Clever Classrooms

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Do our classrooms overstimulate pupils?

I walked into a classroom the other day and I was attacked. It sort of came out of the blue … and the yellow and the red and the green. Initially, I felt like I had been blinded but then this gave way to feeling suffocated and claustrophobic. It was busy, too busy and the children hadn’t even arrived yet. I just didn’t know where to look and after hitting my head on some mobiles and getting caught up in a washing line I knew I had to find the emergency exit and bail out. Imagine actually being in a class like that all day?

Classroom displays and decorations add real value to a child’s experience and they are used to pique interest and encourage engagement. I’ve seen some great displays and I’d like to think I’ve done a fair few of my own but sometimes less is more. I know colleagues who subscribe to the bare walls theory but most of these tend to work outside of primary … but not all of them. A few of my primary colleagues deliberately plan for having empty wall space because they believe that too much stimulation is distracting and can harm learning.

Do No Harm

A large body of evidence supports the idea that too much of a good thing can be bad for children.

Research from Carnegie Mellon University found that children in highly decorated classrooms were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed.

Anna Fisher, lead author and associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences said,

“Young children spend a lot of time — usually the whole day — in the same classroom, and we have shown that a classroom’s visual environment can affect how much children learn,”

For the study, 24 kindergarten children were taught in laboratory classrooms for six science lessons on topics they were unfamiliar with. Three of these lessons were taught in a decoration-heavy  classroom, and three lessons were given in a spartan classroom.

The results showed that children learned in both classrooms but they learned more when the room was not heavily adorned. Children’s accuracy on test questions was higher in the sparse classroom (55 percent correct) than in the decorated classroom (42 percent correct).

Get Some HEAD Space

It is quite clear that we all need some head space to learn and filling a room from floor to ceiling isn’t going to help us focus.

‘Clever Classrooms’, the University of Salford summary report of the HEAD project (Holistic Evidence and Design), say their single most important finding is that,

“there is clear evidence that the physical characteristics of primary schools do impact on pupils’ learning progress in reading, writing and mathematics.”

Led by Professor Peter Barrett, the Salford research team spent  three years collecting pupil data and carrying out detailed surveys of 153 classrooms from 27 diverse schools across three local authorities. They found that well-designed classrooms can boost learning progress in primary school pupils by up to 16% in a single year. They suggest:

“The displays on the walls should be designed to provide a lively sense to the classroom, but without becoming chaotic in feel. As a rule of thumb 20-50% of the available wall space should be kept clear.”

The report contains very simple, quick and cost-effective advice and tips for teachers and teachers can readily action many of the findings of the research to make a real difference to primary school pupils’ learning progress.

For more information about Clever Classrooms then please click here.

Get Stuffed

The amount of ‘stuff’ in a classroom tends to decrease the higher children climb through the school years. When it comes to displays, secondary classrooms are barren wastelands compared to the rich rainforests of primary classrooms. Visiting one secondary school recently, it just felt soulless and cried out for some TLC – there were so few displays in classrooms and those that did have them were ‘decorated’ with token-gestured posters. Too much visual stimulation can negatively impact learning but not enough may also do the same.

A high quality learning environment has a direct impact on the standards and attitudes of pupils and we need to strike a balance between overstimulating and under-stimulating them.

13 thoughts on “Clever Classrooms

  1. John

    This is a great article about such a potentially powerful driver for progress for schools/teachers. I’ve already shared it with the head of the school where I am governor. Thanks for writing and sharing.

    It would be even better if you also included links to your sources, e.g., so that readers can easily find out more about the research and advice you refer to.


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