Language & Literacy


an organized classroom

Thanks to a podcast, Emerging Research in Educational Psychology, from professor Jeff Greene speaking with professor Erika Patall about a meta-analysis she was the lead author on, I learned about her paper that looked across a large number of studies to synthesize findings on the impact of classroom structure. I thought some of the high-level takeaways were well worth highlighting with you for our 4th research highlight in this series!

  • Citation: Patall, E. A., Yates, N., Lee, J., Chen, M., Bhat, B. H., Lee, K., Beretvas, S. N., Lin, S., Man Yang, S., Jacobson, N. G., Harris, E., & Hanson, D. J. (2024). A meta-analysis of teachers’ provision of structure in the classroom and students’ academic competence beliefs, engagement, and achievement. Educational Psychologist, 59(1), 42–70.

I think it’s no surprise to most educators that providing structure for kids, both in terms of the classroom environment and culture, and in terms of the design of instructional tasks, is critical to improving student learning. Part of this work is what we often term “classroom management,” but as the paper describes, the work is far more encompassing than that:

“In sum, creating structure is a multifaceted endeavor that involves a diverse assortment of teacher practices that can be used independently or in various combinations, as well as to various extents, and are all intended to organize and guide students’ school-relevant behavior in the process of learning in the classroom.”


In the attempt to close the chapter on my Schools as Ecosystems blog and move into more thinking and writing on language and literacy, I posted two very long posts, on the influence of acoustics and greenery on learning, respectively, which once were slated to be part of a book that I just couldn’t scrounge the time together to complete. One of the chapters-to-be was on the importance of air quality in learning — and damn, how timely it would have been if I could have pulled that all together pre-COVID-19?!

While I most likely won’t ever write that book, I’d still like to highlight the critical importance of air quality in schools and learning, which has become all the more apparent during a time of a respiratory virus, but which is important at all times. And since I don’t have the time to write it all up in full, I’ll post links to the threads that I had laying about in a document instead, and let you, dear reader, complete the thoughts:

The Health Impacts of Air Pollution

Roth and his team looked at students taking exams on different days – and also measured how much pollution was in the air on those given days. All other variables remained the same: The exams were taken by students of similar levels of education, in the same place, but over multiple days.

He found that the variation in average results were staggeringly different. The most polluted days correlated with the worst test scores. On days where the air quality was cleanest, students performed better.

To determine the long-term effects, Roth followed up to see what impact this had eight to 10 years later. Those who performed worst on the most polluted days were more likely to end up in a lower-ranked university and were also earning less, because the exam in question was so important for future education. —HOW AIR POLLUTION IS DOING MORE THAN KILLING US” BY MELISSA HOGENBOOM IN BBC FUTURE

The Impact of Indoor Air Quality on Learning

When the level of fresh air in the classrooms was increased, the students performed up to seven per cent better than when they were working on the tests in their usual indoor climates. The study also revealed that the students did not themselves notice that they were not quite as astute in the poorer climate. —“BAD AIR QUALITY MAKES CHILDREN PERFORM WORSE IN SCHOOLS” BY JONAS SALOMONSEN IN SCIENCENORDIC

Southern California’s air agency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, earmarked settlements from polluting companies and other funds to cover the cost of such filtration at about 80 schools near freeways or other pollution sources. Nothing’s preventing other states from following the same model. “The technology is well established, the installation is straightforward and the maintenance is simple,” said district spokesman Sam Atwood, who doesn’t recall officials from other states getting in touch to learn from his agency’s experience. —“THE INVISIBLE HAZARD AFFLICTING THOUSANDS OF SCHOOLS” BY JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS FOR THE CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY

The Relationship of Air Pollution to COVID-19

#ecosystems #schools #learning #airquality #pollution #environment #health


“Compared to most of the interventions aimed at relieving stress (e.g. emotional skill building, anger management, positive behavior programs), placing trees and shrubs on the school ground is a modest, low-cost intervention that is likely to have long-lasting effects on generations of students.”

—Li & Sullivan, 2016

When Joe walks around his neighborhood, he is surrounded by sepia-toned brick buildings. When he goes to bed at night, he sleeps, fitfully, to the vehicular chorus of the Grand Concourse, a symphony of sirens, revving motors, car alarms, and bass blasting from souped up subwoofers. His access to nature is primarily derived from TV shows and a small city park a few blocks away, scattered with trash-strewn weeds. Joe (not any of my former students’ real name) is a 5th grader living in a dense urban area of the Bronx.


With a classroom having good acoustical characteristics, learning is easier, deeper, more sustained, and less fatiguing.

The Acoustical Society of America, in its introduction to Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements, and Guidelines for Schools, Part 1: Permanent Schools

When I first moved to NYC from California, I was taken aback by the unceasing din. In our first apartment, my wife and I were treated to an all-night alleyway party each weekend by our downstairs neighbors. In desperation, we bought a white noise machine, but this proved to be a mostly futile gesture.

Our second apartment was perched above a popular nightspot, which considerately recycled its beer bottles outside our bedroom window at three AM every morning. We got an additional white noise machine and put up layers of cardboard against the windows. But outside of professional acoustical treatment, there’s no hiding the intense, high decibel sound of twenty-five gallons of beer sodden glass bottles slamming repeatedly into their brethren as they are dumped into a bin.


Well, so now–if you are one of the 4 people that has happened to read the earlier blogs–you are probably muttering unto yourself, “Manderson, what in the hell are you talking about? A school as an ecosystem doesn’t really make any much more sense than foundational systems of interconnectivity! Come off it already!”

But I feel I must persist, regardless, as this is one of the few avenues I have in which to ponder semi-abstract thoughts in regards to the systems in which I am currently embedded as a public school teacher. Let’s be honest: not many teachers in my school would care to sit down over whiskey and discuss the public school system as a whole, unless it accounts for a preponderance of venting and complaining. So I continue brazenly–or perhaps snoozingly–on the aforementioned topic: school culture.

School Culture

In my last job in retail management, our company would talk about the “intangibles” in leadership training sessions. What they were referring to were things such as how a customer feels when they leave a store, the interactions that were had through conversations between customers and staff, and the overall sense of happiness or adventure that a customer might feel in the store. Another way of stating the idea of intangibles when we are discussing business is “anything that you can’t gauge by a dollar sign.” But the fact is, that company is extremely savvy because they explicitly recognized that their bottom line would be enhanced by paying attention to things that might not be immediately quantifiable. And believe me, that company is doing pretty darn good when it comes to their bottom line. Because they pay attention to something that many businesses (and as I will now begin to examine–schools) do not take into consideration: the culture of their everyday business.

Similarly, in schools across the nation, children and adults every day enter buildings where they may succumb to a sense of drudgery, fear, paranoia, and even just plain chaos. The reasons for this reality are myriad, but one of the things you will hear frequently referred to when you talk about problems in education is the whole test-taking and accountability thing. You’ll hear horror stories from teachers about having to “teach to the test”. In public education, the tests are to schools what the bottom line is to a business. All decisions are made based on the tests, more or less. Such is the nature of things, currently. I’m a centrist on such matters, and believe that at some point you have to measure something.

But as the teachers and their unions oft so angrily point out, there is much more to teaching and to students than what shows up on a singular data point from a test. And one could argue that what does show up on a test has as much to do with factors that are contextual, not merely a matter of an individual teacher nor an individual student. Just as the company I mentioned previously enhanced their bottom line and profited from addressing “intangibles” directly, so too could a school raise the test scores of their students if they spent more attention to factors within the school that have nothing to do directly with the test.

Now let’s be careful here. We all know that there are things going on in students’ lives that may affect their academic performance that are beyond the purview of any school. But what we’re talking about here are the intangibles that are under a school’s control.

We’re talking about the feeling that you get before you even walk in the front door. And we’re not just talking about the signs, the display cases, the bulletin boards, the colors–-although all of those things factor into it. We’re not just talking about whether the school follows some program of anti-bullying or anti-drugs or a social skills or life skills program.

We’re talking about how students talk to each other. How adults talk to each other. How adults talk to students.

The everyday interactions, relationships, and rituals that foster and nurture a community. These are things that are perhaps largely intangible and not easily quantified (unless one is trained to quantify such things), but certainly worth investing attention and care in.

I would be willing to place a bet that if research were conducted that attempted to quantify the presence of a school culture, they would discover that school culture correlates highly with student performance on tests. In other words, they would find that something so fuzzy as how happy or accepted students and adults feel overall would result in stronger performance on state tests. It would also most likely correlate with greater retention of effective teachers.

#relationships #ecosystems #schools #schoolculture #interconnectivity #environment #learning

In my last post, I pontificated in a rather abstract manner on the field of education, and advocated for the need for nurturing an increase in foundational systems of interconnectivity. I believe quite strongly in this concept, and I would like to begin exploring it in more practical and substantive terms in a series of blog posts. But first of all: what the hell do I even mean by foundational systems of interconnectivity?

What we’re really talking about here is the concept of a school as an ecosystem. You can’t disconnect or isolate any one component from the other without considering its relation to many other interrelated parts. For example, you can’t completely isolate a student in a classroom from the collective student body in that classroom, nor that classroom from the collective student body in the grade, nor school. You can’t completely isolate a student from their family, nor community, nor society. You can’t isolate a teacher from the professional collective of teachers and staff in the school, nor from the administration and its policies, nor from the state and federal funding and policies.

So in consideration of the school as an ecosystem, we must:

  • acknowledge interrelationships and connections when considering subgroups or individuals by:

    • considering the school culture
    • considering the community and culture of the student population that the school serves
    • considering societal expectations and norms

If we can begin to analyse the components of what I outlined above, we then can begin exploring how we can better harmonize those considerations in order to best foster the conditions for a well-balanced school ecosystem.

#ecosystems #schools #schoolculture #environment