Recently for a staff meeting, we took the time to walk through each others classrooms. It may surprise you that teachers do not always get to visit other classrooms in the school, especially those in a different phase or year level. However, with the pace of school life, this does not happen as often as we might think. The goal was to see how learning progresses throughout the year levels through common themes, for example, the Learner Profile up in every classroom, different ideas for displays, resources and so on.
It was an idea that was met with a lot of enthusiasm and certainly sparked lots of discussion both during and after the visits. At the end of the walk through, we met to talk about what we had seen, the ideas we had picked up and the things that we wanted further discussion on.
A topic that generated lots of discussion was around classroom displays, specifically as to whether or not these are helpful or distracting to learning. Personally, I love classrooms that are full of colour, words, pictures and ideas. I enjoy walking into a classroom and be surrounded by student work and examples of the learning that is taking place. I remember loving a busy, colourful learning environment as a child and remember actually being distracted by the bare walls of my secondary classes, hating going into those rooms that I thought of as 'boring' because of the lack of displays or any sort of visual stimulation.
I was therefore, surprised to find that some of my colleagues find exactly the opposite, that they find the very colour and stimulation of the displays that I enjoy so much, distracting. One teacher has a corner where the displays are simpler, there are fewer colours and the graphics are plainer, specifically to cater for students who like less visual stimulation.
There has been some interesting research around this area. Researchers from the Carnegie Mellon University set up some laboratory classrooms and led their 'students' through six introductory science lessons on topics they were unfamiliar with. They found that their 'students' were more distracted in highly decorated classrooms and spent more time off task than when the lessons were conducted in bare wall classrooms. Of course, consideration needs to be given to the many variables that would be present in such an experiment and further research in 'real' classrooms has been called for.
So where does the balance lie? How do teachers ensure that the colour I love so much does not distract from the learning of others who need a calmer visual learning environment? I guess it lies, as always, in striking a balance and being being cognisant of the learners in each classroom. In my opinion, displays need to be student centered, not just decorative for decoration sake, but relate to and enhance understanding by being meaningfully referenced and connected to the current learning that is happening. It also needs to be, where possible, interactive- the 'Wonder Walls' that many of our classrooms have, is a good example of an interactive learning environment.
It was very interesting to have this discussion as a staff, to realise that we have very real differences in the environmental conditions that help us learn. The discussion underscored and reminded us that we have to know our students well, not just academically, but emotionally as well- and know what works best for them as a collective while attending to individual differences.