Classroom displays: a topic that divides the teaching community like no other.
Some people love their displays of pupils’ work or of subject information. They’ll spend hours triple-mounting pieces of paper on complementary colours and laying them out with care and dedication.
Others, however, argue that such classroom displays offer little in terms of pupil learning and may actually do more harm than good.
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I was once firmly in that first camp. The wall at the front of my first classroom was covered with motivational quotes to inspire my pupils, there was a word wall with dozens of key words from my subject that pupils could refer to, sentence starters and connectives, examples of excellent work and even a world map, carefully annotated to highlight the places we would be studying.
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I thought the word wall, sentence starters and excellent work on display would act as scaffolding for my classes and allow them to get unstuck without my help, helping to build self-regulation.
I also hoped to inspire them with examples of their own work, and that of others, and create an environment that encouraged them to work hard.
Looking back now, I have to say, this was not a success. Here’s why.
1. Word walls don’t help – they may hinder
The first problem with the hopes and dreams I had for my classroom displays was with the word wall. These are very common in classrooms up and down the country and tend to display words that pupils need to use in a subject or that are commonly misspelled. This often forms part of a school’s whole-school literacy policy.
The issue is that there are just too many words that we need in our subjects. I would need dozens for one topic alone and could be teaching seven different topics at once across a year group. What chance has any pupil got in finding the word they actually need from such a display?
The second problem is with one of the intentions behind these word walls, that of developing self-regulation, whereby pupils develop strategies to get themselves unstuck from a problem without always relying on the teacher's help (see the EEF Self-regulation and Metacognition Guidance Report).
However, in what other scenario will a word wall display be a useful strategy? They won’t have one in an exam and they won’t have one anywhere else in their life. This doesn’t build self-regulation but a new form of reliance.
2. Examples of excellent work are not inspiring
We hope that examples of excellent work will act as useful models to pupils, that they will read this work and be able to apply the strengths to their own work.
The first issue with this is that reading the work doesn’t mean they understand why it is excellent and, even if they did, it doesn’t mean they can apply the lessons to their own work.
Secondly, it is very unlikely that putting this work on display will ever mean it is being read. I am lucky enough in my job to have the opportunity to go into a lot of classrooms in a lot of different schools and one thing I have noticed is that, while almost all of them will have a display of work in it, almost none of this is really visible (or at least legible) from where pupils are sat. And most pupils are completely unaware of the content of things on display even when they are sat next to it.
3. Displays are distracting
When classroom displays are being noticed, we might not want them to be.
Research by Anna Fisher et al (2014), "Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning in Young Children: When Too Much of a Good Thing May Be Bad", 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.”
Classroom displays can split pupils' attention between the place where we want it to be and these beautiful displays we work so hard on. If they are thinking about the inspirational poster above the board, they aren’t thinking about the information on the board.
This may be especially significant for pupils with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) who are more likely to struggle if there is too much information presented at once. Trying to concentrate on the relevant information on the board when this board is surrounded by posters, pupils’ work and lists of words, could prove to be too much stimulation; see Keith McAllister’s The ASD Friendly Classroom – Design Complexity, Challenge and Characteristics.
The final problem with these classroom displays is that not only are they are unlikely to do what we want them to do, not only are they actually likely to backfire and cause problems, they are also hugely time-consuming.
Beautiful displays take up hours of time and need refreshing frequently if there is even a hope of them not becoming easily ignored background noise.
Have a look at the classroom display ideas on Pinterest and just work out what else could have been achieved in the time it took to make the 3D model of The Incredible Hulk to illustrate some “incredible work”.
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Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is some evidence that the physical classroom environment can have an impact on pupil learning; such as that presented by The University of Salford’s Clever Classrooms.
This, though, tends to be less about displays and more about classrooms being well laid out, with natural light and neutral colours. It doesn’t suggest that we should be finding the time to make papier-mache superheroes.
If we are going to use our classroom walls for displays then it would seem sensible to deploy a “less is more” strategy and only include things we will be referring to directly.
Take down the word walls and instead write up the key words for each lesson on a whiteboard at the front of the room. Remove excellent work from the back of the room and display it on the board so that it can be discussed or display it at parents’ evening when people have time to look at it properly and celebrate this achievement.
Most of all we need to look again at our classrooms through the eyes of our pupils and ask ourselves what they are really getting out of it and who this display is really for. Is it really going to help us learn or is it more about us as teachers?
If we accept it is the latter, we may need to leave our ego at the door and off the walls.
Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His first book, Making Every Geography Lesson Count, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark