Displays of pointlessness

25th September 2015 at 01:00

Nature abhors a vacuum and classrooms abhor empty walls. Every school I’ve ever worked in seemed to make it its core aim to replace wallpaper and paint with posters and mobiles.

I’ve been in clean and well-lit rooms where senior staff sniffily rolled their eyes at bare walls, devoid of essays and inspirational posters about Gandhi/Norman Wisdom. It seems to be a default: that the only good wall is a learning wall. Rarely have I heard it said that we mustn’t decorate our walls. Such a thing is practically taboo.

But why? What is the point of all these displays and tapestries? The amount of effort that has collectively gone into their creation and execution could have merrily built a freeway across the Atlantic.

My favourite/least favourite outcome of this addiction to decoration is when an inspector approvingly mentions the presence of a “how to achieve the next level” display. When was the last time a student ever stood and pondered such a piece of bureaucracy?

What really tickles me is when teachers and assistants slave away for hours producing such boards, only to display them at the back of the classroom – the opposite direction from the one in which the children commonly face.

Is there any evidence that these displays aid learning? Or is it the classroom equivalent of the “learn while you sleep” movement – a well-meant but brainless aspiration to learn subliminally?

Motivational posters are a particular bugbear of mine. Who in the history of the world has ever looked at one and thought, “you know what, I can do it”?

There is a pretty simple answer to all this: we do it because we want to appear to be boiler rooms of learning and wisdom. The reality of it is the opposite: we ape the genuine conditions for learning in a kind of cargo-cult riot of what learning apparently looks like.

But real learning takes place in the inner space of the student’s mind, and in the magical space between the teacher’s launchpad and the class’ landing strips.

All that clutter on the wall is pleasant junk, as far as learning goes – as useful to the cognitive voyage as stabilisers on a space shuttle.

Another reason we do it is because we imagine it’s what parents and inspectors want. “See,” we say to them, “we even teach them silently, with walls and magic.”

That said, there is one good reason to dress our rooms with displays and student exemplars: it looks nice.

Creating an aesthetically pleasing environment is no trivial end. It makes them happy; it makes us happy. And I’m happy for that to be the end of the matter, as long as we don’t fool ourselves that all that effort produces any real learning gains. In the giant opportunity-cost raffle of school workload, can we afford to be doing things that have very little impact at all?

I’m off now to build a papier-mâché Versailles, emblazoned with the words: “We value you because you are the magic of the future.”

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s new school behaviour expert

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