Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Teen Brain and its Implications for School Design

The October 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine features a great story on brain development in teenagers.   The article describes the prevailing thinking that the teen brain is still developing and hence teens exhibit erratic behavior, but goes on to discuss new thinking that teen behavior is an evolutionary response that causes teens to seek novelty.  The basic idea is that back on the savannah as children matured they needed to spread out and leave home to find new opportunities and hence pass their genes more effectively.  Those that sought novelty in their experiences did move out and were most successful in the reproductive sweepstakes, so that tendency has stayed with teenagers ever since.  The article concludes that it’s not that teenagers don’t recognize the risk in their behavior; it’s that they value the reward from their behavior more highly than the risk it entails. 
When you think about this finding relative to how we educate students it makes sense that students are bored by the mundane and stimulated by the novel.  Students need to be engaged and be encouraged to take risks with their learning.  Memorizing facts is not engaging and not terribly risky other than the risk of not remembering them correctly for the multiple choice test.  But it is risky to ask tough questions and confront your own lack of understanding.  It is risky to apply concepts to situations you have not encountered before.  And it is risky to conduct experiments or build projects that test your understanding of the way things work.
I think the environments for learning we create can facilitate measured risk taking.  We can create flexible lab-like spaces that allow experimentation.  We can create places to discuss and debate issues that require that students risk that others will disagree with them.  We can create rooms that are so agile that that they can be rearranged for each class and challenge students to try to develop the best lay out for the current task at hand.  We can create spaces that are transparent and make learning visible thus exposing students to the risk of observation as they learn.
What do you think?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Good Ideas and Unintended Consequences

I support the American Jobs Act and the $25B it allocates to school construction, but when I hear about what it’s intended to accomplish I do see a negative consequence.  This consequence is the perpetuation of obsolete schools. 
Sure, students need a safe, dry, and warm place to learn, but investing in school infrastructure should also enable schools to be better places for learning.  Research has shown that learning does improve in schools with better environments.  If a school is cold, drafty, poorly lit, has leaks in the roof and mold problems improvements simply have to be made.  When they are, students in these sorts of schools will have a marked improvement in achievement.  But what about students in schools that are already in better condition?  If the warm-safe-dry conditions are met, money is likely to go to energy improvement and deferred maintenance, items that do not have as great an impact.
If the school being renovated is arranged as an egg crate double loaded corridor, if teachers work in isolation, and the skills being taught are for the 19th century not the 21st, aren’t we just perpetuating obsolescence by renovating such a school?  The goal of the Jobs Act is to create jobs quickly.  These will mainly be construction and manufacturing jobs.  The rush to create them means that using the money quickly will be more important than using the money wisely. 
A better approach might be to fund innovation.  Funding school projects that are trying new things and are changing the status quo rather than perpetuating it would be a better tactic, but would not create the jobs at the rate the country needs.
Making an obsolete school last longer doesn’t mean it is less obsolete.