Do parking lots contribute to The Achievement Plateau?
Parking lots < parking garages < bike racks < transit hubs?
Joni Mitchell famously lamented parking lots in 1970. “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot,” she sang.
It’s common practice in education workshops and professional development sessions to establish a parking lot. Parking lots are the metaphorical place we “park” untimely-yet-important questions. They often look like a giant yellow post-it note chart paper pasted on a white board in a sterile classroom. The words “Parking Lot” are usually written across the top, often in poor handwriting (should we teach handwriting?), and the chart paper is typically, though likely not intentionally, slightly off level.
This website explains the purpose of parking lots this way: The Parking Lot allows you to honor questions and thoughts posed by your resource group that might otherwise be a distraction…Posting the question on the Parking Lot memorializes the participant's thoughts while avoiding discussion that can rob you of the time you need to generate a robust list of ideas.
I’ve long taken issue with parking lots, both the literal and workshop kind.
First, literal parking lots are mostly unused. According to a 2007 Purdue University study, there were 355,000 parking spaces for the 155,000 residents of Tippacanoe County, Indiana. That’s a lot of unused spaces.
The workshop ones are also mostly unused. After a week of principal training two weeks ago, workshops in which we were given over 70 megabytes of information in the form of 409 slides, hundreds of pages of guides, frameworks, and “look-for” documents, the parking lot chart paper on the room where we spent the entire week was…empty. Do we really think there were no ideas or questions that the 30+ participants had? In my nearly 20 years in education, I’ve maybe seen a handful of ideas parked in these paper lots.
Second, parking lots are inefficient and bad for the earth. The literal ones cover vast swaths of land with heat-absorbing, impervious concrete or asphalt, leading to polluted runoff and more driving, all things contributing to a warmer earth, which contributes to extreme weather and long-term shifts in climate, which is also one of the most universal sources of chronic stress and, more importantly, could lead to our ultimate demise as a species (intentional run-on).
If we insist on using “parking lots” in workshops, let’s at least name them something more climate-friendly. I offer “parking garage (uses less habitable space, less disruptive to wildlife, can often be built underground, is fun to get lost in, and makes more interesting location for movie scenes),” “public transit hub ('“We’ll be sure to get to your questions just a few minutes behind schedule”),” and “bike rack (“Lock up your questions here, but make sure to use a U-lock with a heavy gauge steel, because bicycle thieves go around with battery-powered reciprocating saws to cut locks” (sadly, I’ve seen this in my neighborhood))” as possible alternatives.
I digress. It’s difficult to even find any research to suggest parking lots are helpful. But there is research to suggest they might not be a good practice. In study published in 2004, Charlan Nemeth, a professor at Berkeley, found that groups encouraged to debate and criticize produced more robust, creative ideas.
According to Slate, cars spend 95% of their time parked. They’re just rarely parked in actual parking lots. In any workshop, there are undoubtedly a lot of questions and good ideas — some potentially contentious — waiting to be driven around. Great facilitators tease them out and give participants time to discuss them.
I wonder if parking lots make participants less confident that a particular workshop is even willing to tackle tough questions. I know I’m less likely to ask any questions if the facilitator is just going to valet it.
I also worry it’s the parking lot culture that allows harmful, disproven pedagogy like “balanced reading” and “learning styles” to persist in education and depress progress with student achievement.
On Monday I’ll be presenting to my staff for the first time in months. I’ll need to convince them that our priorities are actually the right ones, and that our approach will actually yield results. I’m still working on the presentation, tweaking the slides and finding the right Ted Lasso clips (this one?) to drive home some key points. The only parking lot, though, will be the one outside our building that only houses cars, not ideas.
Thanks for reading. Have a great rest of your week.