Better chairs for better learning?

Better chairs (and desks) for better learning? On Slate, Linda Perlstein looks at readers’ suggestions for improving school furniture, which typically is designed to be cheap and indestructible.

Ergonomists recommend adjustable classroom seats and desks, but schools rarely fit the desk and chair to the student and keep them together, Perlstein writes.

One ergonomist recommends letting short students sit on a Swedish air-filled cushion that has the added advantage of bounciness. Movement is good for the body and the mind.

. . . ergonomists who have watched well-behaved children at standing-height tables or in bouncy chairs in Sweden or New Zealand or Canada insist that innovative furniture makes students pay more attention, not less.

Galen Cranz, a Berkeley professor of architecture and design, and author of “The Chair as Health Hazard,” thinks students shouldn’t sit at all.

She recommends higher, tilting tables that allow students to perch or stand, or exercise balls, which have the added benefit of keeping kids awake. There seems to be agreement among ergonomists about the value of perching, with the legs at a 120-degree rather than 90-degree angle—keeping the hips above the knees is good for the body, and the position has been adopted in some European schools. They disagree, though, about the balls.

Many children and adults will manage to find weird ways of sitting in the most ergonomically correct furniture, Perlstein concedes.

Slate is soliciting classroom redesign ideas from its readers.

Design a 21st-century clasroom

Design a 21st-century fifth-grade classroom — one that Laura Ingalls Wilder wouldn’t recognize instantly – as part of Slate’s “Hive.”  The deadline is Oct. 29.  The winning design may be built as a model classroom in a new charter school.  

The “open classroom” of the 1970s — no walls, lots of noise — made school redesign look bad, concedes Linda Perlstein.  “Teachers taught as they always had, just with far more noise to shout over. The lesson was obvious: Education reform must start with educators, not architects.”

The 21st-century imperative is to closely monitor students’ individual progress and teach them accordingly. Teachers are supposed to work together to analyze data and coordinate their approaches. Most classes include at least some traditional instruction: one teacher up front, addressing 20 or 30 students. But it is also common for students to work on projects in small groups, for aides to conduct “interventions” with a few kids around a table, and for teachers to assess children one at a time. Where the space has not been modified accordingly–which is to say, most everywhere–you see lots of kids sprawling on cold tile floors and huddling in converted closets.

Many top-performing schools are getting the job done in rectangular rooms filled with desks, Perlstein writes.  “Classrooms in South Korea, which is kicking our ass in international rankings, look like ours do, just with far more kids packed in.”

If you want to shoot a movie set in a 1950s’ school, go to a Catholic school.  Many teach very well in old-fashioned buildings.

New school buildings usually feature at least one soaring atrium, and a lot of skylights and windows, Perlstein writes. “Some experts think sunlight helps learning. (Then again, there are architects are designing schools without eye-level windows, for security’s sake.)”

 Hallways are bigger, and when you see students hanging out there during class, they’re not cutting. They’re working. There are more carpets, fewer lockers. Some schools are LEED-certified. They have started to embrace technology, albeit haphazardly: interactive whiteboards, laptops, Wi-Fi, more convenient electrical outlets.

The emerging new model of classroom design should take advantage of changes in the way schools teach. In places where schools have moved away from the idea of teachers as sole practitioners, away from the science-then-reading-then-math-then-social-studies way of breaking up the day, and away from treating students as a mass toward treating them as individuals, some innovative classrooms have emerged. Architects have begun to toss out the usual set of spaces–classroom, cafeteria, auditorium, gym, hallway–for more flexible layouts.

  Read Slate’s terms and conditions, then submit a written description, and preferably a sketch, of your fifth-grade classoom of tomorrow. Entries already are coming in.  You can comment on entries and vote for your favorites.

How to stop bullies

Bullies can be stopped, but it takes a village. write Alan E. Kazdin and Carlo Rotella on Slate. The common solutions — tell your kid to stand up to the bully, tell your kid to ignore the bully, call the bully’s parents, ask the teacher to intervene — usually don’t work. One kid — already identified as vulnerable — can’t do it alone.  They recommend a strategy developed in Norway that engages the whole school community in identifying and suppressing bullying.

There are some useful ideas:

Problem-solve with your child. Problem solving is a more precise term than you might think—a procedure in psychology that has been well studied. It consists of first identifying and stating the problem (“So, Jack is picking on you at recess …”) and then prompting and encouraging the identification of potential strategies or solutions (“So, what are some things you/we might do?”). One reasonable goal would be to identify two or three possible ways of handling the situation or general approaches to the problem. Bear in mind that the objective here is to reduce or eliminate the bully’s opportunities to intimidate your child in a place where no adults are watching—so you can work on doing more to stay within the range of adult supervision, for instance, or to minimize exposure in unsupervised places. For each strategy, identify what its consequences might be. (“OK, one strategy is to go to the teacher. If you went to the teacher, what would happen?”) Talk out each strategy and its potential results. When you have identified two or three, select together which might be the best and discuss why. This trains your child in a critical process as well as helping to identify a realistic solution that your child is likely to buy into, which increases its chance of being effective.

When I was a kid, bullying was a boy thing, though teasing was unisex.  It was held down by a common ethic usually expressed as: Pick on someone your own size.  It even applied to Carlo, who’d been held back twice and was much bigger than the other fifth graders. But he was clearly unable to fight his own battles, so a bunch of boys went after the kid who’d broken Carlo’s finger. The village failed to beat up the bully, because he pulled a knife in self-defense, leading to a suspension. Nobody picked on Carlo again.

Does it have to be about race?

Categorizing by race and focusing on the racial achievement gap is perilous, writes William Saletan on Slate.

“Lower-performing 9- and 13-year-olds make gains,” says one section of the NAEP report.”No significant change for 17-year-olds at any performance level,” says another. “Reading scores improve for 9-year-old public and private school students over long term,” says a third. “Score increases for 17-year-olds whose parents did not finish high school,” says a fourth. These tables organize the data by factors that can help us target and adjust educational policy: kids with low scores, kids in public school, kids in high school, kids whose parents didn’t graduate. I’d like to see tables for income and spending per pupil, too. But race? Does that category really help? And what message does it send to kids when headlines assert a persistent “racial gap”?

Socioeconomic factors, such as parents’ education and income, don’t explain racial and ethnic differences. For example, middle-class blacks score lower than average, while low-income Asian-American students earn above-average scores. I’d like to see schools work harder at creating a culture of learning within the school and explaining to parents how they can support this culture at home.

Recession education

In the recession, does advanced education really pay off? Slate’s Emily Bazelon asks 20somethings how they’re planning their futures.

“College and graduate school are generally a good bet,” she starts. “But it doesn’t tell you that every single degree pays off financially at every single point in time.”

As Jonathan, a college graduate in North Carolina who had been working at a used-book store, puts it, “I have a B.S. in sociology, and its value bears a strong similarity to its initials.”

She cites a Chronicle of Higher Education story, which advises would-be graduate students in the humanities: Just Don’t Go. Hide out in grad school to avoid the recession and you’ll emerge in your 30s with no experience and no money, Thomas Benton advises.

Even those with practical degrees are hurting in the short term, writes Bazelon.

Gordon, who is 29, has an undergraduate degree in computer engineering from Boston University, three years in IT, and an MBA and a master’s in information systems. How much more sturdy and practical can you get? But after a year and a half, he lost the job he got after graduation. He has $60,000 in student loans even though he had full scholarships for both undergrad and grad school (living expenses). That comes out to $500 a month for the next 10 years.

He fears that his degree is “underwater.” Experts say the educated will do fine once the economy recovers, but when’s that going to be? And will an MBA bounce back to its previous value?

My daughter’s earning a law degree from the University of Chicago in a few months.  She thought her class was the last to get seats on the gravy train, but the train has derailed. The law firm that offered her a very well-paid job, starting in the fall, has now offered her six months’ pay to defer her start for a year. She plans to do Legal Aid work without pay to gain experience. (The non-profits that used to pay a minimal wage to new lawyers have realized they don’t have to.) If the law firm job has vanished by then, well, she’ll cope. She doesn’t expect a return to the cushy days of yore.

Good order, good reading skills

In orderly homes, where educated, middle-class mothers enforce regular meal and bed times, children read better. Emily Bazelon looks at “Order in the House!” a study of middle-class kindergartners and first-graders by Anna D. Johnson and Anne Martin of Columbia’s Teachers College. Researchers looked at mothers with average reading ability and those with above-average reading skills, controlling for socioeconomic status.

Both groups of mothers were asked about how often their children are read to—and also how often they amuse themselves with books. Then the mothers were asked a separate set of questions about order at home, designed to get at what researchers call “executive function.” A few sample responses: “It’s a real zoo in our home,” “The children have a regular bedtime routine,” and “We are usually able to stay on top of things.”

. . . Surprisingly, the amount of shared parent-child reading time did not matter, on average, for the reading skills of either group of kids. What mattered instead, for the kids of average-reader mothers, was how often a child amuses herself with books. What mattered for the kids of the high-reading moms was how orderly the family’s home was.

Johnson and Martin theorize that household order reflects “maternal industriousness, planning ability, or conscientiousness.”

Maybe order helps promote reading only among the children of the high-reading mothers because it’s what the authors call a “higher order element”—in other words, it matters only once you’ve got the basics down, which means reading to your kids pre-kindergarten and surrounding them with books.

As an excellent reader and an orderly mother, I approve this study. I wonder if there’s a link between order and reading for low-income and working-class kids.

Via This Week in Education.

Illiterate in America

According to a federal literacy study,  one in seven U.S. adults can’t read well enough to understand a newspaper article, follow instructions for medications or decipher a utility bill, reports USA Today.

“They really cannot read … paragraphs (or) sentences that are connected,” says Sheida White, a researcher at the U.S. Education Department.

Slate offers suggestions for parents to help your child learn to read. None of it works for parents who can’t read well, but I suppose they’re not reading Slate.

Update: Teaching content is teaching reading, says Dan Willingham on a new video (with annoying background music). Comprehension requires background knowledge.