In this article, three major potential distractions to learning are identified, which trusted school leaders avoid: (1) School Plant Distractions, (2) Technology Distractions, and (3) Safety Distractions.
1. School Plant Distractions
School leaders must plan and manage the school campus’s physical elements, from heating and ventilating systems to safety features, based on a model of optimum achievement desired and lowest costs possible. This is a challenging balancing act that, when performed well, is a discipline that protects teachers and students alike from being distracted from learning.
Every school is unique in the makeup of student populations and communities and physical location and surroundings. Before providing specific solutions and directions, a detailed analysis must be conducted of each school’s environs. Once those factors are identified, and contextualization is made, plans can be developed to establish optimum-achievement at the lowest possible costs.
The question that school leaders need to ask regarding the various requisite school plant systems (e.g., heating and ventilation) is, “How does this system impact learning?” For example, research shows that whenever possible, ventilation systems should be controlled separately within each classroom, as the ability to control classroom temperature can have a measurable impact on teachers and students’ performance.
Another example of how facilities support or detract from learning is lighting. Studies conclude the more natural light is entering the classroom, the better. Students with high natural light levels outperform their peers by 20% in math and 26% on reading tests.
In sanitation and plumbing, schools typically and rightfully are concerned with toilet facilities that are adequate for students. The restroom equipment is sized and positioned appropriately for the age of the students utilizing those facilities. An area that is often overlooked, however, is air sanitation. Schools’ poor air quality is the source of numerous problems for students, faculty, and staff. For example, asthma is the leading cause of absenteeism, responsible for more than 20 million missed school days in the U.S. per year. One study has shown that after installing an electromagnetic air cleaner in classrooms, absenteeism dropped from 8.3% to 3.7%.
From the perspective of someone who has personally suffered significant hearing loss, is dependent on hearing aids, and lives with chronic tinnitus (as does 5-10% of the American population), the research regarding the poor acoustic quality of schools is deeply disturbing. Not only does excessive and constant noise result in eventual hearing loss and other impairments, but it also diminishes learning. High levels of background noise, much of it from heating and cooling systems, adversely affects learning environments and comprehension. One major study identified that many classrooms have a speech intelligibility rating of less than 75%. In other words, students with normal hearing can understand only 75% of the words read from a list.
2. Technology Distractions
High-tech audiovisual tools in the classroom today are the blackboards of generations past. Data projectors, mimeos, smart boards, document cameras, iPads, and more have contributed to a very different classroom experience than even a decade earlier, especially as the costs for these tools continue to decrease. However, having the infrastructure to support technology-rich classrooms is another major challenge for school leaders, which can distract from learning rather than support learning.
As the demand for technology in the classroom grew in the U.S.A., one study in the early 2000s identified that nearly half of all schools in the U.S. lacked the basic electrical wiring to support the new technology. That challenge has not diminished. Now with the demands of high-speed internet and wireless devices, schools face the challenge of providing campus-wide access and support – and these challenges will never stop. Schools will always need to keep pace with technological advances. School leaders must protect teachers from the many potential distractions resulting from poor planning, poor implementation, and poor school technology maintenance.
3. Safety Distractions
Paramount in the design and planning mode of schools, as well as throughout the life of a school campus, is safety; this includes physical and psychological safety, potential hazards, crime, accidents, and medical emergencies, weather and other natural disasters, data protection, and many others – all of which need to be considered, ideally, before the doors of the school open.
A safe campus results in an atmosphere that fosters learning. A safe environment is a basic need for students, faculty, and staff. This basic need for a secure environment is essential for learning. Every decision regarding the school plant must be filtered through safety and security, whether it is a major construction project or a hallway-cleaning schedule. Ensuring the well-being of stakeholders must always come first.
Buildings, grounds, and equipment by their nature deteriorate with use as of day one. Therefore, detailed maintenance strategies and protocols must be in place. School plant management, operation, and maintenance, genuinely grounded in supporting a student-centered environment, embraces the adage, “It is all about the learning.” According to Maria Montessori and her fellow Italian educator Loris Malaguzzi, “Everything that is material affects the child’s temperament and development. In a conducive environment, a child can learn many things without being taught in traditional ways.”
In a non-conducive environment, the school plant inhibits learning rather than allowing it to take place. A quick example from my own experience as a principal involved helping our Facilities Manager recognize that his crew mowing lawns while classes were in the session did not support learning but created an audible and visual distraction for students and teachers. Once he understood that his role and his crew’s work were just as vital as the teachers to enhance and support learning, he was greatly affirmed in his role within the school community. He also made changes that enhanced the overall learning environment of the school. He, too, began to process his decisions by asking first, “How does this affect student learning?”
When leaders at every level process school plants need through the lens of learning and safety, they realize that nearly every part of the campus is, can, and should be an effective learning environment. There are many learning environments beyond the classroom. For pre-school and elementary programs, perhaps chief among them is the playground. Large amounts of research show the tremendous value of playgrounds in supporting student learning – but those playgrounds must be S.A.F.E. That acronym stands for:
- Age-appropriate design
- Equipment maintenance
Olsen, Hudson, and Thompson, who founded the National Program for Playground Safety, have identified the above four elements as essential indicators to guide school leaders in the operation of playgrounds that genuinely support learning. Trusted school leaders also identify the value of a similar approach to cafeterias, auditoriums, community gathering spaces, libraries, green spaces, athletic facilities, computer and robotics labs, science labs, space dedicated to innovation, etc.
Protecting teachers and students from distractions born out of school plant issues is most effective during initial school plant planning and site selection. One of the fundamental and most frequently seen problems during a school design and construction phase is the lack of the right people at the design table. Even if they are, they do not necessarily know how to communicate effectively with each other.
Careful and strategic budgeting and planning, focused on facility maintenance and meeting students’ ever-changing needs, is an essential discipline of trusted school leaders, which results in protecting teachers from numerous potential distractions, and contributes to a high level of trust.
©Toby A. Travis, Ed.D. All Rights Reserved.
Additional Recommended Reading:
- Daniel R. Tomal and Craig A. Schilling, Resource Management for School Administrators: Optimizing Fiscal, Facility, and Human Resources (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).
- P. J. C. Sleegers, N. M. Moolenaar, M. Galetzka, A. Pruyn, B.E. Sarroukh, and B. V. D. Zande, “Lighting affects students’ concentration positively: Findings from three Dutch studies,” Lighting Research and Technology (2012).
- “What is Tinnitus?” Hearing Health Foundation, accessed 4 June 2016, http://hearinghealthfoundation.org/what_is_tinnitus.
- Pamela Woolner and Elaine Hall, “Noise in schools: A holistic approach to the issue,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 7, no. 8 (2010).
- John S. Brown, “21st Century Learning Environments,” Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2006).
- Joel D. Levitt, Facilities Management: Managing Maintenance for Buildings and Facilities (New York: Momentum Press, 2013).
- Heather M. Olsen, Susan D. Hudson, and Donna Thompson, SAFE and Fun Playgrounds: A Handbook (St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press, 2016).
- National Program for Playground Safety, accessed 23 June 2016, http://www.playgroundsafety.org.