Nearly a year ago, I flagged a Life Hacker post on arranging environments for success, intending to get back to what looked like an interesting self-help guide to making my office more useful.  Little did I realize at the time that Susan G. Friedman (of Behavior Works) is an expert on shaping the behavior of parrots!  It took me a few moments to wrap my bird brain around the idea that behavior shaping can (and maybe should) apply to designing environments for human beings.

People have asked me in the past how students should minimize the distractions of digital multi-tasking while they study.  I usually suggest things like Kino to mask unused screen real estate or tools like Scrivener that allow a writer to focus ONLY on the text while darkening the rest of the display.

But no one – not teachers and not parents – really can rely only on the physical environment to shape the desired behavior of learners or children.  Certainly, we can help remove external distractions, but ultimately, the students themselves must be partners in this effort for it to succeed.  If they are not on board with the effort, they will still manage to day-dream at a minimum.  Unmotivated, children (and adult learners!) can still circumvent software and decide to go “just check email really quick” or check out the newest popular video on YouTube.  They must be willing to shape their behavior and report accurately upon what they did while “studying” in order to continue to evaluate the success or failure of the redesigned environment.

So, before addressing the physical space – or perhaps simultaneous with the design process – you need to address the internal learning environment as well.  Maybe it is time to discuss a reward system for demonstrated results (and not just measuring successful studying by supposed time spend on task).  Or it might be a good idea to try out the Pomodoro Technique for yourself.  Afterall, human beings are very capable of gaming the system – any system.  Even one that they create for themselves.

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