Tidy classrooms mean tidy minds but don’t do the work yourself. Let pictures do the talking and the pupils do the tidying.
Is tidiness important?
Albert Einstein once said:
“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
It’s a good job that in most classrooms, there’s never an opportunity to leave desks empty. There are always pens, pencils, pencil cases, books, water bottles, rulers lying around and that’s only for run-of-the-mill lessons. Throw in flip chart paper, post-its or 2d shapes and you’re not far from burying the desk entirely.
All this clutter leads to disjointed learning experiences. If pupils can’t find the right equipment at the right time, they’re more likely to drift off-task. More insidious is how cluttered classrooms drain the attention of pupils. Children are less able to ignore irrelevant visual noise (Plebanek and Sloutsky, 2017) which means that in a messy classroom, pupils may be less likely to notice you than their paper-mountain desk. In fact, in a recent study across 157 UK classrooms, clutter was found to be a significant factor in limiting pupils’ attainment (Barrett et al, 2015).
Seriously, when do we have time to tidy?
It’s true, tidying takes time. The 2016 Teacher Workload Survey (Richards and Choudhoury, 2017) revealed that primary school teachers spend an average of 5 hours a week physically arranging their classrooms whereas secondary teachers spend 2.7 weekly hours on average. In the current workload crisis, isn’t our time better spent elsewhere? Maybe. That’s why it’s important for the pupils to do it. Although their time is equally precious, classes often contain 30 pupils or more which means if properly directed, the burden of tidying is significantly reduced. Throw into the mix that encouraging pupils to take responsibility for their learning space will help to reinforce a sense of collective identity (Lemov, 2015) and the gains become justifiable.
Class tidying without the chaos
Collective tidying was very chaotic in my first years of teaching, but I didn’t give my students any direction, so what did I really expect? Through embedding the following techniques in my practice, tidying is no longer a chore to dread.
- Use photos to explain your expectations. Talking about tidying sounds a lot like nagging, so it helps that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Take a photo of how you would like your tables or reading area or resource trays to look like. If you print them and laminate them, you can have them instantly to hand.
- Ask: “does your table look like my picture?” It’s like spot the difference for classroom clutter. Better still is that it’s quick and can’t be argued with easily.
- Explain why it’s important. To get the whole class on board (or at least the majority), explain using a consistency script such as: “Mess and clutter make it harder to concentrate and stop your flow. If you’re tidy, you’ll learn better.”
- Set a time limit. The aim is to make learning more efficient. If it delays learning, what’s the point? Set a time limit.
- Find the best vantage point. To ensure it’s a collective effort and there’s no social loafing, consider where to stand and watch with eagle eyes.
- Hold pupils accountable. If the tidying doesn’t match up to the expectations, allow for it to be corrected. If any sanctions are required, follow them up.
Although tidy classrooms take time to maintain, it’s worth it to ensure learning is as efficient as possible. Don’t do the work yourself though. Let the pictures do the talking and the pupils do the tidying.
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.
Plebanek, D. J., & Sloutsky, V. M. (2017). Costs of selective attention: when children notice what adults miss. Psychological science.
Richards, N., Choudhoury, A. (2017). Teacher Workload Survey 2016. Department for Education.