Why your 'working wall' isn't working

For 'working walls' to effectively support learning, we can't treat them like any old classroom displays, says this primary maths lead

Stevie Devlin

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How often do we get told that our displays need to be improved? I’ve worked in schools where there has been a whole-school focus on displays. For me, this seems like a waste of time. The focus should be on developing effective "working walls" that pupils can get something out of, rather than wasting time on making sure that each piece of work is double-backed onto black card, so that visitors can be impressed.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe that we should instil pride into our learners and that displaying their work helps to develop this sense of achievement. But working walls serve a totally different purpose to displays. Unlike a traditional display, a working wall should support children in their learning and help them to become more independent. 

However, in many schools, we use the term "display" and "working wall" interchangeably and this is where problems arises. The term "display" is used for a variety of different purposes, including: a celebration of work, sharing behaviour tools, communicating classroom information or helping pupils to recall key learning. To talk about all these types of display under the same title can lead to confusion and ambiguity.

So, how can we make sure that our working walls are working?

Regular updates

For me, the key is to keep the wall fresh and to update it regularly. How many of us have put up an amazing working wall at the start of term – one that took hours to make – only to leave it up for far too long because you can't bear to take it down? It might look pretty, but if a working wall doesn’t contain up-to-date supporting materials, then it is not going to do its job. It's no use having a wonderful maths working wall about "area" if we stopped looking at "area" three weeks ago and have moved onto "translation" now.

The fact is that once children get used to the information on working walls, those carefully-crafted displays begin to turn to wallpaper. The best way to make sure that your working walls are still supporting learning is to update them regularly. We all know that teachers have a never-ending list of things to do – a list that grows faster than we can tick things off of it. With workload what it is, we will never be able to complete those to-do lists, but allowing working wall refreshes to continually slip further and further down the list will be to the detriment of learners.

Don't delegate

Another problem is that, in some cases, teachers offload the responsibility of updating working walls to a teaching assistant. This might help in terms of time management, but it should not absolve the teacher fully of responsibility. While I often ask my teaching assistant to help me with my working walls, I never delegate the task entirely.

The most useful working walls should support the teaching of lessons and also serve as an access point for children, aiding independent working. To make sure that the walls deliver, it is important that the teacher is actively involved in this process. So, let’s stop covering display boards for the sake of it and focus on updating those working walls to make sure that they are doing their job.

Stevie Devlin is a Year 6 teacher and maths lead at Bursted Wood Primary School in Kent. He tweets @devlin_steven

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