In Jamie Thom’s (2018) book ‘Slow Teaching’ he describes the classroom arena as a teachers space where they project powerful subliminal messages to those that enter. Each teachers classroom is a representation of them and their ideals for learning and teaching. Some teachers will have heavily decorated walls that have scores of students work amongst motivational posters and subject specific posters, while other teachers are happy for their walls to be bare and often decorate, maybe, every few years. However, have we ever stopped to consider the classroom as a learning space that could be hampered by the presence of displays that capture students attention time after time as they daydream during pivotal classroom dialogue.
Fisher et al. (2014) research has provided evidence that our classrooms are more influential than we may think when we consider students concentration and focus. In their paper ‘ Visual environment, attention allocation, and learning in young children: when too much of a good thing may be bad’ they concluded that students were less likely to remain focussed in a highly decorated classroom which then led to lower test scores. They note the following when comparing heavily decorated classrooms with sparsely decorated rooms:
In the sparse-classroom condition, the children spent only 3.21% of instructional time engaged in environmental distractions, whereas in the decorated- classroom condition, they spent 20.56% of instructional time engaged in environmental distractions
If you consider that a classroom is a space where teachers and students spend a huge amount of time, only giving 80% of your concentration will have a significant impact on student outcomes. This begs us to ask a very important question: What should we put up on the walls in my classroom?
It is also important to consider the classroom space as a whole. We should be deliberate in how we engineer the space with which we will work and demand the attention of 30+ children every hour.
Being an advocate of minimalism I feel that I can offer some guidance on this and have taken down displays in classrooms that I have inhabited previously but have been unsure of what to put in their place. It is important to note that Fisher et al.(2014) suggest that we should have completely bare walls and there should be something up there to motivate and inspire young people.
Suggestions that I have taken from books like ‘Slow Teaching’ by Jamie Thom and Ron Sergers (2003) ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ have lead me to consider the following strategies for building a purposeful and productive classroom arena that I would recommend:
- De-clutter: teachers are hoarders. We collect stuff, we keep stuff and we put stuff in any drawer or cupboard we find but we should tackle this clutter and have only in the classroom that which we will need everyday. If you have stuff everywhere it is impossible to achieve clear thinking and the concentration that I needed to tackle the complex problems that you present students. How can we expect young Henry to fully comprehend Pythagorus theorem if he is amused by the oil of books and junk you have hoarded behind him on the shelves? as Jamie Thom (2014) notes ‘it is impossible to function efficiently when our brains are overwhelmed and cluttered and this is especially true of our working environment’
- Embrace minimalism: Remind yourself how good it feels when you finally get round to your annual spring clean of your family home. Do the same in your classroom. Be ruthless when asking yourself what to keep or not when de cluttering your classroom. Ask yourself – what isn’t having a positive impact on my students ability to learn? act accordingly.
- Label everything: This is something I love to do to. Everything in my classroom has a label attached Toit and a home. I share this with every pupil that walks through the door. We all know where to get things and where to put them back once done. For me this saves valuable time and I very seldom have to answer the question ‘do you have a rubber sir?’
- Become a ‘Historian of Excellence’: As mentioned earlier it is important that the walls aren’t left bare. After all we don’t want young people making jokes comparing classrooms to jail cells. One way I would recommend a teacher for using their walls is by placing excellent work of pupils on an “Excellence in my classroom” wall. This celebrates the achievements of young people but also communicates the standards of excellence we expect from all of your young people. This enables you to become what Ron Berger (2003) defines in ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ a historian of excellence where he notes ‘these examples set the standards for what I want my students to aspire to achieve in school’. A word of caution here, make sure that you continually update your ‘Excellence Wall’ as it may become just another example of wallpaper. Be proud to become a historian of excellence.