The hazards of sitting

Evidence is mounting that sitting for long stretches of time — in a car, at a desk, or on the couch — is bad for our health. A sedentary way of life and spending hours sitting down seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. . . . Research by Dr. Levine and others reveals that  sitting for more than 2 hours a day is directly linked to health problems like obesity, metabolic disorders, increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and high cholesterol.

Schools are going to have to change the way they do business, from the furniture they buy to the classroom routines that seem engraved in stone. The days of students sitting in desks for an hour at a stretch, hour after hour, are coming to an end.

Listen to this excerpt from WNYC’s Leonard Lopate show:

Cringely on teaching, inspiration, and technology

This thought-provoking piece by the eclectic Robert X. Cringely caught my eye today. Here, Cringely quotes a friend who was an engineer but changed careers and became a high school math teacher:

“The problem is that I’ve found that all these things that are purported to improve student learning ignore the number one factor in student success, which is the student’s attitude toward learning and motivation,” wrote my new friend the math teacher.  “The truth is that if students are motivated to learn, they will learn, pretty much regardless of the specific format or technology that is used in the lessons themselves.  Conversely, if a student is not interested in learning, the details of how lessons are presented, technology, etc. don’t matter very much…the student will find whatever way is available to avoid learning…they may socialize with their neighbors, or frequently ask to leave the classroom to go to the bathroom, or simply try to tune out and take a nap during class.  Thus, while we focus on how teachers teach, I’m finding that the real key to student success is not so much how you teach but how you go about motivating students to want to learn, and how the systems you use in the classroom help support and encourage students to succeed even when they are not intrinsically motivated by the subject.”

Yes: inspiration comes first, as I have said before here, here, and here. Cringely goes on, however, to predict a mysterious technological solution to the problem. Cringely writes,

Motivated students succeed, but since every student is different and every student has a different way to learn best, unless we can design an individual curriculum for each kid, the system won’t be optimized. . . . The only solution I can see is one teacher per student. And the only way something close to that is going to happen is through technology.  And it’s coming.

Cringely is often on the edge, or over it, but always provocative. He’s right to focus on the problem of motivation, or inspiration, but I’m not persuaded that technology of any sort can somehow inspire every student. That takes a culture, a family, an environment, and contact with inspired and inspiring teachers.


Turn your school into Paris

The great literary critic George Steiner writes, somewhere, that just walking through the streets of Paris during his childhood was an education and an inspiration. Nearly every street and square in the city is named after someone who made a difference: scientists, poets, politicians, generals, intellectuals, labour leaders, architects, and on and on. Every intersection offers a new opportunity to remember someone notable, or to be introduced to someone notable.

What if your school were like that? What if the institutional corridors with bland descriptions like “North Wing” or even more nondescript labels like “BN300″—what if all those hallways and common areas were named after famous people, people students ought to know about but far too often don’t? What if the names and why they are notable were explained on wall plaques? What if the building itself, in other words, were enlisted in the effort to transmit a sense of history and culture to young people?

And why is such an opportunity so often missed?

Just wondering.

UPDATE 26 October 2011

I just came across this piece about “stolperstein“, brass plaques embedded in walkways all over Europe commemorating Holocaust victims. This could be used in schools, too, not to commemorate victims, but to honour great writers, thinkers, scientists, etc. There is a limited number of hallways and common rooms in any school, but a nearly unlimited amount of floor space.

School reform: you want ideas? we got ideas

In September Tom Whitby proposed that educational bloggers counterbalance the negative press in the U.S. about schools and school reform by agreeing to post their positive suggestions for improving education. All the posts were to be published on Sunday, October 17, with links added to a Wallwisher page that Tom created. Below are almost all of those links—I omitted one from a company touting their goods—over 100 in all. If I missed a link or made some other error, please let me know so that I can make the correction. —Eric

School reform: Change the culture!

Nearly a month ago Tom Whitby called for educational bloggers to take back the (mostly U.S.) debate over school reform by posting reform ideas simultaneously on October 17th. Here’s my contribution to the cause.

Most problems faced by schools are not educational, but cultural. Once a positive culture of learning is in place, needed improvements can be made. On the other hand, so long as the culture—whether it’s local, regional, or national—remains toxic to education, no efforts at school reform will succeed.

How can culture be changed? For the answer, look to advertisers. They create desires and values all the time. Their techniques are not mysterious, and their success is undeniable. Let’s use the same techniques to promote education, especially in communities where it is not highly valued.

The national government could do this with an ongoing campaign of public-service advertisements. State and local governments could contribute by naming streets, bridges, and public squares after great thinkers, writers, and artists, as is done in France. School districts (with financial assistance from the feds) could do it by increasing adult education offerings, by naming schools, hallways, and other parts of school campuses after great writers, thinkers, and artists. Etc.

Such efforts would be relatively inexpensive, but if they succeed in creating a culture that values learning, their benefits would be enormous. How can we know that? Easy. Look at communities where schools are successful, and think—what do they all have in common? Answer: a culture that values learning.