Low floor, high ceiling, wide walls in ELA classrooms

Have you ever heard of a “low floor (or threshold), high ceiling” task?

I’ve stumbled across it over the last few years in the math realm, such as in articles by Jo Boaler, or in tasks by Dan Meyer, and I found it intriguing as a general framework for lesson and unit planning. Finding ways to include both lower and higher performing students in rigorous academic instruction is something I think a lot about, and this seemed worth exploring. However, I work primarily in special education and ELA, not math, so I was having trouble generalizing.

So I did a little more digging. Here’s what I found:

The concept of low floor, high ceiling was first formulated in the 1970s by Seymour Papert, a professor at MIT heavily influenced by Piaget, as a design principle for a programming language called Logo. The idea was to make programming accessible to young children, while simultaneously being usable at a more complex level by adults.

A robot turtle was developed to provide concrete access to kids for using the programming language.

By Valiant Technology Ltd., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19501049
By Valiant Technology Ltd., CC BY-SA 3.0


Mitchel Resnick, another professor at MIT, added the useful concept of “wide walls” to the design metaphor of a room:


When discussing technologies to support learning and education, my mentor Seymour Papert (who, sadly, passed away last month) often emphasized the importance of “low floors” and “high ceilings.” For a technology to be effective, he said, it should provide easy ways for novices to get started (low floor) but also ways for them to work on increasingly sophisticated projects over time (high ceiling). With his Logo programming language, for example, kids could start by drawing simple squares and triangles, but gradually create more complex geometric patterns over time.

But the most important lesson that I learned from Seymour isn’t captured in the low-floor/high-ceiling metaphor. For a more complete picture, we need to add an extra dimension: wide walls. It’s not enough to provide a single path from low floor to high ceiling; we need to provide wide walls so that kids can explore multiple pathways from floor to ceiling.

Why are wide walls important? We know that kids will become most engaged, and learn the most, when they are working on projects that are personally meaningful to them. But no single project will be meaningful to all kids. So if we want to engage all kids—from many different backgrounds, with many different interests—we need to support a wide diversity of pathways and projects.

. . . Our ultimate goal is to help all kids develop their thinking, develop their voices, and develop their identities. None of that will happen unless we continually ask: Who are we including? Who are we excluding? And how can we provide everyone—everyone—with opportunities for exploring, experimenting, and expressing themselves?

Resnick offers some further advice for designers in an MIT paper, “Some Reflections on Designing Construction Kits for Kids” (bearing in mind this is for construction kits, not for academic content):

  • Design for Designers
  • Low Floor and Wide Walls
  • Make Powerful Ideas Salient – Not Forced
  • Support Many Paths, Many Styles
  • Make it as Simple as Possible – and Maybe Even Simpler
  • Give People What They Want – Not What They Ask For
    • “Often, designs with well-chosen parameters are more successful than designs with fully adjustable parameters” ← I like this quote. This connects to the idea of constraints.
  • Invent Things That You Would Want to Use Yourself
    • In ELA, this translates into assigning tasks that you would want to do yourself. For writing tasks, this most likely would result in something you’d actually enjoy reading.
  • Iterate, Iterate – then Iterate Again

This is all well and good if you’re designing a gadget or a programming language, and it kinda makes sense in math in the sense of a well-designed problem, but what does “low floor, high ceiling” mean in terms of designing lessons or units in ELA? This is where it gets murkier. Does a concept that applies to design have a translation to academic literacy instruction?

Here’s my thoughts on that question:

Usually in ELA we are engaged with texts. A rich text has multiple layers of meaning and ideas well-worth exploring, but the level of abstraction and demands of the language can be a barrier for many students. We can therefore think of the text itself as the “high ceiling” for many lessons (I think, in any case, I could certainly be off base on this).

In many cases, therefore,  the “high ceiling” aspect has already somewhat been defined in an ELA lesson (assuming you are studying rich texts together as a class).

So then, how you do you provide a “low floor” for all of your students to a complex text? And more abstractly, how do you support a wide diversity of pathways or perspectives?

Designing Scaffolded Tasks and Activities

What comes first to mind are the tasks and activities that a teacher designs to prepare their students for understanding the text, for interacting with the text, and for responding to the text. For an exemplar of this type of scaffolding, I highly recommend taking a look at Lesson 2 from Stanford’s Understanding Language unit on persuasion, specifically at how they scaffold student understanding of the Gettysburg address through multiple readings that are even fun. Close reading instruction will readily fail when a teacher simply asks students to re-read a complex text multiple times with no varied and scaffolded forms of engagement.

Designing Provocative Questions

I think the most critical consideration for “wide walls” and spanning from low floor to high ceiling is what sort of questions you plan. For example, for an 8th grade unit I co-designed on the topic of segregation, we generated a series of questions, ascending from elemental (“What is segregation? What is integration?”) to provocative and open-ended: (“NYC schools are largely segregated by race and class. Is it possible to provide all children an excellent education in a segregated school system? If so, how? If not, why not and what steps must we take to fix this?”). That final question represents the cumulative question for the unit. There’s certainly room for different ways of expressing knowledge based on a student’s own perspective on the topic. This could be via an essay, an action plan, a presentation, or a socratic discussion, as a few possible examples.

A critical element to both “low floor” and “high ceiling” is designing units and lessons around a provocative question. For example, watch this video of master teacher Sarah Wessling Brown modeling a high school ELA lesson on monsters (Easter egg: see if you can spot me in the background). She asks the provocative question, “What do monsters teach us about human nature?” and then designs engaging activities to engage students in the texts and knowledge they need to explore it.

I think questions like these embody what LFHCWW design is all about. They provide both engagement, and therefore access, but have ample room for sophistication and complex thinking.

One mistake some teachers make is to assume that a “higher order” question is beyond the purview of their struggling students, and they try to dumb down their questions. My advice is to worry less about the “cognitive level” of a question, and more about the language that you use and the manner in which you phrase it. Language and phrasing can either present a barrier to understanding, or a scaffold. A precisely constructed question provides the initial direction and language that students will need.

We haven’t even really gotten started

But this post is getting overlong. How do you think the concept of a task with low floor, high ceiling, and wide walls can apply in ELA classrooms? Share, and let’s build a common understanding of what this might mean in our lesson and unit design.

Sunday Smorgasbord: Design

By Glen Edelson from ATLANTA, USA (Lox and eggs) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Glen Edelson from ATLANTA, USA (Lox and eggs) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I’m playing around with the formatting of these weekly roundups. Let me know what works or doesn’t work for you. UPDATE: looks like links in pictures weren’t working, so I added embedded links to each article.


A nice overview of the relationship between architectural design and well-being from The Guardian’s Cities.


“One, two, three, four!” they counted in Finnish. (For good measure, I jumped into the ditch, too.) The teacher, Pelo, explained that this experience represented how she and the two aides aspire to teach the kindergartners in the woods. She described this approach as “secret” learning, when children are unaware that they’re learning academic content. In the forest, these Finnish educators might lead the children to find sticks of varying lengths and organize them from shortest to longest, form letters out of natural materials, or count mushrooms.


Smart stuff, as usual, from Amanda Ripley.


It’s likely that as long as humans and their institutions hold prejudices and bias, their designs will reflect them. But some progress is possible. Two decades ago architect Ronald Mace imagined a new standard, in which anything humans make — a new piece of technology, a public park, a household product — is usable by everyone. He called this idea “universal design.” Today it’s an enforceable legal standard in Norway. One way to help us get there? Make sure the design process itself is also accessible to all.


“All of the choice-based reform efforts that they’ve come up with over the last 20 years have been designed to bring back all the white people who left after Brown v. Board. But the irony is that, if [districts] keep relying on choice, they’re going to be set up for failure because white people will not enroll their children in schools unless they’re already [predominantly] white,” said Natalie Hopkinson, a black parent and journalist, referring to extensive research showing privileged, white parents tend to send their kids to schools that they perceive as “high status.” “So the segregation keeps repeating itself as long as you rely on choice as a way to make the change.”


In the Philadelphia school district, 37 percent of the system’s 144,000 are chronically absent. Among high-school students, the figure shoots up to 51 percent. The districts in Baltimore and Milwaukee have similar numbers. For Cleveland and Detroit, the chronic absenteeism rates are around 50 percent, and more than 60 percent of Cleveland’s high-schoolers missed more than three weeks of school a year.

The report’s authors write that one common denominator linking these cities is the “nearly 100 years of historical actions that aimed to segregate African American populations in sections of the city with the poorest housing, greatest proximity to industrial pollutants, greatest exposure to violence, and highest unemployment rates, resulting in widespread inter-generational poverty.”

Sunday Smorgasbord

By Ernst Vikne (originally posted to Flickr as Lots of good food) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I read a lot of random stuff over the course of a week, and I tweet out many of them (follow me @mandercorn), but I also know that roundups of links, ala Chalkbeat NY, Vox, Eduwonk, Marginal Revolution, and many others, are a really useful way to sharing items that are interesting.

I’m going to begin posting a weekly roundup of items that bear a connection to the themes and ideas that we explore on Schools & Ecosystems.

Please let me know if there’s a format I should consider that will make these more easily digestible and useful to you.

Schools that teach in two languages foster integration — so how come so many families can’t find programs?

There has been a long overdue discussion of integration and increasing diversity in our public schools. While those discussions typically refer to racial and socioeconomic diversity, and the subsequent resistance from well-off white parents, Catherine Brown and Conor Williams are forwarding a refreshing vision for increasing diversity: expanding Dual Language Immersion programs.

While no integration effort is ever simple —especially one that requires schools to implement a new instructional model — today’s conditions are encouraging. Schools have increasing numbers of linguistically diverse students, and greater flexibility for deciding how to meet their needs. Furthermore, families of varied backgrounds increasingly expect schools to offer unique academic themes that help students succeed. Dual immersion programs recognize and celebrate their diverse backgrounds, not as a side benefit, but as a core element of the model’s effectiveness. That’s an extraordinary opportunity for policymakers — and well worth their attention.

Hospitals Realize Their Own Noise Is a Health Issue All By Itself

Quartz reports on a study which found that ambient noise in hospitals is LOUD, which is unsurprising to anyone who has stayed in a hospital.

Hospital stays can be an ordeal all by themselves beyond the condition you’re there being treated for. As medicine becomes more holistic in its perspective, it only makes sense that hospitals are realizing what an important role sound can play in effective healthcare.

On Average

A podcast episode from 99% Invisible describes the tremendous influence that the science of averages, promulgated by Belgian astronomer and mathematician Adolphe Quetelet, has had on design.

Did you know that clothing sizes of Large, Medium, and Small were first created by the mass production for soldier uniforms required by the Civil War? Lincoln drew from the science of averages.

There’s a common discourse in the education world: we standardize tests and our education systems, but children aren’t standardized. It might sound trite, but it’s scientifically accurate, according to research by Gilbert S. Daniels. He discovered that there was a discrepancy between the averages of all soldier measurements and the actual individual sizes of each soldier. In other words, very few individual soldiers actually conformed to the average.

This problem manifested in the design of cockpits, which were based on average measurements of soldiers in the 1920s. By WWII, those averages no longer applied, and resulted not only in the exclusion and subsequent shortage of many pilots during a time of high need, but even many avoidable deaths.

It was again our military which then pioneered the concept of adjustment in its design to meet individual needs. That’s why we can adjust our car seats now.

Whether it’s the equipment, or the whole work environment, design must accommodate more people who are outside the average … because in reality no one is actually average.

Trudging the fields at Gettysburg to teach leadership in hospitals

Speaking of hospitals and the Civil War . . . Stat reports on a leadership program for hospital staff which brings them to the battlefield of Gettysburg and prompts them to consider the decision-making challenges that people working within large organizations can make while under stress.

“Communication can break down at every single level,” said David Ottati, chief executive of Florida Hospital Waterman. “As leaders, we need to make sure we understand the objectives and each others’ personalities and motivations.”

In the Age of De Blasio, A Bloomberg Era Small School Reunion

Andrea Gabor writes a thoughtful piece on an innovative small school, Global Technology Preparatory, that was created as part of Bloomberg/Klein’s “iZone” initiative. By explaining what makes this school a success, and examining how that success has been hampered by politics and bureaucracy, Gabor brings a critical lens to the new administration.

One of the buried ledes in this story is that an educator, David Baiz, had been rated Unsatisfactory in his first school in the South Bronx, but after moving to Global Tech, he became a “nationally recognized math teacher.”

New York City educators loved to hate the Bloomberg/Klein administration, with its penchant for serial reorganizations and its army of MBAs. At the same time, some of the city’s best principals conceded that the businessman-mayor’s school administration had made their lives easier. For principals who survived the New York City iZone’s many incarnations, or who had inherited the small-school mantel from Meier and Alvarado, the Bloomberg years were an opportunity to experiment with some relief from bureaucratic control.

When our dream school had no space for my son, I panicked. Then I confronted prejudice I didn’t know I had

A mother and educator describes how the experience of choosing a school for her son confronted her with her own prejudice and that of others.

The more I dug into my soul, the more I come back to the idea that choosing a school is essentially about choosing the class you want to belong to and not about education at all. The truth that nobody wants to talk about is they want their white child to go to a white school. They want to go to a school where everyone eats Pirate Booty instead of Cheetos, where parents send their kids to New York Kids Club instead of Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Deaf Space

Some interesting design considerations for design of spaces that can not only provide a better environment for the deaf, but possibly a better environment for all.

School Climate Matters

A classroom in Guipuscoa

Chalk up more research confirming what-we’ve-been-saying-all-along here at Schools & Ecosystems: a school’s learning environment impacts student learning.

In case you don’t know, NYC has been collecting what folks call “school climate” data via surveys administered to teachers, parents, and students since 2007. It’s important information to have about a school–arguably more important, to my mind, than test scores (I believe both should be considered).

Last July, I had quoted Match Education’s Mike Goldstein asking an important question about all this data:

Is anyone aware of scholars and reporters digging deep into this data set?  Is there any other data set in the USA just as good?

I think it’d be hugely productive to identify NYC schools which have made progress in “Total Climate” — and then study why.

Well, Mike, you’ve got your answer.

NYU’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools published a study using NYC’s school climate information that demonstrates that a school’s learning environment not only impacts student learning, but furthermore teacher retention. As Chalkbeat NY’s Alex Zimmerman reports:

Each measure, the report found, is independently linked to decreases in teacher turnover. And gains on two of those measures, high academic expectations and school safety, were directly connected to better scores on state math exams.

The study found that if a school improved from the 50th percentile across the study’s four measures of school climate (leadership, expectations, relationships, and safety) to the 84th percentile, teacher turnover would decline by 25 percent, or 3.8 percentage points.

A similar percentile increase in measures of school safety and high academic expectations alone boosted math scores enough to account for an extra month and a half of instruction. (Improvements in school climate also boosted language arts scores on state tests, but those gains weren’t statistically significant.)

It’s important to note that this study confined its focus to the following aspects of school climate:

  • safety and order
  • leadership and professional development
  • high academic expectations
  • teacher relationships and collaboration

Missing in such an examination (and mostly from these surveys themselves) is a focus on the physical environment of a school. There are questions pertaining to cleanliness and conditions of a school, but as we’ve also been arguing on this blog, the actual design, and the incorporation (or absence) of access to natural light and greenery, colors, furniture, etcetera (all largely subconscious factors), all have an impact on learning and relationships in a school.

If your school is interested in collecting school climate data, the US Department of Education is sharing free surveys and information for collection of data similar to NYC’s. Check it out and share.

Executive Order: Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People

Came across this thanks to Vaughan Bell on MindHacks.

President Obama has issued an executive order that acknowledges the importance of design in impacting behavior and psychology, a subject we have discussed here, most recently in relation to a scarcity mindset and our cognitive fallibility. Here’s the overview of the executive order:

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that behavioral science insights — research findings from fields such as behavioral economics and psychology about how people make decisions and act on them — can be used to design government policies to better serve the American people.

Where Federal policies have been designed to reflect behavioral science insights, they have substantially improved outcomes for the individuals, families, communities, and businesses those policies serve. For example, automatic enrollment and automatic escalation in retirement savings plans have made it easier to save for the future, and have helped Americans accumulate billions of dollars in additional retirement savings. Similarly, streamlining the application process for Federal financial aid has made college more financially accessible for millions of students.

To more fully realize the benefits of behavioral insights and deliver better results at a lower cost for the American people, the Federal Government should design its policies and programs to reflect our best understanding of how people engage with, participate in, use, and respond to those policies and programs. By improving the effectiveness and efficiency of Government, behavioral science insights can support a range of national priorities, including helping workers to find better jobs; enabling Americans to lead longer, healthier lives; improving access to educational opportunities and support for success in school; and accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy. [Bold added]

To the point about automatic enrollment for retirement savings, this echoes advice from the authors of Scarcity to design for automating opt-in, rather than opt-out, as well the idea of designing for better choices to be more immediately accessible.

While some will perceive this order as paternalistic mind-control, I think this points to a promising shift in an approach to human-centered design in policy, rather than decision-making solely based on bureaucratic concerns.

Cities, Psychology, and Design

Underneath the Henry Hudson Bridge
Underneath the Henry Hudson Bridge

As frequent readers of this blog know, context and physical environment impact psychology, behavior, and well-being.

There’s  been a few pieces worth reading that highlight the impact of the built environment to our mental state. Check them out:

Streets with No Game by Colin Ellard on  Aeon

Now the reason for the dismal recordings of happiness and arousal in participants standing in front of blank façades should be clearer. At a psychological level, these constructions fail us because we are biologically disposed to favour locations defined by complexity, interest, and the passing of messages of one kind or another.

Architecture’s brief love affair with psychology is overdue a revival by Carlos Galan-Diaz & Dörte Martens on The Conversation

The condition of a site is important to how people respond to it. One of the recurrent findings is that people tend to prefer environments that are clean, have a degree of ornamentation, are uncluttered, have an open view, good illumination and so forth. Good designs do not demand too much attention, and are easy to move through and understand – imagine the different experiences between a busy underground station at rush hour and a park in the full summer sun, for instance. Such environments tend to promote well being in a general overarching way.

Another critical success factor is participation, where the end users are involved in the design process. . . . 

And if we are going to build more compressed urban spaces to meet housing shortages in big cities like London, we need to think more in terms of spaces that restore elements of nature – these use up less of your attention and therefore help you to recharge rather than use more energy. This is why things like parks, landscape, water and a sense of wilderness are all important in urban spaces. In a similar vein, urban land consumption matters too. Better to build smaller apartments with large public community green spaces than use the same acreage to build large urban lofts with private green spaces, for instance. 

How to design a street that’s mentally rejuvenating by Christian Jarrett on BPS Research Digest

Greater architectural variation in the street scene and lower building height both contributed to the perception that the environment was restorative – allowing the participants to “rest and recover their abilities to focus”. Greater architectural variety also tended to go hand in hand with a greater sense of fascination and with “being away” (although not with preference), factors which explained the link with perceived restorative power. In contrast, higher buildings were associated with a diminished sense of “being away” and were judged less restorative.

For other posts on this topic:


How Can We Design Better Schools Within Aging Infrastructure?

Many schools are relegated to working in outdated facilities, in forms that no longer follow their function. Kurani saw an opportunity for design to make a difference. . . 

The campus design started from the logic that if lines between subjects are no longer clear, then lines between classrooms should not be either.

Working with schools especially, Kurani sees the value of “taking the school and nearby residents through a period of research, observation, and self-discovery,” he says. “It allows us to base design on meaningful insights about the project’s users and their daily lives.”

He calls this “community-centric design,” and it has dictated all of his projects so far.

—Zoe Balaconis, on architect Danish Kurani, “For Aging Schools: What ‘Community-Centric Design’ Could Look Like” on Mind/Shift

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?