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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"Trash" as an Independent Variable

“Trash” as an Independent Variable

By Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor and Department Chairperson

Dr. Brad Balch
Professor and Dean Emeritus

Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor

Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

I doubt most of us have super-clean cars; many of us may even feel a bit uneasy when someone whose car is immaculate offers us a ride. It’s not so much we feel remiss, as a bit out of place, yet admittedly, glad we didn’t offer to drive without some lead time. 
Even if we buy a new car, how long do we try to prolong that brand-new look? At some point, it is only natural to forego that new-car smell for something more natural, more fitting, as the preferred state for many things is one that is used, like a good pair of old jeans.
New cars, new houses, new friends, new jobs, and new environments – they all have a breaking-in period, a point that has an expected transition from “new” to “used” and thus, toward a state that is much more “user-friendly.”
Recently a qualitative study was conducted at one elementary school to explore potential themes that may help explain why this high-poverty school was having academic success. The investigator observed people as they went about normal routines. Yet, the unkempt condition of the surroundings was a distraction for him.  It was not really a terribly ‘junky’ place, but the level of “trash” (e.g. littered, or in a lived-in, inelegant state) did breach a threshold of attention beyond what an average school might display.
While interviewing educators at this school, however, the researcher found an abundance of affect for the school and one another. Leadership was praised. Respondents used the term “family” quite often. A collaborative school culture of trust, loyalty, and mutual respect among the adults in the building was evident (Fullan & Hargreaves, 1996).

A hypothesis:
“Trash” is good.

A question or two, to ponder:
Is it possible that students drop trash on the floor not in disrespect, but as a way to make it more like home?  After all, how many students go home to ultra-sanitary conditions? How many have bedrooms (where most homework is done) where it is difficult to find the floor? And when the floor cannot be found, who are the only ones who have most problems with this?  -- Those who oftentimes find it most difficult to connect the students (and those without the direct stressors of today’s homework) – their parents.

Does it take a sociological or anthropological imagination to consider: Could student achievement be strong at this school, not despite the litter, but because it is there?

Alternative theories tell us,
Research in higher education finds that students living on campus are more likely to be successful when they encounter living conditions that are approximately the same to that, yet not less, which they experienced at home.  Semi-private bathrooms, technology connectivity, and air conditioning are a few minimum expectations.  The question that this theory suggests to us is, “What does less mean?”  If less comfortable with respect to living and working conditions, then the trash hypotheses might have merit for a good number of our students.

The theory of Broken Windows tells us that people will sense permission to further trash a place that seems to already be a mess.  Is this a sign of disrespect, an attempt to “norm”-alize their behavior, or one of intentional interior decoration, with an eye toward a preferred ambiance, given what is familiar?

What exactly are we trying to say here?
There may be a point where our efforts to keep everything hyper-tidy intimidates learners. An overly sterile, institutional climate simply may not enhance a robust teaching and learning environment.  Comfort, trust, respect, and a strong sense of professional family may be hindered. 
It may liken itself to one’s eating out in a five-star restaurant.  If this is not your norm, can you typically relax?  The expected formality, protocol, sense of quiet, adherence to long-standing traditions, and the disconnect from day-to-day reality is intimidating for many.  Unwritten rules that we do not even understand (what to do when the wine is brought for our inspection; which fork among the five arranged do we use; what to do with the cloth napkin if we need to use the restroom) can bring consternation, especially if we are trying to impress those with whom we dine.  And we’re well-adjusted adults.
What about those younger, less mature, more impressionable, and insecure?
An educational parallel:  Is it not interesting that the further one matriculates from kindergarten through twelfth grade, the further their classroom surroundings remind us of our bedrooms? 
We notice today the intentional, warm, and yes, the cluttered nature of many of our highest-functioning elementary classrooms.  Coats and book bags are hung haphazardly upon pegs on the walls, bins of supplies are stacked in myriad places, and colorful carpeted areas with rocking chairs abut congested tables with blocks, gizmos, and buildable apparatuses. 
Desks are found in different configurations, sometimes on a daily basis – atop them crayons, worksheets, books, and even at times now, technology.  With learning centers abound, tight spaces are arranged as best they can for up to 30 children at a time.  A visiting adult can barely find a spot to sit and typically has to settle for a diminutive chair near the wet and puddled, boot and glove section.
Yet children are happy.  Teachers are teaching.  Children are learning.
Routines are established.  All in these cluttered classrooms know where to look for the materials to do what teachers ask them to do.  Students proceed on cue to bins, cubbies, and supply shelves, handing out scissors, stencils, string, and Styrofoam.  They step over the stacks and walk through the piles; in their world, trash is a treasure.
Fast forward to high school. 
Bells ring.  Students arrive to sit in desks or at tables that are only theirs for an hour.  People are prompted to perform the parallelism of a perpendicular world.  With some exceptions we realize, walls are more barren, except for content-area reminders of theorems, theses, computations, and conjugations.  One might spot fire drill instructions next to the mission statement required by school administration, and possibly some motivation posters purchased during the bygone era of one’s new classroom smell.
Comfort and ownership as students age-out are the rarities.  When found, these classrooms serve as certain respite where those marginalized by the right angles of right answers seek refuge, when they need the comfort of home.
Why do we more often fumigate, while students matriculate?  Why not get a bit trashier?  Kick off our boots; put our feet on the desks, and live a little. Or at least, a little more comfortable, from a learner’s perspective.
We are not suggesting schools adopt unsanitary conditions, nor create environments where health and safety are compromised. We do not believe our world (inside or outside) is better when we encourage littering. In fact, schools are a reflection of their local communities, constructed and maintained with tax dollars.  As such, community norms will clearly influence building conditions. 
But how crazy is it to think that people would learn better during the instructional day when they are in an environment in which they are more comfortable -- if every scrap of paper raises the ire of hallway patrols; if every dropped pencil is deemed contraband?  If everything has its “place,” determined solely by adults who do not share the same values as students or come from their neighborhoods, does this contribute or inhibit our students from focusing and opening themselves to learning.
            To extend this further:  Could anything else in our students’ school environments create a disconnect or discomfort in the setting in which they are expected to arrive daily and perform academically?  Further, could we have a blind spot to things as disconcerting to our students as “trash on the floor” is to some of us?

How about the following:
·      Adults who wear suits, and thus, become suits;
·      Euro-centric instruction in a world of diversity;
·      After-school bells that drive kids from our buildings, those signaling the beginning of latchkey time and adult recess;
·      Children penalized for arriving at school late, when they arrive (especially if without supplies); and
·      Bullying, especially that performed by adults.

The question we have as we conclude this week is one of perspective.  Are we seeing what we should be seeing when something unsightly catches our eye on our public schools.  Rick Dahlgren and Judy Hyatt have encouraged us to ask three Classroom Integrity Questions of instructional fidelity when deciding whether to act, or not to act, when something paints our radar as adults working with children:

“Am I able to teach?”
“Are the other students able to learn?”
“Is the student able to learn?” (Dahlgren & Hyatt, 2007, p. 88)

Admittedly, they pose this more in the context of student behavior, but we think it applies environmentally as well. 
At present, would it be fair for us to assert, for critical conversation, that a hyper-vigilant quest for an antiseptic educational climate that meets the needs of adults may win us approval from our custodial staffs (and those whose names are on marble plaques of recent school renovations), yet it may inversely affect the levels of comfort, trust, respect, and strong sense of professional family that is critical to keeping the embers of elementary-level interest burning brightly into a flame of lifelong learning and contribution.
If this is too absurd to even think about, you may be missing the imagination needed to reimagine how we do school.
Said differently, shouldn’t we be just a little more trashy?


Dahlgren, R., & Hyatt, J. (2007). Time to teach: Encouragement, empowerment, and excellence in every classroom.  Hayden Lake, ID: The Center for Teacher Effectiveness.
Fullan, M. & Hargreaves, A. (1996). What’s worth fighting for in our schools? Columbia University: Teachers College Press.

Dr’s Steve Gruenert, Brad Balch, and Ryan Donlan encourage your comment and contribution to this subject.  Feel free to trash their perspectives if you like by joining our Leadershop conversation and offering thoughts of your own.  They can be reached at,, or  We appreciate your spending five minutes with us this week!

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