Hostile Design In Schools

When recently listening to the podcast 99 Percent Invisible by Roman Mars, I was struck by the concept of Unpleasant Design or Hostile Design. In it, the radio producers described an idea in architecture and design where unwanted behavior was being deterred through design. For example, spikes might be embedded in a city building window ledge so the homeless can’t lay there, or high pitched sounds only young people can hear blasted through speakers to keep unwanted youth away, or breaking up public benches with metal bars to keep both skateboarders or the homeless from using the bench. Perhaps most surprising was the hostile use of colored light in public restrooms and pedestrian tunnels to prevent intravenous drug users from being able to see their veins. This wasn’t a civic or private effort to solve homelessness and other perceived blight, but a designed effort to move it out of sight.

Anti-homeless city bench. The holes and bars keep rough sleepers away.

While I was saddened by an inhumane deterrence of homeless, what struck me more was that I realized that we as educators have designed metaphorical spikes into our schools for as long as I can remember. Meaning, we often make matters more difficult as a deterrent for student behaviors, rather than seeking a cure.

Intravenous drug users can’t shelter here as the light makes it impossible.
Hostile Design keeping rough sleepers away.

Spikes We All Know Well

Years ago, my school had a problem getting cafeteria meals out to students in a timely way. It was a design problem occurring when students who forgot their lunch card went to pay. Forgetting a lunch card caused a lunch line backup, so a design “spike” was employed by my school. To solve the backup, students forgetting their lunch card were not allowed into the lunch line. Instead, they were asked to go to the school office and get a stamp on their hand and then told to wait until the line was gone before they could get their lunch. While the bottleneck was reduced in the lunchline, these forgetful students were punished with a shorter lunch and were temporarily branded with a stamp on their hand to be able to achieve better flow in that lunch line. Similarly, I’ve taught in a school that uses slips/tickets for students who are late to class, don’t have their materials or didn’t do their homework. Poor student learning behaviors as a problem isn’t being solved through this deterrence effort. Instead, the student experience is made more miserable and unintended consequences occur through student lack of trust, teacher time and energy not going to teaching and so on.

The year I was asked to use the slips myself, I found that within the first few days of school, a student came into the classroom without their pencil case and I asked them to fill in a materials slip. They didn’t have a pencil to fill in the slip and borrowed one from me, displaying incredible irony. I wish that pencil example wasn’t a relevant one any longer, but take a look at education twitter and before long you will find educators tweeting out declarations to simply give pencils to students when they need it, no questions asked. This story of spiking or making hostile the design of our schools is simple, but very relevant.

Assessment Spikes

Spikes are being implemented around our schools to deter behavior and it is happening in formal instruction. To keep classes moving, clocks/timers are often used in exercises and assessments despite time and not knowledge or performance being the struggle of some students. Sometimes the ability of students to process complex steps or rubrics inhibit their performance more than the assessment objectives themselves. Both time and complexity are reducing the quality access to learning that students face, even when they are capable of exhibiting outstanding learning.

Test items can often act as a spike, especially when the complexity of the tested item is complex, not because of the skill difficulty, but because of untested skill difficulty. Meaning, something about the test item is difficult but not the skill the student is trying to master. Take for example essay writing on demand. Students with plenty of background knowledge on the given prompt will fair better than those who know little about the prompt. Also consider a pre-algebra student who has incredible number sense will do better on a problem with large or complex numbers than a student with poor number skills, but similar algebra understanding. Examples like this are everywhere while the hard work to design and write assessments that assess only what is intended without spiking students is very fruitful.

The idea that unrelated skills or knowledge can act as Hostile Design means that there must be blight or undesired consequence a teacher is knowing or unknowingly trying to eradicate. Sadly, this can be too high of a pass rate that a teacher sees as problematic. Perhaps, dare I say it, a perception that the wrong kind of students are over performing. Thus, twisting the assessment will put success out of reach for some in a pattern that the teacher will accept, a teacher who subscribes to specific local pass/fail patterns as being whats right.

The physical design of assessments themselves have their own learning advantages, disadvantages and unpleasant design. Students with a wide range of learning disabilities constantly fight decoding tests against their attention disorder, their photosensitivity, their ability to use handwriting well and so on. Imagine an A4 or 8.5×11 inch paper changed to an A3 or 17×11 inch tabloid sized paper, with a single exceptionally clear 14 point font that is printed on a light blue sheet. Suddenly, this single-sided test is a map of student learning that nearly all students can navigate with greater ease. Yes, anyone of those changes, even just the color of the paper you use, could increase the quality access a student has to their learning and possibly improve results.

Identifying Spikes as iterations, impersonal and about advancement:

The approach to removing spikes and increasing quality access student’s have to their learning is the same as my overall approach to design thinking and being a designer in a school; iterations and a school culture that understands change iterations as an impersonal event. Far too often we can take feedback personally regarding the work we do as educators. That thin skin we develop from so much solo work during the day can prevent colleagues from providing each other the support needed. Yet, viewing what we are currently doing as only one iteration in a very long line of well-documented changes can help practicing educators realize the whole journey and allow us to step out of the weeds of daily practice.

Following the design process of observing, asking the right questions and modeling changes helps remove the personal responsibility and gives ownership to a group. Then, creating a few iterations and testing several ideas at once with clear criteria for success makes the decision process about what change will be implemented an easier one. A design culture on a campus can cement a new culture from what was once a personal decision as an individual to now be a group decision heavily guided by evidence and measured outcomes. This is all to say that changing an educator’s practice is hard and systems changes in a school are even harder. With a deliberate design method in place and steady hands to guide that process, spike removal can be regular practice on your campus.

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