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Staple Guns At The Ready – Let’s Talk Classroom Display…

'Inspirational' quotes, aide memoires, pupils' greatest hits – we know what most classroom decoration looks like, writes David Didau, but is it really worth the attendant time investment and agonising over what to include...?

  • Staple Guns At The Ready – Let’s Talk Classroom Display…

The firmly established, yet largely unexamined, position on classroom display is that there’s nothing quite so magical as a wall plastered with beautiful work, and nothing half so bleak as a bare one, devoid of all humanity and joy.

A good teacher will, as a matter of course, strive not only to fill every inch of wall space with exciting display, but also seek to refresh it as often as possible to ensure their eager charges always have something new and shiny to occupy their attention.

A question of time

The first and most obvious counter-argument is that putting up all this inspiring stuff takes time – and while a few schools employ support staff to ensure their walls are a thing of beauty, in most cases it’s the classroom teacher who’s saddled with juggling the staple gun, acres of sugar paper and a roll of crinkly cardboard edging.

Time spent gluing things to walls is time which cannot be spent on any other activity. There may be some teachers with nothing else to do, but most of us are expected to plan lessons, mark books, phone parents and, er, teach. In order for classroom display to be worth the effort it should surely have some merit beyond the purely aesthetic.

But does it? The display in most classrooms consists of a mixture of the following – 1) decorative or inspirational posters; 2) useful information, such as subject specific keywords, mathematical facts, quotations and formulae; and 3) students’ work. Let’s examine the value of each in turn.

Reverse psychology

Firstly, the inspirational quote. You might think slapping up a job lot of off-the-shelf classroom posters would save a lot of time and trouble as well as looking lovely, and yes, it would be quick and convenient – but to what end? Why would you want to populate your walls with bland, meaningless platitudes?

Be your best! Failure is good! Four legs growth, two legs fixed! At best, this stuff is just wallpaper which no one notices after the first fun-packed five minutes, but it can actually end up having a toxic effect on kids. Instead of believing the posters to be stupid, they convince themselves that failing to swallow this nonsense means they have – horror of horrors – a fixed mindset and are inveterate lazy toads.

So what about the kind of display that actually tells students something useful about the subject they’re meant to be studying? Surely that’s worth the effort of breaking out the Blu-tack? You know the type of thing – lists of French verbs, the formula for finding the circumference of a circle, sentence starters to help you write a corking history essay.

My problem with this option is that if kids notice it at all, they become dependent on it. Instead of having their heads down as they write and occasionally closing their eyes in concentration, they look for the answers around them, relying on external resources instead of internalising the information they need to succeed.

We put up the display as a statement that these things are worth remembering…and then leave them up so there’s no need to remember them.

It’s not so much that this kind of scaffolding is bad, it’s that it’s misused. Once it’s up, we should be taking it down again as soon as possible, warning students what’s going to happen so that they’re motivated to try to remember it. If they’re struggling too much we could put it back for a while – but as I’ve found to my cost, it’s a thoroughly tedious business to be continually putting up and taking down the same set of posters. Much better, perhaps, to use laminated table-mats which can be easily swapped out and replaced.

Dressed to impress

Finally, we have displays of students’ work. If, gun to my head, I had to choose something to put up on my classroom wall, this would be it. But even this most benign of options comes with costs and problems.

First, there’s the dilemma of whose work should be chosen. Ought we to select the neatly coloured in bubble writing of the cleanest, most middle-class girls? Or should that scruffy lad who’s smeared a dead spider across his work of staggering genius be allowed a turn?

Should students’ work be displayed to look nice, or to demonstrate what’s possible? Should it be the best, and therefore demotivating for some, or should it show what even ‘these kids’ are capable of?

The second problem comes once you’ve made your selection – what do you do with it once it’s on the wall? Often it’s too small or messy to be of any actual use as exemplar material (far better to use a visualiser), so it ends up being a mere sop to children’s feelings, a prop to their fragile egos: Look! I’ve put your illiterate scrawl on the wall! You must be special!

The point of all this is to suggest that while there may sometimes be adequate reasons for all the effort that’s put into decorating classrooms, most times the point is merely that – decoration. Display will most likely have a neutral effect on children’s effort and outcomes, and there’s some reason for thinking it could have a negative impact.

The important thing to remember is that classroom display isn’t really for children at all. It’s to make teachers look and feel good. So as long as classrooms look nice for senior leaders when they do their termly rounds, everyone’s happy.

David Didau is based at Swindon Academy as an in-house consultant

He blogs at www.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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