associations, good and bad.” And those emotional associations will, in turn, affect what we taste.

We’ve been primed to taste even before our tongues have touched a thing. We taste with our minds, our eyes, every aspect of every thing surrounding us. You know how you can “feel” what a school is all about even before you’ve stepped foot in a classroom? Same thing. So how are we purposefully and intentionally “priming” our students and visitors with that message (while designing for safety, as well)?

Us humans aren’t the hardest in the world to beguile.

The more difficult the name is to pronounce, the more you’ll like the wine. In 1999, psychologists from the University of Leicester found that the type of music playing in a store could influence which wines were purchased: when French music was playing, people bought French wines; when German music was turned on, German wines outsold the rest. The customers remained oblivious [bold added].

Marketers, just in case you weren’t aware, have been having a field day with our naiveté. But it is the express purpose of schools to educate. So how can we build our students’ metacognition so they can better ascertain real quality in life (not so much of wine, I’m afraid)? Embedded within the article lies a clue:

In 1990, Gregg Solomon, a Harvard psychologist who wrote “Great Expectorations: The Psychology of Expert Wine Talk,” found that amateurs can’t really distinguish different wines at all, but he also found that experts can indeed rank wines for sweetness, balance, and tannin at rates that far exceeded chance. Part of the reason isn’t just in the added experience. It’s in the ability to phrase and label that experience more precisely, a more developed sensory vocabulary that helps you to identify and remember what you experience. Indeed, when novices are trained, their discrimination ability improves [bold added].

In other words, the experts possess the domain-specific vocabulary and knowledge necessary to discern distinct wines. And this vocabulary and knowledge can be taught. Phew! In fact, “Kathryn LaTour and her colleagues at Cornell University found that a twenty-five minute training session devoted to broad wine knowledge improved performance on a blind tasting and reduced susceptibility to advertising.”

There’s another interesting connection I thought of in relation to this idea. Remember when we talked about how a sense of powerlessness can make us more susceptible to illusions? By empowering our students with precise and domain-specific vocabulary and broad knowledge, we increase their resilience against manipulative assaults on their senses.

For the rest of us laymen, wine will continue to be heavily influenced by the context we drink it in, the friends we sit with, the weight of moisture in the air, the story of the winery inscribed on the label, the story that we are told or that we tell ourselves as the tincture travels our palate.

If something so elemental as supping upon wine is so heavily influenced by context, think of how everyday our students are influenced by the socio-ecological factors in their schools. Everything from what hangs (or doesn’t hang) on the wall, to their interaction (or non-interaction) with the custodian has an impact on their experience and learning.


On the Limits of Problem Solving

When Mark and I aren’t blogging about schools and ecosystems, we like to get together for a cold beverage and talk about…schools and ecosystems. Our conversations usually start with some really lucid, optimistic ideas about how we can promote our approach to school design, how we can build connections between like-minded teachers, or how we can help our students become better people. At this point in the conversation, Mark and I are in problem-solving mode. We’re thinking about the obstacles we face as teachers, the obstacles our students face, and we’re trying to come up with ways to overcome those obstacles.

After a couple of beverages, our ideas usually become a bit less lucid and, sometimes, a bit less hopeful. In particular, since we both teach students with disabilities, our conversations often circle around the problems that disabilities present, both for us as teachers and for our students as human beings in a world that likes to pretend that such disabilities don’t exist. At this point in the conversation, Mark and I have abandoned problem-solving mode. We’re not proposing new programs or methods that could somehow measure our disabled students’ academic progress. At this point we’re more contemplative and, I think, a bit more humble.

Anyone who’s taught students with disabilities has (I hope) learned some humility. We’ve learned that no matter how a school is designed, no matter what type of curriculum we use, a child with severe ADHD who is off her meds will not be able to stay in her seat for very long. We’ve learned that increasingly rigorous curricula do not, in fact, help a student with an emotional disturbance control his anger. Even the most rigorous standards will not prevent this student from getting out of his seat, picking up a chair, and throwing it at the girl sitting across from him.

I don’t list these examples to suggest that we should abandon all hope and stop teaching students with severe disabilities. I list them to suggest that we should approach the problem of disability with humility. We should acknowledge that as a society, we are uncomfortable with disability and we are often frustrated that people with disabilities are not able to meet the same demands placed upon the rest of us.

I could hear that frustration in Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s voice when he recently proposed new “accountability standards” for special education students, stating without a shred of evidence, “We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to a robust curriculum, they excel.” Duncan was in problem-solving mode. He believed that he had figured out how to fix our students with disabilities. The solution is high expectations and rigorous curricula, which apparently aren’t already in place.

I have a feeling that the solution is actually not so simple. I recently read a brilliant essay by Fredrik deBoer on what he calls “the death of nuance.” In this piece, deBoer criticizes the ProPublica news service for its coverage of the use of restraining holds on school children. DeBoer describes his own experience as a special education teacher teaching students with severe emotional disturbance, a job that required him and his co-workers to physically restrain students when they posed a severe threat to themselves or others. He writes:

Those risks were neither hypothetical nor minor. The more severe of these cases were children who typically could not last a single school day without inflicting harm on themselves or on others. I have personally witnessed a 10 year old lift his 40-pound desk from the floor and hurl it towards the head of another student. I have witnessed a student jump from her seat to claw and bite at another, with almost no provocation. I have seen kids go from seeming calm to punching other kids repeatedly in the back of the head without warning. The self-harm was even worse. I had to intervene when a child, frustrated with his multiplication homework, struck himself repeatedly in the face with a heavy fake gold medallion, to the point where he drew his own blood.

DeBoer does not argue for or against restraining holds. He does not pretend to have the solution to the problem of disability or mental illness. Instead, he raises some serious concerns about our inability to have intelligent, analytical discussions about complex issues like disability, education, or mental health. He writes:

I am reminded of a few sad realities: that American culture is now synonymous with a juvenile Manicheanism that imagines some perfect world we could achieve if people just weren’t so selfish and evil; that getting showily, publicly angry about problems is more popular than actually attempting to solve them…I genuinely don’t know if people believe in difficult choices and intractable problems anymore; they’ve been bludgeoned by the loud noises and shouting we mistake for discussion into thinking that all problems have clear villains and easy answers.

Reading deBoer’s piece, I was reminded of Arne Duncan’s facile approach to the problem of teaching students with disabilities. The notion that all we need to help students like the ones deBoer describes are high expectations and robust curricula reflects an ignorance so profound that I don’t even know how to respond to it, except to say that when the federal appointees in charge of our public schools are so completely incapable of grasping the problems that teachers and students face, it’s time for those people to get out of problem-solving mode. Any solutions posed by people with such a clear inability to understand the complexities of public schooling and special education will only make things worse.

Social Relationships, Ecology, and Schools

Social service icon from The Noun Project

You may have noticed that I changed the subtitle of this site to “Socio-ecological perspectives on education.” I’d like to explain what that means and why I changed it.

It used to read something like “holistic, ecological, and student-centered perspectives on education reform,” but I’ve noticed that words and phrases like “holistic,” “student-centered,” or “reform” can carry a lot of baggage, dependent on the reader’s frame. Furthermore, when I do get around to posting, I’ve been straying from those themes at times and needed to find another way to capture what this blog is really about. Socio-ecological perspectives sounds perhaps more academic and clinical, but it succinctly states what threads consistently through most posts here.

Socio” stands for “social” or “society.” When we talk about a school as an ecosystem, we’re pointing to the fundamental importance of relationships. And when we extend that social, societal dimension to include “ecological,” we’re grounding those relationships in a physical space, time, and place. Relationships are shaped by their environments; when we discuss a school as an ecosystem, we’re acknowledging the importance of contexts and content, physical infrastructure and curriculum.

But if you really wanted to geek out and get technical on the definition of “socio-ecological,” here’s a wonderful articulation from

A socio-ecological system can be defined as:[2](p. 163)
  1. A coherent system of biophysical and social factors that regularly interact in a resilientsustained manner;
  2. A system that is defined at several spatial, temporal, and organisational scales, which may be hierarchically linked;
  3. A set of critical resources (natural, socioeconomic, and cultural) whose flow and use is regulated by a combination of ecological and social systems; and
  4. A perpetually dynamic, complex system with continuous adaptation.[3][4][5]

Yes, all of that.

I’d like to focus this post on the “socio” part of things, drawing from a great post by Kara Finnegan and Alan Daly on Shanker Blog put up just today that very neatly makes the case for the importance of relationships in education.

Let me begin by stating the obvious, in case you don’t work in a school yourself. Relationships are everything in a classroom and school. I work in a middle school, and if there’s something happening with one of my student’s relationships with each other, or with their family, you bet it shows up in my classroom. Middle school kids, especially, are notorious for their focus on the social realm. But it’s just as important to the adults in a school. If there’s something happening between teachers, or a teacher’s relationship with the administration has shifted, you bet it shows up in the hallways, classrooms, and team meetings. It pervades.

Relationships determine the culture of a school.

But they determine much more than that, as Finnegan and Daly point out in their post—they also determine whether policies, instructional practices, and other forms of practice and knowledge are transmitted successfully or left withering at the door. You may think the problem of a failed reform is the information, “but relationships will trump even the best information.”

We wonder whether the current [reform] movement, based upon many of the same premises of standards and accountability that drove off prior reforms, has now created a thousand and one ways for schools to fail rather than changing the course of action and leading to the difficult work of changing the informal structure, norms, and culture described above – i.e., to build the capacity of these systems to bring about change.  Given the limited success of these efforts in most settings, particularly in large urban districts, it is time to shift the policy and reform attention from the school site as the unit of change to zooming out and exploring the systemwide context of reform: the horizontal and vertical social ‘ties’ between and among central offices and site leaders in a district enacting reform. In other words, it’s time to focus at the relational level.

Focus on the contexts and relationships. This is what I mean when I talk about the socio-ecological perspective of a school. If we simply view “fixing” schools as a technical problem, we’re bound to encounter the very same obstacles encountered by any prior reform. Without a shift in the culture and relationships in which any elegant technical fixes and knowledge are proffered, little will change. It’s about how things work together as a system.

Finnegan and Daly then use social network analysis to examine district relationships and sharing of knowledge. They discovered that central office administrators, unsurprisingly, had the most sharing of expertise. Then, interestingly, they found “district and site leaders” over on the other side of the map, which they termed “isolates”:

This means that no one seeks them for expertise, nor do they seek anyone. We see this as lost social capital in the organization, which in the current climate no district can afford. [bold added]

In other words, waste. I’ve written about this sort of waste in education before, when I wrote about why I left my last school on Chalkbeat NY. I said, “I want to be clear about one aspect of that struggling school: It is not struggling because teachers were ineffective or incompetent. In fact, in that school there lies dormant a vast human, social, and even physical capital entirely untapped, and that is what is the greatest of crimes” [bold added].

There’s a wealth of knowledge and expertise that lies untapped and wasted in schools across our nation. The good news is that by focusing on collaboration and building relationships, this network of social and human capital can expand. The social network analysis Finnegan and Daly conducted over time demonstrated that ties increased “when administrators realized information was not being promulgated effectively, [and] they decided to address that problem . . . they succeeded.” However, Finnegan and Daly point to a caveat:

Perhaps most critically, and unfortunately, during the same time period when these educational leaders increased work related ties, they also had a reduction in more affective relationships (e.g. trust).  These more “emotionally” laden relationships are important as they indicate something about the “quality” of the ties. Our own work as well as others suggests that these types of relationships are critical in supporting change. Absent these ties, in which individuals can engage in risk taking and exposing vulnerabilities, deeper work and the changes in practice may be inhibited.

We’ve discussed the importance of connections on this blog before, and we uncovered a relevant ecological principle from Bill Mollison: it is not simply the quantity of connections that matters, it’s the quality of those connections.

Wrapping up, Finnegan and Daly conclude that while talking about quality relationships sounds simple enough, it’s much more difficult to put into practice:

. . . in the current climate of pressure and distrust, educational leaders and practitioners at all levels of the system have formidable challenges ahead if complex and authentic reform – and not just political rhetoric – is really desired in our educational system.


IDEO Designs Network of Schools in Peru

Adobe wall in Cusco by McKay Savage

Yesterday we examined designing schools for safety and aesthetics. Continuing on the theme of school design, here’s an interesting article in the NY Times, “Shaping a School System, From the Ground Up” by Claire Martin, about design company IDEO’s network of schools in Peru, Innova schools. IDEO designed the schools from the ground up, starting with mission all the way to teacher professional development.

After putting aside my extreme jealousy at such a great opportunity (if Mr. Rodriguez-Pastor needs any more school designers, Will and I are totally down for this), I enjoyed reading about how IDEO took an open ended design process and applied it to the complex challenge of designing multiple schools. Let’s take a closer look at what they did:

They began their work together by developing what Ms. Speicher called a “core mission,” around which each design decision would revolve.

It’s been said enough by various leadership gurus that this should now be ingrained: lead with your values and mission. IDEO knows what they are doing.

One challenge in systems design is that it doesn’t work unless the individual components connect. “You want to dive deep into the curriculum and dive deep into the spaces,” she said. “But in order to have a system, they have to actually integrate.”

This is what we mean when we talk about recognizing a school as an ecosystem. The whole is more than the sum of its parts–it’s about the relationships, the network, how everything does—or doesn’t—work together.

The team designed classrooms with sliding walls so that two smaller classrooms could be transformed into a large one, allowing one teacher to supervise two classes during independent learning sessions.

Funny that I just mentioned this in yesterday’s post! This flexibility not only provides for greater control of variable learning spaces, but could also be considered a safety feature, depending on whether it’s also designed with potential intruders in mind.

Another potential pitfall of systems design is that it can’t factor in the quirks of human existence. The assumption that “we as human beings should behave as simple agents to produce complex outputs” is flawed, as Mr. Sharma of the Rhode Island School of Design put it. “Humans are much more complicated agents and can produce independent thoughts, good and bad.”

As Mr. Soros also put it, humans can act both as particles and as waves, and it is this uncertainty and complexity that makes prediction of human interaction difficult. That IDEO incorporates this understanding into their design process is smart. So how do they deal with this uncertainty in moving forward?

To help manage any problems that arose once its designs were used in Peru, the Innova administrators and the Ideo team held periodic follow-up meetings.

Continuous improvement through feedback. Stir, iterate, and repeat.

If you start with the right principles and processes and view a school as a complex adaptive system, you can create great schools.

By the way, IDEO has a free design thinking toolkit for educators. Check it out.


Design for Safety

We talk a lot about the physical design of schools on this blog, as we know that the physical environment can have a great impact on learning. In this article on CNN from Paul Caron from last year on designing schools for safety in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, here’s some principles of school design that are worth exploring.

Layers of hurdles can be designed for unwanted visitors, with corridors, entries and exits that are still clearly visible to teachers, said Robert Ducibella, a member of the Sandy Hook commission and founding principal of DVS Security Consulting and Engineering.

Adding transparent buffering allows time for visitors to be assessed. If we consider this design feature from the standpoint of aesthetics, not only safety, we could also consider how entryways can be used to transition visitors from the external community into the school community in a manner that communicates what the school is about. For example, there might be a series of switchbacks leading up to the school doors that could be adorned with plantings made by the students, or a short hallway before the entryway that depicts pictures and artwork made by the students.

Some security features can improve everyday life in schools. Adding doors that connect classrooms can make it easier for teachers to work as teams, and in a dangerous situation, makes it easier for them to move students to safer areas.

Glassed hallways allow teachers and other adults in the schools to see an intruder but also to combat problems such as bullying.

Visibility and connectability are important design features in a school. Open space design has been tried and rejected in education and now in many offices as too distracting, but having the option to both open up and close off spaces is important. Design that allows for this level of flexibility and control would be much appreciated by teachers so that they can collaborate in bigger or small groups as necessary without the acoustic and visual distractions of an open space.

Visibility is highly critical in a school not only for safety, but furthermore when we consider the importance of allowing natural light into a building. All too often schools feel like enclosed dungeons rather than like spaces we’d want our children to grow in and spend the majority of their day within.

The topic of physical infrastructure of schools isn’t a sexy topic, and it’s not written or discussed much in the media on education, yet it is clear that it is a critical consideration in education not only for its impact on learning, but furthermore for safety. As the article notes:

But it often takes a local tragedy to make security a priority. Security experts said lawmakers need to make safety upgrades mandatory, as they have in other areas.

It’s terrible to say, but America is built around response management,” said Ducibella, the Sandy Hook commission member. “In most states in the country, we don’t have a perfect security criteria document for school design, which the Sandy Hook commission is looking at. We don’t have uniform criteria that is legislatively enforceable.”

This is unfortunately true. But given that we tend to ignore the impact of the physical environment of schools on learning, I wonder how long the tragedy of decrepit schools must be inflicted on our children before we realize that how we design our schools reflects how we value our future?

Alice Waters on School Lunches; Bjork on Nature

Will posted recently about Congress’ consideration of rolling back school lunch reform.

Alice Waters wrote a compelling Op-Ed in Time magazine on this point, entitled “The Fate of Our Nation Rests on School Lunches.” I don’t think such a pronouncement could be considered hyperbole. Here’s her words:

As with many institutions and universal ideas in this nation in recent years, it seems that even something as right and as basic as feeding children food that is good for them has become politicized.

By allowing fast-food culture into the cafeteria, we have effectively endorsed that industry’s values, helped facilitate the obesity epidemic, widened the achievement gap and aided an addiction to junk. Even in the short term these costs, both tangible and intangible, dwarf the budget for a universal — and real — school food program. The idea of school lunch as an egalitarian mechanism to nourish our nation’s potential has long been discarded and devalued. We are faced with an enormous crisis of health, education and inequality.

We need to have the courage and conviction to establish a nutritious, sustainable, free school-lunch program for all.

Whether our elected representatives have such courage and conviction remains to be seen.

In other news, but related to the activist front, this time on environmental protection, here’s a fun, meandering article about Björk and her fight to protect natural areas in Iceland from aluminum companies.

“I’m not saying we go back to the past and live in a cave, but to have a smooth route into the 21st century it makes sense to embrace technology and give ourselves options, not have a dirty industrial revolution. We need to take a short cut to the green sh**!”