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Busy Classroom Walls Are Considerably More Likely To Distract Students Than Inspire Them

Is it time to step away from the sugar paper, asks David Didau

  • Busy Classroom Walls Are Considerably More Likely To Distract Students Than Inspire Them

It is an unwritten rule of teaching that every wall in every classroom must be liberally plastered with brightly coloured display.

Typically, this will include examples of students’ work, helpful advice or information specific to the subject being studied – grammar rules, key word spellings, foreign vocabulary, number facts etc – and what might best be described as ‘general decoration’.

The thinking seems to be that classrooms must provide a veritable sensory feast with no surface left uncovered. But is this just another educational fetish? How much display is there mainly to gull visitors into thinking, oh what a jolly school this must be? Might such colourful displays be used to paper over other cracks?

The effort involved in putting up, refreshing and replacing classroom displays requires an enormous investment in time and effort. Is it fair to expect teachers to make such an commitment? Fortunately, this issue is enshrined in legislation.

The 2012 workload agreement clearly states that teachers cannot be routinely required to undertake any clerical tasks including, “Preparing, setting up and taking down classroom displays”. I fully recognise that there will be school leaders who find wiggle room in the word “routinely” and some teachers are still put under enormous pressure to create and refresh classroom displays, but hopefully this is becoming rarer.

A waste of time

We should also consider the time it takes children to create work for the purpose of such displays; time and effort that could, conceivably, be spent on more profitable endeavours.

The assumption that displaying students’ work is automatically a ‘good thing’ leads teachers to devote curriculum time to making posters and other items of dubious educational merit.

As an aside, the average Year 7 student spends far more time than you might believe feasible making posters. I’ve got nothing against posters per se, but I seriously doubt whether, in most instances, they can be worth the time spent on them.

One argument is that children can learn from seeing each other’s work, but blu-tacking up a bunch of essays on a wall is unlikely to be the best means of achieving this worthy aim. Visualisers are increasingly inexpensive and provide a far more effective way to share and discuss students’ work.

But perhaps there’s a motivational benefit to students seeing their work displayed? Maybe they’ll work harder if they think it will be on public view? Well, although many children like to have their latest poem placed where everyone can see it, and some teachers enjoy teaching in busy environments, it might benefit everyone to think a little more deeply about exactly why we feel this to be such an important aspect of teaching. How significant are the benefits, if indeed they exist at all?

Tear it down

Fortunately this is an empirical question, and in 2014, Fisher, Godwin and Seltman investigated the effects of display on students’ behaviour and attainment. They found learners were less likely to stay focused, and attained lower test scores, when experimental lessons were given in a ‘decorated classroom’ compared to a ‘sparse classroom.’

Further, test scores were negatively correlated with the amount of time that students were distracted, suggesting a direct relationship between these two variables. The researchers conclude by saying, “colourful visual displays may promote off-task behaviour in young children, resulting in reduced learning opportunities and achievement”.

They do make the point that there was significantly less disruption after children got used to the displays in the second week; I’d suggest that’s the point at which the display has become meaningless wallpaper. Isn’t the very intention of most display to capture students’ attention? What then is the point of display that doesn’t distract them?

No one wants bare walls, but that doesn’t mean we have to distract students with endless garish exhibitions. Most people would readily agree that classroom display should support students’ learning. If it fails this uncontroversial test, then, shouldn’t we tear it down?

David Didau blogs at learningspy.co.uk and is the author of several books, including What If Everything you Know About Education Is Wrong?; you can follow him at @LearningSpy

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