As we question whether our instructional methods are fitting to our changing times…we also have to determine if our physical environments are conducive to supporting learning in the 21st century. Environment is not about whether we are using rows or group seating in our classrooms…it is about taking a deep and reflective look at the environment of our entire organization. And being able to decipher what message our organization’s physical environment is sending…
Absolutely! We ought to pay attention to the physical environment that we ask people (kids are people too) to be in while they learn. We also need to be more aware of the messages sent and received because of the way we design our physical environments.
What does your space say?
A few years ago I worked for a fairly well known non-profit. They did some amazing work in advocating and directly helping women and children. They also had this policy and practice around the counters in their office spaces. The counters were all over 4 feet high and had additional glass barriers on top of that. The message, to me, was very clear. It said we are afraid of you and we sure as heck don’t trust you. I did some digging and sure enough the counters were in response to one incident when an irate and mentally ill client jumped the counter. What disturbed me was that they just didn’t “get” that by sending the message through their environment that “you scare us” they were most likely increasing the likelihood of having people act out. They were also increasing the frequency of staff behind the counter treating clients with disrespect.
I recently had to pick up one of my grandkids at her middle school. It was awful. I felt like I was doing something wrong just by being there. There is a massive empty space at the entrance that looks like it might be used during lunch and other breaks, but as this was class there we no kids. The main office was just off to the side of this space and like most scholl offices, built like a fortess. Seriously, I have been in correctional institutions that were more and inviting than many a school. (Corrections folks know about the impact of environment on behaviour)
The real challenge with this particular grandkid pickup event was the emotional environment set by the office staff. I went tot he window and there were two office staffers chatting at he back of the room and one sitting at a desk near the window. The all did the office staff stare when I approached. you know the one. The look that says, ya, we see you and will get over to you when we it’s convenient for us. No smile, not even a neutral expression. A definite message message though. The visit went downhill from there. I understand the need for vigilance and child safety but seriously folks take a hint from Walmart greeters and crack a smile at least. You want me to support more funding for education to pay people who treat me like that? That’s a hard sell.
The other story I have about environment and messages relates to parking spaces. I had a meeting at a school district office recently and there was literally one space for visitor parking and it was really hard to find. I can understand space restrictions but at least acknowledge it. The sign for the one space said something like “Visitor Parking. Do not park in stall marked for staff. You will be towed.” How about something like “So sorry we only have one stall for you. Please use it so the tow truck stays away” I would have appreciated that and entered the meeting in a much better frame of mind.
The science behind environmental design
Ok, enough of the stories, the reason I wanted to post this was to share the video above. It has a refreshing message. Having just watched Waiting for Superman I was in need of some hope. If you haven’t seen Waiting for Superman I encourage you to rent of buy a copy and watch it. It’s well done but I have to warn you – it’s depressing. If you are in Canada and think its different here, think again and check out this Mclean’s article titled Why its so hard to fire bad teachers?
In the video embedded above one of the things that struck me in the school environment described is that it seems to be in alignment with some recent research on empathy and children.
Notre Dame Psychology Professor Darcia Narvaez show a relationship between child rearing practices common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies (how we humans have spent about 99 percent of our history) and better mental health, greater empathy and conscience development, and higher intelligence in children. (Science Daily 2010)
Narvaez identified six practices that may increase empathy, intelligence and overall well being in children. Schools can’t do a lot of this, only parents and caregivers can. Schools can however create environments that promote interactions between children of differing ages and increase the number of adult caregivers that that children form attachments with.
- Lots of positive touch — as in no spanking — but nearly constant carrying, cuddling and holding;
- Prompt response to baby’s fusses and cries. You can’t “spoil” a baby. This means meeting a child’s needs before they get upset and the brain is flooded with toxic chemicals. “Warm, responsive caregiving like this keeps the infant’s brain calm in the years it is forming its personality and response to the world,” Narvaez says.
- Breastfeeding, ideally 2 to 5 years. A child’s immune system isn’t fully formed until age 6 and breast milk provides its building blocks.
- Multiple adult caregivers — people beyond mom and dad who also love the child.
- Free play with multi-age playmates. Studies show that kids who don’t play enough are more likely to have ADHD and other mental health issues.
- Natural childbirth, which provides mothers with the hormone boosts that give the energy to care for a newborn.
The other BIG thing that stood out for me in the video, also related to the idea of grouping kids with multi-age playmates, has to do with how we learn. In the video they call this flex grouping and one of the teachers in the video talks about kids teaching other kids and how that helps them learn. In a brain scan of a child doing four distinct learning activities – reading, writing, listening and telling – the brain activity is most active when the child is telling someone about that he had read or heard. Telling, explaining, showing aka teaching are things we do that activates the brain and learning becomes deeper, richer and more connected, literally. Providing opportunities for kids to learn by teaching other kids should be front and centre in considering learning spaces and practices.
Horses and carts
One final word. In Tom’s response to Dave original blog on this he offers us a glimpse into his wife’s mind more than her classroom. A new environment alone will not change learning. Teachers all over the world create warm and inviting spaces because their environment is a reflection of who they are. We need to be aware of the difference between cause and correlation, horses and carts. Great teachers with access to great environments are going to do great work. Great teachers in crappy environments will still find a way to connect with their learners. But the best environment in the world will not make an uninformed or disconnected teacher automatically become great.