Good looks are important
Some writers appeared to suggest that elaborate displays were a necessary condition if pupils were to mature psychologically. More often than not this was just bad science and inappropriate application of important theories about children's development.
These days, teachers are much more concerned with the details of the national curriculum and pupil assessment than impressing the school adviser. However, it would be a pity if teachers felt that they had to apologise for continuing to emphasis and promote effective classroom displays. For in a variety of ways they continue to contribute much to the life, work and ethos of a primary school.
An effective display helps create an interesting and stimulating place for teachers and children to work. Much has been made of the inadequate state of school buildings across the country. In many schools, children have to work in unappealing and unattractive surroundings. Yet, effective displays can do much to enliven the drabbest of buildings.
Good displays also add to the atmosphere and ethos of a school. Even in these hard-nosed days of choice and league tables, most parents still comment favourably if they visit a school for the first time and find children's work prominently displayed.
Effective displays suggest that pupils' work is valued. Such a signal is often consistent with school policy which rewards the positive and does not always focus on the negative. It is also a way of highlighting the work of all children: boys and girls, more able and less able, tidy and untidy. It is not a trendy notion to state that children learn from the environment around them. But if display is to be used to best effect, it is not simply about creating a "nice" atmosphere. An effective policy for display must be related to the educational intentions of the school.
Firstly, the standard of display acts as a model for pupils' work more generally. There is little point in encouraging children to take pride in their work, present it neatly and be conscious of their audience if classroom displays are scrappy, tattered and ill-thought out. Good presentational skills are increasingly important today.
A primary school can contribute a great deal to children's understanding of this subject both by the standards it sets for individual work and the model it presents in the wider environment.
Secondly, a range of skills can be developed by pupils as they contribute to classroom displays. In some cases, the best displays can be the worst example. If the teacher has done all the work from planning the display, through mounting the work to putting it up, there is little or no educational benefit for the children.
Yet, children can learn much from being involved. They can evaluate the design features of the room and decide what displays would work best. For example, if a classroom has a lot of glass, the children will need to consider the light on the display. Will it hinder the ability of others to enjoy it? Will natural light ruin it? Can the light be used to good advantage by highlighting particular features of the display?
It is also important to allow children to prepare many of the materials for the display. In some cases, redrafting of work and elaborate mounting is appropriate. This can be useful for children to learn.
However, if children are spending inordinate amounts of time preparing materials for display then it is of questionable value. All children should be taught how to mount work so as to present it to best advantage. Again the "perfect" display may not be the best display if the teacher has effectively imposed a uniform style.
Good displays will also show work in progress. Too often a display is the culmination of a major study. It can be used to build up a theme. A display need not always show the finished product. The rough notes, sketches and drawings are also valuable as they illustrate how children have reached a conclusion.
Too often displays are inert and become no more than alternatives to paint and wallpaper. The best display will draw children to it. It will be laid out in a way that encourages them to read the writing and look at the illustrations. It will also be interactive, with things for children to do. For example, it may include reference tasks or puzzles which will encourage children to seek information elsewhere in the display. There may be things to touch, try out, look at. The display should arouse curiosity, provide information, be interesting and stimulate further work.
Often the most interesting displays are not those which appear to be a shrine to children's work. Children have to contribute photograph s and artefacts, from home. Such a display also looks less sterile and can more often stimulate the interest of the casual visitor to the classroom.
Essentially, a display has to be easy to maintain. A series of small displays on a range of topics can be just as effective and probably more simple to keep on top of. And finally, children need to be trained to use displays. It is too easy to assume that if a display goes up, children will automatically gravitate towards it.
No-one would pretend that a display is essential to an effective education. That kind of ideology is now rightly discredited. But a rounded education should include the development of aesthetic awareness, a sensitivity to the environment and the opportunity to take pride in good presentation. An effective display is one way of helping children to become more aware of the world around them and celebrate appropriately their many achievements at school.
TEN WAYS TO SHOW WHAT YOU'VE GOT
1 Allow the children to plan the display and ensure that they have every opportunity to contribute to it.
2 Think about the design of the classroom and how the display can make the most of "natural" features such as walls and windows.
3 Have some kind of backing or lining paper on the wall on which the display is to be mounted. This will make the display more striking and interesting.
4 If children's writing is to be displayed, ensure that it can be read by other pupils and visitors.
5 Mounting children's work is an effective way of high-lighting its quality. However, ensure that the children learn how to mount their own work and that it does not become an over elaborate exercise.
6 Have both two and three dimensional work on display.
7 Break the line of sight by having materials hung from ceilings and stuck out from the wall.
8 Encourage children to bring in artefacts and pictures to contribute to the display.
9 Encourage the children to respond to the display by providing books, photographs, puzzles, activities which will encourage them to re-visit the display.
10 If possible, attempt to change a major display every half term.
David Bell, a former primary head, is chief education officer, Newcastle City Council