Classroom Setup (It Matters)

“As I was writing Brain Rules, it hit me [that] if you wanted to design a learning environment that was directly opposed to what the brain is naturally good at doing, you would design something like a classroom (Medina, 2009).”

I have ended well more than 100 keynotes with that quote since I first read it a decade ago.  As more and more research is initiated, as more and more hypothesis are put to the test, and as more and more of our world becomes measurable, it only makes sense that we know more about ourselves, our processes, and our world than ever before.  But of course knowing that we are doing things wrong and actually fixing them are very different matters, no?

Look.  Reasonable people (meaning those without agendas, axes to grind, etc) know that how we school is bad.  We often talk about “industrial” education (vs modern), but rarely do I hear people offer more than examples of desks in rows or school bells.  The problem is far more significant than a few process drivers.  It goes much deeper and the end results are profound.  I have a very good friend who works for a K12 curriculum company who said to me, “Why are people who build a mousetrap surprised when they catch a mouse?”  Let me start that part of the conversation with another quote – a very important one:

“We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”

Woodrow Wilson said that in 1909.  He was not the US President at the time, but the President of Princeton.  However, the timing of the quote is crucial.  Well documented by dozens of organizations and people including Research Fellow Peter G Klein, teacher-turned-activist John Taylor Gotto, and others, is that this time period was when schooling, as we know it today, was architected.  And architected is an important word – education was engineered or constructed for various social purposes from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s.

There is a famous story of Horace Mann, during a visit to Prussia in the mid 1800’s, noting that free and compulsory education could be delivered at scale, so as to promote national literacy.  The notion of 1 teacher in 1 classroom with students in rows engineered obedience, control, and was actually noted to promote fear and loneliness, which would also be perfect for an emerging industrial society.

So, put together the framework of a soon-to-be President with the social engineering of education (by men like Mann and Ellwood P Cubberley), and the classrooms of 1900, which look almost exactly like the classrooms of today, are pushed out for every student in the land.  All focus at the front for the teacher, the board, and the information, with students in rows, quietly reading books, and absorbing information, only speaking when spoken to and only taking breaks when a bell rang – that was the recipe they agreed to, as created by Cubberley.

So here is where I typically would go off about how unbelievably hard it would be to derail such a train.  Just changing the desired outcome for students without re-engineering the way teachers are recruited, students are processed, schools are built, classrooms are set up, and a million other things, would be futile.  Trying to take those same spaces and conditions so as to teach thinking, creativity, and connectedness would be counter intuitive AND counter-productive.  (Why ARE people who build a mousetrap surprised when they catch a mouse…?)

But…as much as I want to finish THAT rabbit trail, I won’t.  It’s not the point of the blog.  The point of the blog isn’t the philosophy behind the classroom…it’s the classroom itself.

Here are a few things we ‘know’ (meaning they can be replicated over and over) about learning in a classroom:

1.     If you are in a classroom that does not promote moderate, ambient noise (like the sound of a busy cafe at lunch time), it is harder to be creative.  Researchers found that a moderate (vs. low) level of ambient noise is likely to induce processing disfluency or processing difficulty, which activates abstract cognition and consequently enhances creative performance. A high level of noise, however, reduces the extent of information processing, thus impairing creativity. (

2.     Standing and moving are crucially linked not only to learning, but better health in general.  Katz, Mulder, and Nico (2015) illustrated the immediate benefits of standing to learn and moving to learn in an educational context.  Just as sedentary lifestyles impact workers (and non-workers) in relation to obesity, satisfaction, and learning, those same issues are prevalent in classrooms.

3.     Students in lecture based classes are 1.5 times more likely to fail and average 5% lower on exams.  Science Insider (May, 2014) reported that lectures are not just boring, but that they are ineffective.  Is this the classroom’s fault?  Of course not.  But when a space is designed for a lecture, and users only see lectures promoted there…

4.     Speaking of boring, The Telegraph (2009) reported that School Boredom is more than just a state of mind.  The angst, anger, and frustration associated with boredom are actually a psychological condition.

5.     And what does that boredom do to our bodies?  We now know that bored people see a flood of cortisol in their blood, in as little as 7 minutes.  You know cortisol – the hormone associated with depression, weight gain, immunity suppression, stress, sleep disorders, and memory loss.  (Oh the irony – bored students actually create a hormone preventing retention of information…) From the National Post:

Theories have been tested and connections have been made: Bored people don’t live as long. Bored people are not as emotionally aware. Bored people tend not to have clear life goals. “We all experience it, but we just dismiss it as something that is relatively trivial,” says Mark Fenske, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Guelph. “Boredom is associated with very serious problems: depression, problems with work productivity.”  You can also be bored to death. In 2010, researchers at University College London analyzed questionnaires completed by 7,524 civil servants between the ages of 35 to 55 in the late ‘80s. Those who reported a great deal of boredom were more likely to have died upon a follow-up than those who had not reported feeling bored.

 Ok, ok…so I’m guessing many of you are now saying that these are teaching issues, not classroom issues.  Even standing and moving can be overcome if a practitioner chose to do so.  (Of course  most don’t but…)  Just because spaces are designed to foster certain behaviors does not mean we have to use them as such.  Fair enough.  So let’s get more specific.  What about this finding – quite recent – reported by Nature.  Our planet is seeing a huge increase in myopia.  What used to be 15-20% of teens and adolescents is, in some countries, as high as 90-95%.

For a long time, researchers tried desperately to figure out what was happening.  Books!  Many people decried the copious amounts of reading kids were now doing in schools (and for homework) as the culprit.  This helped explain why Asians were seeing larger rises in myopia – their students had more schooling in a day and did more homework.  But try as they might, researchers simply could not make it stick.  Then came the wave of screens and monitors in our world.  A-ha!  Perhaps that was why myopia took another jump!  But again, screen time couldn’t be found to hurt the eyes, no matter how hard people tried.  So what was it?

Ian Morgan, of the Australian National University in Canberra, started his own research stream around myopia in 2009.  And he (quite literally) stumbled onto what looks like the culprit.  In their interview regiment, the researchers asked a broad swath of questions.  “Sort of as an afterthought, we asked about sports and outdoorsy stuff.”  And bingo.  As much as they wanted to dismiss it, the same thing kept coming up.  Spend less than 3 hours per day under 10,000 lux of light, and myopia rates go up.

So what is 10,000 lux of light?  It’s the equivolent of sitting under a shady tree with sunglasses on, during a sunny afternoon.

So what is NOT 10,000 lux of light?  A classroom, office, or just about anything else with a florescent bulb.  (About 500 lux)

It seems the bright light (aka sunlight) actually releases dopamine into the eye disallowing elongation.  And without enough of that dopamine security shield…the eye elongates, and myopia is the result.

Once again, you may now start to argue that it is not the fault of a classroom that students don’t get enough sunlight.  Students may have a legitimate shot at an hour of sun during the school day and likely more than two after school…or do they?

As the eyes can become myopic at almost any age, all students may find it hard to get enough lux in a day.  K-6 students, who are often in their classrooms as the sun comes up, are being given less and less recess time to cope with faltering outcomes.  The equation is a century old – more time learning must equal better test results.  (I’ll not tackle that fallacy in this blog…)  But what about Gym Class?  That may be a time to go outside.  But now we have to start asking how many schools still have physical education, and of those that do, how many hold P.E. outside?  After school it’s 2-3 hours of homework, even for 1st graders, plus finding time for dinner and a bath…

7-12th graders are likely not much better.  The big difference there is they typically start school a bit later and therefore end later.  (Less afternoon sun is then available to them.)  Pile on the 3-6 hours of homework they are expected to finish, plus dinner, etc., and is it any wonder that with their 5 extra minutes they quickly start a video game or instant messaging with their friends?

But what about college students?  Whether traditional or not, students have class time, transit time, 3-4 hours of homework time per class, work, and then if they hope to have any social life, there is a club or activity for community building.  Some of those things could be performed outside, but most are likely not.

How can I say that these things aren’t happening?  How can I claim to know that our students are inside too much?  Not because I know the class schedules of every school in the land, but because I know that our young people are developing myopia faster than ever.  Yes, we can fix it with glasses and fix it for a time with surgery, and we likely will.  But wouldn’t a world where school was designed to help people learn, live, and thrive be a wonderful thing?  From philosophical underpinnings to engineered spaces…it’s time for some new thinking.  It’s time for some remixing.  It’s time for some learning innovation.

Good luck and good learning.