Dr. Maryrose Caulfield here. We are currently struggling through the dog days of August, which, as any educator will tell you, is a harbinger of the start of school soon to come. Stores and television commercials showcase the latest items for fall. Teachers begin to gather materials together, look at plans for the new year and think about setting up their classrooms.
Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting The Blue School, a progressive, private school in the South Street Seaport area of New York City. Yes, as you may have wondered, the school was founded by members of the Blue Man Group in concert with other visionaries who developed an educational program that focuses on on developing creative thinking. For those of you who know the work of the Blue Man Group, no ponchos were required!
In addition to the overwhelming sense of community, something that struck me immediately about The Blue School is that the walls of the entire school were completely white. This provided a “blank canvas” for the work of school to be displayed as it evolved. At the forefront of this notion was the importance of students creating the space – providing what the displays would be as they created them, and tying it to their learning experiences as they evolved. This, it became clear, was a huge driver in the building of their community.
Having sat in countless classrooms over my many years in education, I often wonder just what the effect of classroom “decor” is on student learning. Recently a study was performed by Carnegie Mellon University that followed a group of kindergarteners in two classrooms. One classroom had bare walls and the other was decorated as most classrooms would be, with commercial materials such as posters, pictures, etc. The results of the study found that students in the highly decorated room were more distracted and scored lower on tests than the students in the bare walls classroom. Highly-decorated classrooms appear to be more of a distraction to learning, particularly for primary grade students and children with special learning needs.
Additionally, as with the Blue School, utilizing student work in classrooms helps build a high level of community. Dr. Sheryl Reinisch, Dean of the College of Education, Concordia University-Portland, explains that research studies indicate high-quality classroom environments “help children feel safe, secure, and valued. As a result, self-esteem increases and students are motivated to engage in the learning process.”
For secondary students, a voice in shaping their learning space goes a long way towards helping them develop connections and ownership in their classroom. The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture points out how important it is for students to have a space they can “call their own.” Their literature explains, “Feelings of comfort and welcome in a shared space are vital to the level in which we feel invited to take part.” This encourages students to take pride in their space, to support each other’s efforts to contribute ideas and maintain organization.
The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture further indicates that “Features of any architectural Classroom Decorenvironment can have an influence on certain brain processes such as those involved in stress, emotion and memory” (Edelstein 2009). Clearly it is not possible to control all the aspects of the physical structure of a building, but the choices a teacher makes in their classroom can be.
A study by the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute discusses how the brain sorts out competing stimuli. “Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation…” In layman’s terms this means, when there are competing stimuli in an environment such as a classroom, these multiply generated nerve impulses simultaneously rush to the same area of the student’s brain needed for focus.
Michael Hubenthal and Thomas O’Brien reached the same conclusion in their research Revisiting Your Classroom’s Walls: The Pedagogical Power of Posters (2009). A student’s working memory uses different components to process visual and verbal information. Hubenthal and O’Brien found that too many posters, regulations, or information sources have the potential to overwhelm a student’s working memory. “The visual complexity caused by an abundance of text and small images can set up an overwhelming visual/verbal competition between text and graphics for which students must gain control in order to give meaning to information.”
How do we make sense of all this information? I feel like a student, overwhelmed with all the data. It is, however, important to make the same informed decisions teachers make about lesson construction when it comes to decorating the classroom. For example, consider putting up resources such as charts, only for the lesson and not as a continual display. Allow students to vote on the most helpful resources at the beginning of the year. Make a survey that asks students about what resources they want to see and what visual tools help them the most.
Luckily, we can turn to experienced veterans for guidance. Angela Watson is a National Board-Certified Teacher with eight years of experience as a K-12 instructional coach and eleven years of experience in the classroom. Check out her link below for great advice to address the issue of an overstimulating classroom.