Things I Know 176 of 365: Classrooms must design away from anxiety

Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,

Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not

even the best,

Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.

– Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

If I were teaching teachers, I would have them read this Economist article examining a newly published German study showing a strong positive correlation between urban dwellers and high levels of anxiety.

We would discuss the study and its methodology. We’d work our way through a round of “I noticed…” “I wonder…” “What if…” and then someone would hopefully notice the smallish size of the German study. Perhaps a hand would be raised and a “yeahbut” would be voiced.

“What about this,” I would ask, sharing with the assembled teachers this 2009 New York Times Magazine article about Dr. Jerome Kagan’s decades-long research into the origins and possible causes of anxiety.

Kagan has been compiling evidence since the late 80s that shows a connection between anxiety in infants and continued anxiety in those same subjects as they move into childhood, adolescence and eventually adulthood.

These teachers and I would discuss Kagan’s theories regarding those who are “wired to worry.” Again, I would query them on what they noticed, what they wondered and their what ifs.

Using some intertextual analysis, we would then start to make inferred connections between Kagan’s work and that of Dr. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, the author of the Economist study.

Wanting to learn alongside, I would posit the idea that one who is both wired for worry and raised in an urban environment would seem to have the proverbial deck stacked against him.

To this person, it would seem not only that the world is a highly unstable and difficult place, but that the environ within which he lives is only working to accentuate that instability. Despite his best intentions, this person will worry, doubt and second-guess more than his hypothetical twin separated at birth and raised in a nearby farm town.

Finally, to bring things back home, I would point these teachers to Sylvia Martinez’s reflections on a recent keynote by NYU Associate Professor Joshua Aronson. We would examine Aronson’s definition of the stereotype threat – being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group.

Martinez writes:

Simply putting a box to mark gender, for example, at the front of a math test significantly changed test scores – for both men and women. Compared to a test where gender was not asked for, if gender was asked for at the beginning of a test, boy’s scores went up, girls’ scores went down. If gender was asked at the end, boys’ scores went down, girls’ scores went up.

And then we would discuss the implications of these three assembled pieces on the practice of the teachers in the room.

The idea of urban anxiety makes sense to me. I saw it time and again teaching in Philadelphia. Students became distraught and anxious in the face of seemingly surmountable odds. Students completely capable of completing an assignment or understanding an idea shut down or expressed extreme doubt or anxiety. Whereas I could normally connect with and deescalate similar situations with ease, these moments required a level of effort I found deeply surprising.

For me, this creates a question of practice. Even if the vast majority of students are not “wired for worry,” the possibility students in city and urban environments could be more highly predisposed to anxiety illuminates a barrier to learning many teachers probably sensed, but had no name or schema for until now.

Knowing or almost knowing creates an imperative to change.

If the goal of the assembled teachers is to help all students more fully, if elevated anxiety levels impede that learning, and if environment influences those anxiety levels, then it is incumbent upon teachers to design a learning experience that lowers anxiety levels as much as possible.

How can you build a classroom that works against a natural proclivity for anxiety? What could you stop doing immediately to make life less worrisome for your students? What systems can you build to make your classroom, and then your school, a haven of diminished worry?

I have some ideas. I have many more questions. Mostly, I have burning sense that knowing that the designs and structures of learning spaces could be impeding the health and learning of those we are to care for means an ethical imperative to break down those impediments.

3 thoughts on “Things I Know 176 of 365: Classrooms must design away from anxiety

  1. Excellent points you make here!  Anxiety and other emotional states impact learning greatly. If we have the power to alter the environment to give students a headstart to learning, instead of an instant deficit via anxiety, why don't we? You've got me thinking, thank you!

  2. Traditional points & percentages grading would seem to increase anxiety, if only because students can worry about single points (and parents can ask, even in jest as my father did, “what happened to the other 2 points?”) and it lends itself to rim-waving. So maybe standards-based grading is part of how we reduce anxiety?I had multiple students shut down on me this past year. I'm willing to try new things to prevent the same thing happening next year. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what I can do about school-wide cultural push-' em-into-AP-so-we-look-good stress.

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