Do your kids go to school in a “city” or the “country?”

Heather Dowd brought to my attention the article How the city hurts your brain…And what you can do about it By Jonah Lehrer.  I made an instant connection between my classroom environment and this article.  Here are some highlights from the article:

Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control.

A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to constantly redirect our attention so that we aren’t distracted by irrelevant things, like a flashing neon sign or the cellphone conversation of a nearby passenger on the bus. This sort of controlled perception — we are telling the mind what to pay attention to — takes energy and effort. The mind is like a powerful supercomputer, but the act of paying attention consumes much of its processing power.

People who had walked through the city were in a worse mood and scored significantly lower on a test of attention and working memory, which involved repeating a series of numbers backwards.

This also helps explain why, according to several studies, children with attention-deficit disorder have fewer symptoms in natural settings. When surrounded by trees and animals, they are less likely to have behavioral problems and are better able to focus on a particular task.

A tired brain, run down by the stimuli of city life, is more likely to lose its temper.

…the very same urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory — the crowded streets, the crushing density of people — also correlate with measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in unpredictable ways. It is the “concentration of social interactions” that is largely responsible for urban creativity, according to the scientists.

I used to have a city classroom.  Every inch of my walls and portions of my ceiling were filled with posters, odd objects, student work, hanging decorations and plants.  I thought I was being a good teacher by offering all of the stimulation.  I tried to make my class an exciting busy place where there was non-stop action, movement and exciting things happening to stimulate the kids.  Then one day I had a seat in one of the student desks to check out a new seating plan and had the same perspective that the students had.  Whoa…it made me stop and realize that I did not even know where to focus and my eyes went from picture to object to the board and all around and back again.  The next year the kids walked in and there was not a thing on the walls.  Everything was bare.  We slowly added student work as the year went on and I noticed that when something went up, kids actually stopped and focused on it.  As I used more technology and the kids turned in less “paper” my room was more “bare” for a greater part of the year and I like it. I think it has been especially beneficial to many students who have attention problems. Continuing the city/country analogy, I try to always make sure we spend a week in the country between projects and arrange the desks in a manner that focuses attention to one spot–a horseshoe for a single speaker or small groups for projects. 

It might just be in my head, but there is a huge difference in student performance when those changes are made.  When I run big mentally tough challenging projects back-to-back the latter one never seems to work quite right.

I now introduce our projects in the country, go to the city to plan and start work on them, and come back to the country to finish, present and reflect.

So where do you teach?

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  1. I agree that a cluttered over crowded classroom can be distracting. For any adult who doesn’t understand that… think about how you feel when you walk into a big warehouse type store… so much to see, so much going on, it is overwhelming. I think the plan of introducing it in the “country”… researching in the “city” and returning to the “country” is a good one… thanks for the insight

  2. This is a great extension of the article as applied to the classroom. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It sounds as if you are finding the positives in both the country and the city and using them in your classroom.

  3. I’m a city person at heart, but I work in a pseudo suburban atmosphere (a town of around 10k). The distractions are present here just as they are in a big city I believe, if it isn’t navigating through city traffic, then it’s finding time for FFA, 4H, Dance, Soccer, Work, and lastly schoolwork (all while being on the phone cnostantly txting or listening to music). Today, I think all kids are distracted and prone to have an attention deficit.

  4. An interesting post. I’ve had the pleasure of living in the a rural, suburban, and urban setting. I have to say they each have their pros and cons. The brain damage bit is interesting. I wonder if living somewhere ugly compared to somewhere beautiful makes a difference. Is there a connection for why so many creative ideas come from California? Or if you live somewhere ugly are you more likely to be creative because your immediate reality demands an escapist tint?

  5. As a special ed. teacher, I have long been advocate for “less is more”, especially with kids who have an easy time being distracted. I try to limit the posters, sayings, hangings, etc, to the minimum required by the state and school district. Face it, after the first week, it all blends in with the walls anyway. And with less, when something is added, or written on the board, it stands out all the more. If I could keep the walls bare all year, I would. That way, the focus would be what is new about that day.
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