Below is a reflection on an on-line article by Nsikan Akpan that appeared September 5th on the PBS NewsHour web site, “The hotter the planet grows, the less children are learning.”  The article examines issues associated with student learning and classroom temperature.   Baltimore City School System is given as an example of a system struggling with lost learning time as a result of extreme heat.

The author of this reflection, the teacher wearing the sweatband, taught middle and high School students for over 60 years!

“Teacher!  Help!  I’m melting to my desk!  Honest!”

Groaning, my teens and I point to the oversized poster which reads: PITY*CATS aren’t COOL!  Firmly adjusting my sweatband over my dripping eyebrows, I dismiss the giggles and guffaws and urge my charges on to what appears to be a heatwave endurance test.  I have to admit that I am amazed as these kids actually try to cope with the sticky heat on an incredible hot 90˚ afternoon.  Despite the dwindling motivation of the morning, a few challenges such as melting to the desk, wet arms sticking to the desk, erasing errors on damp paper, trips to the water fountain (better than their warm water bottles), these teens good-naturedly face their learning exposure.  You might ask how could they possibly stay focused when whatever skills they might grasp are being offset by uncomfortable conditions.  We, my students and I, simply weather the heat.

Over the years my classroom experience has convinced me that extreme temperatures surely would have a certain unfavorable effect on learning, and in this kind of setting would make a difference in regard to concentration, comprehension, memory, retention and, yes, even testing.  Also, it goes without saying that these conditions would be bound to have a similar effect on any teacher’s ability to impart learning effectively.

So, imagine my surprise when a friend, who knew that I had an interest in children’s learning, sent me a thought-provoking article by Nsikan Akpan online.  His “The hotter the planet grows, the less children are learning” certainly caught my attention.  How delighted I was to see that I was not alone with my concerns.  Even now with the growing evidence that cumulative heat exposure can check cognitive aptitude development, several studies are already underway to look into how these problems can be effectively eased.  One study, using PSAT-taker scores as a model, showed that hotter school days with extreme heat were particularly damaging.  This group of economists chose the PSAT tests, which are taken before the SATs. These tests were used because they are usually taken twice.  For several years, the investigators tracked these students to see how Global Warming could have affected their scores.  Each school was compared to itself.  The results were amazing.  In those schools without air conditioning, each 1°F increase in school year temperature reduced the amount learned that year by one percent. This outcome demonstrated then that lower test scores, decrease in memory, ability, lack of energy and lack of concentration are among the symptoms of extreme heat in the classroom.

In the long run, these findings considered some type of air conditioning is at present the best solution, and given the predicted rapid climate change, the benefits of school air conditioning in regards to education would likely outweigh the costs in most schools.  Already schools are now faced with the unforeseen physical results of this global change which is complicated and evolving in what it holds for the future.  While the media is currently engaged in discussing the difficulties surrounding funding or not funding, the concerns over outdated infrastructures and shrinking budgets, educators are rightly troubled over school closings, lower test scores and in many cases potential carbon footprints.

Meanwhile, back to my teens and all the kids in our schools and what is vital for what lies ahead for them.  Leaving aside the question of fairness to the students and their futures, just on a basic humane level, our schools have a responsibility to provide a comfortable classroom atmosphere which is suitable for genuine learning, and yes, where kids will not melt to their desks and teachers will not have to wear sweatbands.

Nsikan Akpan’s “The hotter the planet grows, the less children are learning,” gives a good rundown on what at present is being considered concerning academic learning and the temperatures during the school day.