A few weeks ago, a middle school in the Bronx that I work with had a visit from their superintendent. She blasted them for their disorganized learning environments, and for good reason: classrooms were cluttered with charts serving little purpose aside from demonstrating the residue of what was once taught.
I also happened to speak recently with a pre-K teacher of children with autism who emphasized the importance of a calm, uncluttered environment for her students. She kept her walls mostly bare. She said that the idea that classroom walls need to have something on them is “old-fashioned thinking”; such educators think that “if I have a lot on the walls, then kids are learning a lot. But it’s more about the teacher than the kids.”
This teacher thinks deeply about what her students need, and she has realized that having very little up on the walls is critical to creating an environment for learning for students sensitive to visual stimulus.
I think at some level most teachers recognize this, when they are asked. At that middle school I mentioned, the leadership and then staff discussed what an effective classroom environment looked like, and the importance of a lack of clutter was raised.
Yet in all too many classrooms, especially in struggling schools, walls are strewn with the bricolage of lessons past. How many of those charts are actively referred to by students?
A small study in 2014 by Carnegie Mellon, as reported by NBC News, backs up the idea that clutter on classroom walls can have a detrimental effect on learning. They found that:
In the sparse classroom, the kindergartners got distracted by other students or even themselves. But in the decorated one, children were more likely to be distracted by the visual environment and spent far more time “off task.”
In other words, young children are easily distractable. So putting a bunch of stuff up on the walls will distract them even more. In heavens name, why would we deliberately make it harder for our kids to focus and learn?
And yet in too many classrooms and schools, we do exactly that. We create environments that make it harder for students to focus, rather than easier.
And why do we do that? Because all too often, we put things up for other adults, rather than for our students.
Look at all we are learning!, our classroom walls scream.
The irony: all those artifacts make it harder for students to learn.
Teachers, take an honest look at your classroom walls, and ask yourself: What is on my classroom walls? Why? Who is it for? How often (if at all) do my students refer to what’s there?
Here’s a rule of thumb to combat distraction: If what is up on your wall will not be referred to by your students in the next week or two, then take it down.
Take a picture of it if you want a record of it, or do like one great teacher I worked with did and tape it to a wire hanger and hang it in a closet or on a clothes rack for past anchor charts that you can bring back out as needed.