Getting the Principles Just Right: Classroom Decoration

The benefits of classroom decoration seem intuitive.

After all, we decorate our homes in order to make ourselves — and our guests — comfortable there.

An artist's table, covered with an organized but overwhelming collection on pencils, pens, markers, and so forth

Little wonder that decorating a classroom feels like a natural way to welcome our students, and make them feel right at home.

Also compelling: we can control our classroom decoration.

Whereas so many other parts of teaching life must respond — second by second — to the random chaos of young learners, our classrooms show what we can do when our plans come beautifully to fruition.

And, let’s be honest: we’re often evaluated on classroom decoration. If we can get easy points for decoration on an evaluation form — why not grab them?

To add to all these incentives, let’s add the potential for one more: research. I often see highly specific claims about the benefits of classroom decoration.

For instance, one popular blog post notes that research encourages classroom decorations  — although teachers should leave 20% of wall space blank. (I’ll come back to this number, so it might be worth remembering.)

Beyond Intuition

If our intuition and experience tell us that classroom decorations benefit students, can we find research support for that intuition?

For several years now, research has increasingly thrown those intuitions into doubt.

For the most part, research suggests that classroom decorations can overwhelm students’ limited cognitive resources: working memory, and attention.

Ten years ago, a research team found that kindergarten students learn less in “more” decorated classrooms compared to “less” decorated ones.

Over several years, a research team in Portugal has found that K-16 students score lower on attention and working memory tests taken in busy environments.

Most recently, researchers found that students don’t get used to decorations. That is: decorations distract students in the first week of school, and still distract them 15 weeks later.

If we set intuition (and training) aside, the research-based answer to our question seems clear: less decoration probably results in more concentration and learning.

And yet, in my experience, teachers find this research-based answer unsatisfying…even alarming.

We have, after all, been trained to decorate. We’ve been evaluated on our decorations. The colleagues we most esteem, and the grad-school professors who seemed the wisest, all champion the importance of decoration.

What should we do when our beliefs (decorate more!) crash into research findings (decorate less!).

Guiding Principles

Earlier posts this month have focused on getting details just right. This post, instead, looks at core principles.

First Principle: when research and intuition/training conflict, resist the urge to choose one over the other. Ask if we can improve teaching by drawing on both perspectives.

In this case: can we use research to inform our decorating strategy?

For instance, this well-known review crunches an ENORMOUS amount of data. Only a few of its conclusions focus narrowly on “decoration,” but at least one point strikes me as important.

Specifically, researchers look at the question of “ownership”: the degree to which the students feel like the classroom belongs to them. Their conclusion:

Personal displays by the children create a ‘sense of ownership’ and this was significantly correlated with learning progress.

The word “correlated” is important in that sentence. We can’t say that putting up students’ work causes them to learn more.

But: if both research and our teacherly intuition suggest that personal displays boost learning — that’s a great combination right there.

Second principle: keep the decorations largely academic.

Twenty years ago, I used to have lots of interesting photographs and posters and quotations up in my room. They didn’t relate directly to the material I taught — but they seemed somehow inspiring and energizing.

These days, I keep things much simpler. For instance: I have a set of posters highlighting analytical vocabulary (definitions of “metaphor” and “personification” and “symbolism”).

We have some research suggesting that — in addition to a sense of “ownership” — classroom decorations that highlight academic content can boost learning.

Third principle: investigate research-based claims skeptically.

I noted above that a blog post encourages teachers to leave 20% of the wall space blank. This blog cites the Barrett study to make that claim…but I don’t find evidence to support it anywhere.

Several years ago, I reviewed a book on the subject of classrom design and decoration. It had exactly ZERO footnotes.

When I emailed the author to ask for the research basis of his suggestions, he responded: “It’s ALL based on research.” He did not, however, provide any citations.

So, if someone tells you that “the research shows…,” ask them “what research?” Keep asking until you get an answer.

If you don’t get an answer, you know what to do.

Fourth principle: all in all, less is probably more.

Based on the research cited above, I think our profession has largely gotten in the habit of over-decorating.

It’s painful to admit that old habits might not have been wise; but, now that we know better we can do better.

When we think about each bit of classroom decoration, the question we should ask is not “why should we take it down?” but “am I sure I need to put it up?”

No doubt we can find ways to make our classrooms welcoming, comfortable, and scholarly without overwhelming our students’ cognitive abilities.

Barrett, P., Davies, F., Zhang, Y., & Barrett, L. (2015). The impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning: Final results of a holistic, multi-level analysis. Building and Environment89, 118-133.

Fisher, A. V., Godwin, K. E., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual environment, attention allocation, and learning in young children: When too much of a good thing may be bad. Psychological science25(7), 1362-1370.

Godwin, K. E., & Kaur, F. (2021). The Decorated Learning Environment: Simply Noise or an Opportunity for Incidental Learning?. In Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (Vol. 43, No. 43).

Godwin, K. E., Leroux, A. J., Seltman, H., Scupelli, P., & Fisher, A. V. (2022). Effect of Repeated Exposure to the Visual Environment on Young Children’s Attention. Cognitive science46(2), e13093.

Rodrigues, P. F., & Pandeirada, J. N. (2018). When visual stimulation of the surrounding environment affects children’s cognitive performance. Journal of experimental child psychology176, 140-149.

tags: category: L&B Blog

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