It is summer, and most elementary classroom walls have been laid bare for repainting or for cleaning. Their empty exposure reminds me of a classroom from an earlier age, from my own elementary school. At the risk of dating myself, from grade 3 on up I could count on one singular decorative element….the cursive alphabet that hung over the chalkboard:
I stared at that alphabet, and thought to myself that of all the letter companions, neatly penned in upper and lower case, the most fun to practice, the most enigmatic, the most beautiful-and the most confusing if not done correctly -was the letter Q q or .
Of course, there were no other decorations in the classroom.
Today’s elementary classrooms are markedly different. There are classrooms that receive Pinterest-inspired wall, door, or window treatments. There are multiple software programs that let teachers create posters or infographics chockfull of facts for every content area. Inspirational posters are ready to be to copied, to be downloaded, to be printed for every grade level. Once school is back in session, rainbow-brite colors combine messages with eye-popping fonts in a competition for attention.
And that’s the problem…competition for attention.
Apparently a supersaturated color and text-rich environment is not good for learning.
Beginning as early as preschool, classrooms may be decorated to an extreme. In many cases, “clutter passes for quality,” a sentiment expressed by Erika Christakis in her book The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups (2016). In Chapter 2 (“Goldilocks Goes to Daycare”) Christakis describes the average preschool the following way:
“First we’ll bombard you with what educators call a print-rich environment, every wall and surface festooned with a vertiginous array of labels, vocabulary list, calendars, graphs, classroom rules, alphabet lists, number charts, and inspirational platitudes – few of those symbols you will be able to decode, a favorite buzzword for what used to be known as reading”(33).
In addition, hanging in plain sight, Christakis notes, are a myriad of mandated regulations: hand washing instructions, allergy procedures, and emergency exit diagrams:
‘In one study, researchers manipulated the amount of clutter on the walls of a laboratory classroom where kindergarteners were taught a series of science lessons. As the visual distraction increased, the children’s ability to focus, stay on task, and learn new information decrease” (33).
Christakis’s position is supported with research by researchers from The Holistic Evidence and Design (HEAD) which assessed hundred fifty-three U.K. classrooms to study the link of classroom environment to the learning of 3,766 pupils (ages 5-11). Researchers Peter Barrett, Fay Davies, Yufan Zhang, and Lucinda Barrett published the The Holistic Impact of Classroom Spaces on Learning in Specific Subjects (2016) and reviewed the impact of different factors on student learning measured by progress in reading, writing, and math.
The principle of stimulation included the measure the impact brought about by color and complexity:
“The scientific research into color is extensive and color can affect children’s moods, mental clarity, and energy levels (Englebrecht, 2003). The measure of complexity here relates to visual impact from both architectural and display elements in the classroom. For example, Fisher, Godwin, and Seltman (2014) found more distraction and off-task behavior in children in more visually complex environments” (Barret, et al).
Their results showed that both reading and writing performances were particularly affected by stimulation.
Stimulation in the form of posters has the potential of overwhelming a student’s working memory. According to Michael Hubenthal and Thomas O’Brien in their research Revisiting Your Classroom’s Walls: The Pedagogical Power of Posters (2009) a student’s working memory uses different components that process visual and verbal information . The “ visual complexity caused by an abundance of text and small images” can set up an overwhelming visual/verbal competition between text and graphics for which students must gain control in order to give meaning to information.
In contrast to overwhelming posters, there are good choices for classroom decorations. Education reformer Alfie Kohn published suggestions for decorating the classroom in his article Bad Signs (2010) fall issue of Kappa Delta Pi. He listed several “Good Signs” that a classroom could be decorated as a model learning environment:
Walls covered with student work;
Evidence of student collaboration;
Signs, exhibits, lists created by students (not the teacher);
Information and personal mementos from the people who learn in the classroom.
Kohn also stated that the best classrooms, regardless of age level or academic discipline, have a different approach to decoration, one that is distinctly non-commercial. The best classrooms:
“….often feature signs, exhibits, or other materials obviously created by the students themselves. And that includes students’ ideas for how to create a sense of community and learn together most effectively — as opposed to a list of rules imposed by the teacher (or summarized on a commercial poster)” (Kohn).
Just as too much color or text complexity will have a negative impact on student learning, a sterile classroom with too little decoration may not help to activate the students’ brains. Therefore, teachers should be prepared to decorate a classroom to make it an active place to learn. They could ask the following questions:
What purpose does this poster, sign or display serve?
Do these posters, signs, or items celebrate or support student learning?
Are the posters, signs, or displays current with what is being learned in the classroom?
Can the display be made interactive?
Is there white space in between wall displays to help the eye distinguish what is in the display?
Can students contribute to decorating the classroom (ask “What do you think could go inside that space?”)
These six questions can help teachers to create classrooms that can engage students without overstimulation.
Speaking of questions, the word questions starts with the letter Q…and thanks to that singular decoration in my elementary classroom, I know how to script a capital and lower case letter “Q”:
It is still a beautiful letter in cursive.
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