How to create class displays that pay off

Cluttered walls distract from learning, research finds. But you don't have to teach in a stark white box – just keep things simple
27th March 2015, 12:00am


How to create class displays that pay off

Hands up everyone who loves their staple gun and has a set of letter stencils especially for making displays. You lot are on my team. Our mission: to spam our classroom walls with as much children's work and colourful wondrousness as possible.

In the other corner are the opposition: the eye-rollers who argue that they haven't got time to footle about with backing paper and say they'd rather hand the job over to their teaching assistant because it's all a bit of a chore.

Then there are those who lurk in the middle ground: they like a display, but only if it's relevant. They are certainly not going to stay until 7pm to turn their reading areas into crpe paper rainforests, or dice with death by balancing on a ladder to dangle "wow" words from the ceiling.

But, love them or hate them, classroom displays have always been seen as an integral part of primary schools. And pupils surely enjoy being in such a colourful, visually stimulating learning environment.

Imagine my horror, then, when I came across a study suggesting that my belief in pretty pictures making for pleasurable learning was preposterous.

Bare essentials

Academics at Carnegie Mellon University in the US set out to discover how the classroom environment impacts on learning and, more specifically, whether all the tissue paper and bunting you stick on your walls could actually be hampering students' learning.

Their report, Visual Environment, Attention Allocation and Learning in Young Children: when too much of a good thing may be bad, explains that focused attention is crucial to learning and that younger children are far more easily distracted than older ones. It points out that these pupils tend to be educated in the same classroom each year for the majority of their primary schooling - a room that is typically covered in displays and work relating to a variety of topics. "Therefore, students are exposed to large amounts of visual materials that are not relevant for the ongoing instruction," the report says.

The researchers set about testing whether this decoration was having a negative impact by taking 24 children in the lowest tier of primary schooling in the US (with an average age of 5), splitting them into two groups and putting them in different classrooms. One room was decorated with everything from science posters to children's artwork. The other was bare.

"[Children] spent significantly more instructional time off task in the decorated classroom condition than in the sparse classroom condition," the report concludes. Test scores were also higher in the bare classroom.

This is probably one of the most depressing work-related bits of news I could have broken to you. The research really does seem to suggest that we should all be teaching in white boxes.

But wait! There's more. "We are not advocating sterilising the learning environments," the report continues (phew). "Further research is needed to examine the optimal level of visual stimulation in the primary grade classrooms."

So, we can stick stuff on our walls, but no one is quite sure how much and of what type.

Enough is enough

Confused, I seek help. My first port of call is other teachers. What do they think should have a place on the classroom wall? And how much is too much?

Lesley King, a primary specialist in the North East of England, says: "I think it's got to be useful and relevant to what you're studying, but it should also be a space to celebrate great work, as that can be motivational.

"Also, you don't want so much on the wall that you can't actually see what's on it. Everything on a wall needs its own personal space."

Another view comes from Patsy O'Donovan, a learning support assistant at Springhill Catholic Primary School in Southampton who was employed specifically to organise displays for each class. "We are very lucky to have Patsy as she has the time and talents to produce wonderful displays," says assistant headteacher Michaela Waterfield. "Schools without this fabulous resource would depend on their already overloaded teachers to maintain and produce the same sort of environment."

As you might expect, O'Donovan has clear ideas about what makes an effective display. "A good display is well presented and has a mix of resources to encourage and inspire learning," she says. "It should also present pupils' work in its best light. Attention must be given to things such as the quality of the backing paper that is used and making sure that every element is cut straight and displayed neatly. Tatty displays should be given first aid as soon as possible.

"A display requires some thought: choice of colour, font and images, and how to display children's work," O'Donovan adds. "A very busy display can detract from its original purpose, and it shouldn't become `wallpaper' and go unnoticed by the children. Hanging displays are great if they are relevant to the subject; they can excite children and promote interest."

A different perspective

It's all useful advice: we teachers can sometimes be guilty of a slightly haphazard approach to displays and it would be wise if we employed a little strategy alongside our enthusiasm.

This is certainly the view of Elizabeth Jarman, who has developed the "communication-friendly spaces approach". She works in many schools and says that staff can often lose sight of the audience for displays.

"They should be for the children; to help them to learn, to feel comfortable at school and to value their work," Jarman says. "They should not be used as a public way of demonstrating what a good job you're doing. The children don't care how well you can mount their work - they just care that it's on the wall in the first place."

She asks me to think about a display from the perspective of a child: is it at the right height for them? Can they read the labels? Does it reflect the process of learning? Can they use it to trigger recall? Can they identify which piece of work is theirs? Are too many colours competing for their attention and making it difficult to focus?

Jarman also warns about overloading your room. "If you want children to be engaged," she says, "don't put them somewhere frenetic."

She advises keeping one wall clear, and not displaying anything on windows as this stops natural light from coming into the room. Unlike O'Donovan, Jarman is not a fan of dangling displays from the ceiling, arguing that they are too high for children to use meaningfully, so merely serve as a distraction. It's also advisable to put children's artwork on the wall at the back of the classroom, she says, or to screen-off displays when you need everyone's attention.

Samantha Jaspal, headteacher of Berkhamsted Pre-Prep School, recently implemented some of this advice, opting to swap bright table tops for natural wood, for example, and colourful backing paper for muted, neutral tones. She says the classrooms already feel calmer, but the children haven't actually mentioned the changes. Some of the teachers have voiced their opinions, though.

"Not all staff like the look of a beige, natural classroom and some have likened it to a Swedish furniture store showroom," Jaspal says. "However, they have all moved to pastel-coloured backing paper and primary colours are on the way out."

If I were told to take down my lovingly crafted displays, I'd feel a bit put out, but when you really think about it, this advice makes sense. Of course cluttered walls and too many jarring, bright colours are distracting. That doesn't mean we have to teach in white boxes, but it might mean we have to tone down our enthusiasm a little.

Now I'm itching to declutter my classroom, to give it a calming pale green feature wall and back all my boards with hessian. I promise I'm going to draw the line at tastefully arranging some sticks in a vase, though - after all, this is a primary school, not Ikea.

Lisa Jarmin is a primary teacher in the North West of England

Seven tips for an effective display

1. Rethink your backing paper. Pastel colours are calming, and neutrals let artwork speak for itself. Think of a gallery: the walls are left plain to make the art stand out. Hessian and cork are low-maintenance, neutral backings and have interesting natural textures.

2. Think about the decoration of your classroom in the same way as your home. A soft, warm colour scheme creates a cosy, calm environment.

3. Consider investing in frames to display children's work. They look great, which boosts self-esteem, and are easy to change as you don't need to pull out staples and replace backing paper.

4. It may be better to have learning aids (such as hundred squares and number lines) that are easily accessible to pupils on their tables rather than displayed on the wall.

5. Familiar items can make younger children feel more comfortable in the classroom. Consider displaying family photographs or cultural artefacts that they can identify with.

6. Personalise your class for your students. For example, encourage a "have a go" attitude by displaying pictures of pupils learning to use scissors or practising cursive handwriting.

7. Keep it relevant. All work on display should have been made by your current class and should reflect what they are learning right now, not previous topics.

What else?

Reinforce simple vocabulary with this display about nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs.


These adaptable posters can also serve as table-top reminders of lesson topics.


Personalise this birthday display for each child in your class.



Fisher, A V, Godwin, K E, and Seltman, H (2014) "Visual Environment, Attention Allocation and Learning in Young Children: when too much of a good thing may be bad", Psychological Science, 257: 1362-70

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