Thursday, September 1, 2011

How Does School Environment Shape Teenagers' Behaviors?

Herb Childress (2000) in his ethnographic study, Landscapes of Betrayal, Landscapes of Joy, spent considerable time learning about teenagers from a northern California exurb and theorizing about how their environment affects the way they behave. Childress explains that there were three questions that framed his study:
I had built my study on three simple questions: How do teenagers use spaces? How do they apply meanings and values to any particular place? How do conflicts about those places arise between teens and adults and between particular subsets of teens, and how are those conflicts resolved? (p.254).
In the context of answering those questions, Childress comes to name thirteen pairs of competing ideas that he labels as modernist  and existential. I couldn't help but consider how the ambiguities that Childress frames in his study of how teenagers live and behave with the sensibilities that inform high school design. In what ways does our rather modernist secondary school environments shape teenager's behavior?  What might happen if the assumptions that informed school design were less modernist and more existential?

Childress's list:

Modernist idea #1: Kids and adults should be separate.
Existential idea #1: Kids and adults should be integrated, with teenagers welcome in the adult

Modernist idea #2: Children are the passive receivers of education and services.
Existential idea #2: Real learning involves an active search for experience and knowledge.

Modernist idea #3: We live in a national and global economy, and mobility is inevitable.
Existential idea #3: The local is of deep and lasting importance.

Modernist idea #4: Conflicts are decided in favor of those who have the resources to prevail.
Existential idea #4: Conflicts are decided in favor of the person or group with fewer resources to buffer any ill effects.

Modernist idea #5: Economies of scale are sensible in all areas of life.
Existential idea #5: Small and many are beautiful.

Modernist #6: People are, most centrally, consumers.
Existential idea #6: People are, most centrally, citizens.

Modernist idea #7: Objective, consistent, and encompassing rules and codes are the basis for interaction.
Existential idea #7: Negotiated agreements are both achievable and desirable.

Modernist idea #8: Social classes and their neighborhoods should be separate.
Existential idea #8: Social classes should claim their own spaces, but should also come into regular contact with each other as citizens and equals.

Modernist idea #9: Business, services, and residences should be separate.
Existential idea #9: Zoning should be primarily by scale of development rather than by type.

Modernist idea #10: Countryside is a necessary refuge from undesirable city living.
Existential idea #10: Countryside and city life both contribute to a complex, satisfying landscape.

Modernist idea #11: High densities of people are unsafe and unhealthy.
Existential idea #11: Concentration of people can encourage social connection and public safety.

Modernist idea #12: Home and land ownership is the key to community.
Existential idea #12: Easy social contact is the key to community.

Modernist idea #13: Places should closely fit their specialized functions.
Existential idea #13: Environments should be easily converted to new and multiple uses.

Childress concludes his study by stating that the presence of joy is the factor most important in what works and doesn't seem to work in teenagers' lives.  Childress writes:

After a year, I think I know some of those answers, and the idea of joy is at the heart of all of them.
That sounds simple, perhaps na├»ve. But I came to Curtisville in July, and became more and more depressed the more I learned. Here I was, in this growing community of new homes and businesses; in a school with a multi-million dollar budget, mostly staffed with competent, concerned people. Both the kids and the adults were telling me that something was missing, and I could tell that something was missing, but I couldn’t tell what it was. I was more and more concerned about the lack of satisfaction and intensity and desire that I saw. I couldn’t put my finger on the problem.
And then, in the middle of November, I came to the short performances of the Advanced Theater Workshop. These kids did demanding work under difficult and tense conditions with a live audience, and they were absolutely great. And the difference was joy. The love for what they were doing was so clear, all over their faces and through their motions, it just burned off the stage. And joy was what I’d seen in those handful of classes that "worked." Joy was what I’d heard in the laughing, teasing conversations on the Quad and at the Arco station. Joy was the fuel that moved skateboards and horses and pickup trucks. And joy was what was missing from most of Curtisville, and from most of it’s high school as well. I just didn’t have the word before. (254-55)

How do we engender spaces where joy is more important, more salient than core content standards and an endless sea of standardized tests and the accompanying narrow pedagogy that gets enacted in order for students to get ready for such minutia?  How do we build spaces where the emphasis on learning is invitational?  Where error is not counted as points that detract from "proficiency", but is understood as an important marker along a road of learning?

Joy resides alongside agency.

Imagine 'school' as community, where the barriers between teenagers (all of them*) and their communities are not built on a segregationist model, but rather one that deliberately seeks to integrate, involve, and welcome the teen into the adult community as partner.

floorplan and connect these learners with adults in their own community?


  1. oh Mary Ann... i love this. i'm assuming you read the book. i must get it no? or have you shared the crux here?

    it's lovely.
    thank you.

    think i'll add a sentence of yours from this post and link it in the be you book.

  2. I recently reordered the book to reread. I am only attending to the end of the story. The details of how he comes to name these 13 pairs is illustrated throughout the book.

  3. I love the thoughtful ideas you present here every day, or when you post, anyway. And the ideas about this "existential" world sound as lovely as monika above says.

    But I'm a practical guy, so I wonder where this place is. Is there a model school that incorporates these ideas successfully? Does that school include a diverse population of learners with a wide range of resources and support? Because this kind of place would require community and family support with both money and time.

    Of course teenagers are going to get invested when they experience the joy that comes with learning. So if they get too frustrated as a reader, should they just not read? I don't get the physics, so I guess I won't get any joy today?

    I'm probably stating the obvious here. It's a pleasant dream. How do we get the students there?

  4. Along with Brent and many others, I enjoy reading these near-daily posts. They are thoughtful, inspirational, and stretch my daily efforts to design a classroom and lessons to reach all learners.

    I share Brent's feelings (I hate to call it skepticism... argh!) with regard to practicality of this educational nirvana that Maryann often describes. Students of all ages bring so many issues to the bear on a daily basis, and dealing with them in the ring-a-bell factory model seems counter to the Maryann's paradigm... BUT it is the hand we are dealt, along with standards AND along with misguided administrators who need to see every 'i' dotted and 't' crossed in the lockstep CCSS view of achieving said standards.

    I think the best way to deal with this konundrum is to simply acknowledge its existence and simply work hard to incorporate JOY and MEANING into every lesson. Grant responsibility to all students and do not fault them for failure, any more than we would fault a beginning skier for falling time after time.

    Teach on!

  5. Hi Mary Ann,

    This is extremely interesting. As I've been studying and reflecting more about "networks of learning", related to your rhizome approach; Monika's notion of "community/life as school, with the city as a floor plan"; the network topology and interaction design of Kelly's Learning Genome, and our related networks of learning, I'm stumbling into relevant literature from the field of architecture that has many parallels in how we would architect learning environments - physical ones that are augmented with collaborative networks and technology to record learning experiences, provide spaces to reflect, affinity spaces to collaborate, and offer additional paths of discovery.

    I recently discovered Christopher Alexander's brilliant 1965 essay: "A city is not a tree" which was acknowledged by his peers with the 1965 Kaufmann International Design Awards. It discusses how a top down structure (with similar notions to the modernist approach highlighted above) ill serves living communities, and Alexander walks through various examples demonstrating the differences between an emergent organizing network of participants within a city, compared to "town planners" who architect with a top down "tree" approach.

    You can find archived versions of part 1 and part 2 - it was interesting that I later stumbled into a post by Clay Shirky who also felt the essay mirrors the ongoing growth of the global social web today.

    There's also a great commentary wiki on Christopher Alexander's work that has more illustrations of the topology reflecting the ideas highlighted in your post. Lots of food for thought.

    - Ian

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  7. Thanks Ian for the links. Read the essay "A City is not a tree" and had time sitting still while reading as the work resonated so much. Deleuze wrtes: "We’re tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles. They’ve made us suffer too much.”

    I agree with Alexander when he writes: "Still more important is the fact that the semilattice is potentially a much more complex and subtle structure than a tree."

    Rob has one of his books that I will look for.

    Thank you:)

  8. @Brent and @Anonymous
    I read and reread your comments. I do believe there are models that incorporate the existential tenets listed above. I am busy trying to get an alt to HS launched as well. A few well established alternatives include: Dennis Litkky's Big Picture schools ( ), Ron Berger's work with expeditionary schools ( ), Monika Hardy's Be You (, Michael McCabe's Kornerstone School ( and so on.

    They help us to know that we can change the hand dealt. In My We Are Pando post I suggest that connecting innovators is a way to disrupt the status quo.

  9. ... will be investigating these links in depth... thank you!

  10. Environment and Behavior confirms the belief that environments considered negative by the child do indeed cause emotions and environment should be good to the students and it should be very useful to the students.
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