Classroom displays promise so much but deliver so little. They take hours to make and steal the attention of your pupils. Put the promise back into your displays by simplifying and reducing them to the bare necessities.
Every time I walk into a Finnish classroom (or anywhere in Europe for that matter) I end up with extreme display envy. In comparison to their elegant simplicity, British classrooms look like someone’s had a fight with the poster paints and lost.
In fact, it seems that there’s an unwritten British rule that the more displays you have the better. Pinterest classrooms make this clear (here’s proof) and some people love their displays so much, they insist on bringing their washing lines in to dangle stuff from. There are real harms to this approach though: they steal time and our pupils’ precious attention.
Unnecessary workload is repeatedly cited as driving teachers away from sanity and their profession (see this for an example) and classroom displays are a particularly burdensome example.
In the 2016 teacher’s workload survey (DfE, 2017) two-thirds of respondents said they spent too much time ‘organising resources and premises, setting up displays, setting up/tidying classrooms’. It’s no wonder: the survey also reported that, on average, primary school teachers spend 5 hours and secondary school teachers 2.7 hours a week making their class look good. This trend is getting worse too: it was only an average of 2.2 hours in 1992 (Campbell et al, 1994) and goodness knows how it’ll get if left unchecked.
For an activity this time intensive, it’s fair for use to hope for a profound impact on learning. Well, displays do, just not in a positive way.
But kids love stimulating learning environments, right?
They probably do. If they had to choose between shiny, bright things or dull, simple things, they’d probably choose the former. They’d probably choose chocolate over lettuce too. However, what they choose and what’s good for them are often very different.
Many studies demonstrate that displays tend to distract our pupils. In their study ‘Costs of Selective Attention: When Children Notice What Adults Miss’, Plebanek and Sloutsky (2017) found that children aren’t able to block out visual distractions like adults too. This resulted in children focusing on irrelevant features rather than concentrating their attention on task-specific visuals.
In a classroom context, this means pupils are more interested in your displays than you which damages their learning. Barrett et al (2014) found that classrooms with low levels of stimulation (in terms of colour and visual complexity) were associated with improved progress across a year compared to those with high levels of stimulation. In another study, Fisher et al (2014) found that:
‘Children were more distracted by the visual environment, spent more time off task, and demonstrated smaller learning gains when the walls were highly decorated than when the decorations were removed.’
What can we do?
Coupled with huge time costs, the attention-sapping properties of our displays make them almost indefensible. There are a few things we can do to make them much less evil:
- Have displays for learning in the classroom, celebrate success outside. Limit displays to those that are essential for learning. Despite the excellent quality of the children’s Lowry landscapes, they’re not going to help learning.
- Prioritise what is most important. This is hard: science and history displays are interesting to look at but that’s precisely what makes them distracting. Be discerning when deciding what’s important.
- Reduce the clutter. In Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds (2008) urges you to embrace empty space – it’ll make the stuff you do want looking at stand out. As a rule of thumb, if a surface won’t accept a pin tack, it wasn’t destined to be a display.
- Limit the colour. For the same reason as number 4. This also extends to furniture and carpets.
- Don’t double-back. Whoever thought double-backing displays was a good idea had obviously never done it. It also kills trees.
Let’s face it, the current educational psyche demands bright, colourful classrooms. This makes it very difficult to make our classrooms better for focused learning. However, with the huge cost to teacher time and pupil attention, it’s wrong not to tame the evils of the classroom display.
Barrett, P., Davies, F., Zhang, Y., & Barrett, L. (2015). The impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning: Final results of a holistic, multi-level analysis. Building and Environment, 89, 118-133.
Campbell, R. J., & Neill, S. R. St. J. (1994). Primary teachers at work. London: Routledge.
Fisher, A. V., Godwin, K. E., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual environment, attention allocation, and learning in young children when too much of a good thing may be bad. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1362-1370.
Plebanek, D. J., & Sloutsky, V. M. (2017). Costs of selective attention: when children notice what adults miss. Psychological science.
Reynolds, G. (2008). Presentation Zen. Berkeley: New Riders.
Richards, N., Choudhoury, A. (2017). Teacher Workload Survey 2016. Department for Education.
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