I listened to a presentation today by the, well, brilliant Annie Murphy Paul on her new book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. While you can read more on her blog, a big theme of the book is the idea that cognitive performance is situational. Everything from our physical environment, to how much sleep we got the night before, how distracted we are, how we feel about the person we’re talking to, and the presence or absence of electronic devices can all have huge impacts on our “intelligence,” in the context of a given task, and the variations between people from day to day can be far larger than the differences from person to person.
Of course these are ideas that most classroom teachers understand from their experience, but we don’t put these insights into practice when we are designing environments that are meant to be dedicated to learning. A big study came out recently about the drawbacks of open-plan offices, the cubicle farms that most of us are familiar with. A survey of over 42,000 workers indicated that people with individual offices were more satisfied in every possible way, from cleanliness to the visual surroundings, than those working without walls. The lack of sound privacy, or the fear of being overheard bothers 60% of open-plan office denizens, while 30% complain about the noise. Previous research shows that the sound issue hurts concentration and productivity (classroom teachers know this issue well!) Even collaboration isn’t any easier in a bullpen-style office. That’s probably because most workers resort to earphones to get anything done, and they have nowhere to hold a private conversation if they do want to talk to each other.
Of course, open-plan classrooms are the norm for kindergarten through 12th grade. A new study (sponsored by an office-furniture company, Steelcase, so take it with a grain of salt) compared students in classrooms designed for “active learning,” including dynamic grouping of seats in small and large groups, multisensory engagement at different stations around the room, as well as the use of screens and other technology, to the more traditional “rows of seats” classrooms that are all but disappearing now. “90.32% of students perceived an increase in their engagement in the class with layouts designed for active learning, 80.65% said the new layout increased their ability to achieve a higher grade, and 70.04% their motivation to attend class.”
But even with these trendier layouts, the open-plan office research indicates that something may be missing: the opportunity for students to be alone with a teacher or with their thoughts. In many schools, one-on-one tutoring has to happen in a hallway or another “accidental” space. So much classroom management effort is really spent on managing the noise-pollution issue, while sound privacy matters when a teacher needs to give a student critical feedback or just time to reflect on a question.
Where do digital devices fit into this picture? We could see students using tablets or laptops the way adults do, as a way to create zones of sound privacy via earbuds while doing solo work. But we also have to be wary that they are simply exchanging one source of distraction for another.
My fifth-grade classroom had a loft bed in the back that was a coveted spot for quiet reading and reflection time, and we would work hard to earn the chance to climb up there for a well-deserved break.What would it look like if more classrooms–or schools–built in these semi-private spaces?