Teaching “design thinking” through urban planning

It is popular to teach problem solving skills in schools and at least one group thinks this can be done through urban planning examples:

At a recent teaching conference in Richmond, Virginia, a session on “design thinking” in education drew a capacity crowd. Two middle-school teachers demonstrated how they had used the concept to plan and execute an urban-design project in which students were asked to develop a hypothetical city or town given factors such as population, geography, the environment, and financial resources…

First, he emphasized, design thinking starts with empathy. When designing anything meant to be used by another person—whether that’s a lesson, curriculum, classroom layout, or an imaginary city—the designer must understand what that person (an “end-user,” in design lingo) needs. In the case of the urban-design project, for example, the students can’t just design a pretty building; they must think about the needs of the people who will live there, as well as the available resources, the budget, and the impact that building will have on the surrounding landscape. “The design-thinking philosophy requires the designer to put his or her ego to the side and seek to meet the unmet needs, both rational and emotional, of the user,” Stevenson explained.

Once the student designers have gathered all their research together, they must organize and make sense of it all. Again, in the case of the urban-planning project, after the students have gathered interviews and research about the needs of their city’s future residents, students must figure out what to do with all that information. If, for example, the future residents’ top priorities include affordability and opulence, the student designer is going to have to find a way to integrate the residents’ conflicting needs.

Finally, design thinking requires designers to generate ideas—lots of ideas—and prototype them. In order for this part of the process to work, students and teachers must be comfortable with failure. For many students, particularly those who want to look smart, this phase can be frustrating. “People tend to come up with an idea early on, and know that this idea is it, the perfect idea, and get emotionally invested in that one thing. Then, when their perfect idea fails, they fall apart,” Stevenson said. Design thinking forces students to keep their minds open, to try out lots of ideas early in the process before they let their egos or emotions get too invested in just one.

If one of the purposes of an education is to create better citizens, using urban planning as an example would be a great exercise. My experience with college students suggests that when they arrive at that level of education, they have limited knowledge of how communities came to be or work. Urban planning cannot address all of these issues – I don’t believe, for example, that simply designing a place with New Urbanist techniques guarantees particular outcomes – but it can get students thinking about how environments are shaped by communities as well as shape communities. In other words, communities and physical environments don’t just happen: the interactions between humans and their environment (whether in older or more recent contexts) is a complex and iterative process.

Marriage among education equals most common but more women marrying down educationally than men

A new sociological study highlights a large social shift regarding marriage and education over recent decades:

The study, in the August issue of the American Sociological Review, looks at marriages formed between 1950 and 2004. It finds that marriages between educational equals have remained most common, but that when there is a difference, women are increasingly likely to have the educational edge.

In about half of marriages begun in the early 2000s, spouses had roughly equal educations. In nearly 30%, the wife had more and in about 20%, the husband had more — a reversal of the pattern seen in the 1950s through at least the late 1970s.

In those earlier eras, marriages in which wives were more educated were less likely to last. Researchers have theorized that was partly because less-educated men felt threatened by their wives’ successes. It’s also possible that those couples were especially non-traditional types more prone to divorce for all sorts of reasons.

But such couples married since the 1990s have had no higher divorce rates than other couples, the new study shows. They may even be less likely to divorce than couples in which men are more educated. The data is not clear on that point, researchers say.

Still a clear preference for equal education levels but a shift from men marrying down to women marrying down. From a supply and demand standpoint, this makes sense given the gains of women in education in recent decades.

While the numbers tell us something, it would also be interesting to see people’s perceptions about this. If women have more education than marrying, does this still come with more social pressures or expectations compared to the reverse?

Kids today: “emotionally priceless and economically worthless”

Sociologist Dalton Conley talks about how the role of children has changed in recent centuries:

A child born in 2012 will cost his parents $241,080 in 2012 dollars, on average, over his lifetime. And children of higher-earning families drain the bank account more: Families earning more than $105,000 annually can expect to spend $399,780 per child.

The “price tag” is astounding, considering that until not long ago, kids were expected to contribute to the household and were not generally a financial drain on it. “From a young age, for much of human history, they would do household labor, whether gather berries or get water and bring it back. From ages 5 and up, kids had an economic role to play in the household,” says Dalton Conley, sociologist, NYU professor and author of “Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Science of Raising Children But Were Too Exhausted to Ask.”

“Today, as sociologist Viviana Zelizer says, kids are emotionally priceless and economically worthless. They’re just a big sinkhole of our time, attention and money, and yet at the same time, we think of them as our most important life project,” says Conley. This idea that parents must invest in their kids for years is now even codified into law. For instance, while traditional markers of adulthood were set at 18 or 21, the Affordable Care Act has now extended the age limit for children to be on their parents’ health insurance to 26.

Why the shift? It boils down to the fact the economy now requires more technical knowledge, so children need more education than before.

The rest of the article then goes on to describe how Dalton uses data to tackle 10 important parenting issues. But, this early part highlights the changing nature of childhood, from an age where children could contribute economically to the family (and many children did not survive because of poor health) to an era where wealthier families have fewer children and parents pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into each child.

The difficulty in wording survey questions about American education

Emily Richmond points out some of the difficulties in creating and interpreting surveys regarding public opinion on American education:

As for the PDK/Gallup poll, no one recognizes the importance of a question’s wording better than Bill Bushaw, executive director of PDK. He provided me with an interesting example from the September 2009 issue of Phi Delta Kappan magazine, explaining how the organization tested a question about teacher tenure:

“Americans’ opinions about teacher tenure have much to do with how the question is asked. In the 2009 poll, we asked half of respondents if they approved or disapproved of teacher tenure, equating it to receiving a “lifetime contract.” That group of Americans overwhelmingly disapproved of teacher tenure 73% to 26%. The other half of the sample received a similar question that equated tenure to providing a formal legal review before a teacher could be terminated. In this case, the response was reversed, 66% approving of teacher tenure, 34% disapproving.”

So what’s the message here? It’s one I’ve argued before: That polls, taken in context, can provide valuable information. At the same time, journalists have to be careful when comparing prior years’ results to make sure that methodological changes haven’t influenced the findings; you can see how that played out in last year’s MetLife teacher poll. And it’s a good idea to use caution when comparing findings among different polls, even when the questions, at least on the surface, seem similar.

Surveys don’t write themselves nor is the interpretation of the results necessarily straightforward. Change the wording or the order of the questions and results can change. I like the link to the list of “20 Questions A Journalist Should Ask About Poll Results” put out by the National Council on Public Polls. Our public life would be improved if journalists, pundits, and the average citizen would pay attention to these questions.

Rare: urban Millennial claims to miss the suburbs

This is not a piece from The Onion but rather a story at Atlantic Cities: a Millennial discusses why she thinks the grass may be greener in the suburbs.

I’m one of the thousands of Millennials who make up this new urban demographic. I left the comforts of Eden Prairie, Minnesota — a suburb of the Twin Cities and a community that has consistently been ranked one of the best small towns in America — for New York City. And while my move to New York was the right decision for a variety of reasons (or so I keep telling myself), I often wonder if the grass might indeed be greener—both literally and figuratively—had I stayed in the suburbs.While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about green space. Multiple studies have tracked the social, cultural, and emotional assets green spaces bring to a community, including mental health benefits and reduced rates of gun violence. While cities such as New York and Philadelphia have made tremendous gains in creating new and better public spaces in recent years — former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg presided over the biggest program of park building since the 1930s — too many urban communities are still “park deserts” compared to their suburban counterparts.

Another area where suburbs often trump cities is in the quality (or lack thereof) of their public schools. From the mass closing of public schools in Chicago to the “dizzying, byzantine system” eighth grade students and their parents go through to select a public high school in New York City, it is as hard as ever—if not harder—for parents to find quality public education for their children in large American cities. And this particular reality seems especially stubborn: students from suburban communities are more likely to graduate high school and go on to higher education than their urban counterparts, which of course in turn makes them more likely to get well-paying jobs as adults.

But the number one way the suburbs beat the city, especially for young people, is in affordability. After living in both Washington, D.C., and New York City, I can safely say that affording basic human necessities, such as shelter and sustenance—not to mention having a little fun here and there—is much cheaper outside of the city center. When paying $1,000 per month to share an apartment is a “good deal,” and when you don’t think twice about spending $14 for a single cocktail, what chance does a young city dweller have to actually save money? Not all cities are as insanely expensive as Washington and New York (Philly! Baltimore! Portland!), but when the mortgage on a spacious, four-bedroom home rivals the monthly rent of a cramped one-bedroom apartment, there really is no competition.

These are common arguments for the suburbs through American history back to the founding of some of the earliest suburbs in the mid-1800s: they provide green space and more nature, the ability to avoid “urban issues” like underperforming schools, and affordable housing compared to dense cities.

I have to wonder if her perspective is skewed just a little bit by growing up in Eden Prairie. As she notes, this is a community often marked as one of the nicer American suburbs. Not all suburbs are like this as they range from inner-ring suburbs adjacent to big cities to industrial suburbs to edge cities with lots of jobs to more exurban areas with bigger lots. Not all suburbs would have these three traits she claims are most important and others may offer features she does not discuss. On the whole, her arguments about the merits of the suburbs may be marked by a particular higher-end experience of American suburbs.

Inequality in American schools: students in certain states compare well with international leaders, those in other states do not

Where American students go to school matters as those in certain states score comparably to international leaders while students living in other states don’t do as well:

The average TIMSS score is a 500, and the test uses four benchmarks—low, intermediate, high, and advanced—to describe student scores. In math, two-thirds of U.S. states scored above the TIMSS average…

Massachusetts was the highest-scoring state in math, coming in behind four educational systems—Republic of Korea, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, and Hong Kong—and outranking 42 education systems. The lowest-ranking state, Alabama, outperformed only 19 educational systems…

In science, 47 states scored above the TIMMS average…

Massachusetts and Vermont outperformed 43 educational systems, while the District of Columbia ranked above only 14 educational systems. Singapore was the only education system to outrank all U.S. states.

This isn’t a new argument. The documentary Waiting for Superman raises a similar question: do we want children’s education to rest primarily on where they live, a factor over which they have little control? A Time story on education in Finland a few years ago suggested they had a different approach: raise rest scores and education overall by helping the students at the bottom. The United States and some other countries use the opposite approach where they provide resources to the best students to help them achieve even more. Both approaches can lead to higher average test scores but they would lead to different levels of variation in scores. In other words, how much of a gap between the higher and lower scorers is desirable for a society? Of course, this could go far more local than the state level. For example, some public schools in Chicago are among the best in the states while others in the city are among those that struggle the most.

This does reinforce an idea from urban sociology: where people do and can live makes a big difference in their life outcomes. Live in an area with generally more wealthy people and the outcomes are likely to be better.

Commercials that market smartphones as education devices shouldn’t fool many

In the past few months, I’ve heard several commercials for smartphones that suggest kids can and will use them for educational purposes. When your child needs help on their homework, they can whip out their phone and find the answer.

Who do they think they are fooling? While parents want to hear about helping their kids succeed in school (this is an American constant over the decades), these commercials offer implausible possibilities. Kids could use their phone for homework or studying. But, I suspect the smartphone is used for two other tasks that will far outweigh educational purposes: social interaction (texting, chatting, Facebook, etc.) and media consumption (music, YouTube, TV and movies, etc.). The real education provided here might be in how to be a media-saturated, 21st century American kid.

This may be effective marketing but it also hints at another issue: the idea that new technological devices automatically lead to more learning. Where is the evidence for this? We can argue that kids needs to keep up with technology to understand and use it for their good like applying for jobs. We can argue the new technology engages kids. We can argue the technology can open up new opportunities like forming and maintaining beneficial relationships or learning how to code. But, suggesting it actually leads to more learning is a more difficult case to make.

My conclusion: such commercials play off the interests of parents who would say they want to help their kids succeed without marshalling much evidence that the new smartphone will help kids learn.