Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Visually Stimulating or a Noisy Nuisance?

I have always prided myself on having a stimulating, literacy-rich classroom, however if you step into my classroom at the beginning of the school year, the walls are anything but! They are always basically bare. They are waiting ... Waiting for our students, so that we could build our classroom space and fill it with learning and experiences that are meaningful for us, together.

As the year progresses our displays are colourful and current, and celebrate the learning that happens in our classroom. I keep teacher-made resources to a minimum, although do display learning aides that are referred to on a daily basis around the room (such as high frequency word charts, SOLO Taxonomy and Task Boards). I have enjoyed watching students take the opportunity to “read around the room” and share their learning with their friends, family and visitors. My students have always beamed with joy when their work has been displayed, and it is always celebrated.

I’ve had colleagues describe my classroom environment as lovely, stimulating, bright, colourful, cheerful, a celebration – even "a visual symphony!" I’ve now taken to placing students work up the window pillars as I complain about not having enough wall space - So what brings me to this reflection?

Our Principal recently declared that if there is something that resonates with you, for a number of days, and you find yourself pondering it in your sleep – then its touched you in a way that should be reflected on. In this case, reading an article about Visually Noisy Classrooms shared on the Virtual Learning Network, has done that for me.

Sandy Dougherty questioned the purpose of a classroom. In her opinion, a classrooms purpose is “to be a place where students can focus, concentrate and are expected to be productive”. She adds that it makes sense to her to make our classrooms “quiet, serene environments”.

This article suggests that classrooms that are full of colourful displays can impede children’s ability to remain focused in a classroom. It examines a small sample of 5-6 year old students, and compared their learning and behaviour in a ‘normal’ classroom environment, and then again in one that is decorated more like the living room of a house with one or two feature pieces – very ‘calm’ and ‘clear’.

So now I am pondering whether my intention to encourage learning by celebrating it around the classroom, is actually doing that, or, whether it is doing the opposite and distracting from my students learning.

I recently had the privilege of participating in a Guided Tour through Hobsonville Point Primary School, and one thing the Principal made very clear, was that he and his staff had decided that they did not want their classrooms to be “Art Galleries”, instead their walls appear filled with Planning Documents, and boast a very transparent philosophy around their students educations. I thought aspects of this were fantastic – I like the idea that planning is shared and completely accessible to parents, however I also feel it felt less like a primary school, and more like an office.

For Moana Timoko what this article highlighted was the need to provide “different spaces, different places, for different faces”. I found this concept much easier to accommodate. I surveyed my students and asked them about what they thought of our classroom; whether they liked the way it was with all of the colours, and all of their learning displayed. Interestingly the vote was almost a unanimous “We like it”, however there was one student who indicated that he would rather have a much simpler learning environment.

So, are the information-dense walls of my classroom that intended to inspire children, actually overwhelming them? For one of my students, yes!

As Moana indicated, this highlights the need to consider those students – although he is in the minority, his education and ability to concentrate is just as important as the others in the class. The more I think about it, this is a student who is easily distracted, and a student who often chooses to work in a much simpler break out room than in the main classroom. Different spaces, different places, for different faces …

Dr.Tarr challenges teachers to question whether the mass marketing of commercial posters and mobiles are obscuring the children’s own drawings and writings. While I ponder whether my approach to classroom displays is in fact distracting my learners, one thing that I have come to realise that I value as an educator, is the pride of placement of students work – There is very little room in my classrooms for these commercial resources. I value their work, I value their learning and I believe that this is their classroom, I value displays that grow alongside the students learning and experiences. But why?

Relatively little has been written about how to make effective use of classroom walls. Yet teachers sometimes feel compelled to make those walls attractive because they know people are coming into the classroom and parents in particular, expect to see a decorated classroom. Unfortunately most of my students parents have never stepped foot in my classroom, due to logistics, so I can rule that out; but when I really force myself to examine my core values, I would have to agree that I do make judgments on the abilities of other teachers, based on their classroom environment. I do wonder what teachers are doing in their classrooms when their walls are very ‘calm’ and ‘clear’.

I don’t have the answers, but I do have a tonne of questions! Perhaps these same questions may challenge your thinking in this area:
  1. Are you mindful about the amount of wall coverage you fill? 
  2. What proportion of your room is the student's work vs the proportion of commercially produced resources? 
  3. Have you provided visually ‘quiet’ areas in your classrooms? 
  4. How often do you refer to the work on your classroom walls? 
  5. Is the work current and relevant to what you are doing now? 
  6. Do your displays serve a variety of purposes? 
  7. The Reggio Emilia approach stresses the “environment as the third teacher” (Gandini, 1998, p177) – what is your environment teaching your students? 
  8. Have the commercially made resources that you have displayed been placed in a position in the classroom where your students are actually able to use them? 
  9. With pressure to support literacy development, and create a classroom environment that is rich in print (including such things as word walls, signs,bi-lingual labels, bulletin boards and more), are you simply wallpapering your classroom for prints sake? 
  10. What image of a learner is conveyed by the work you have displayed? 
  11. Do your displays genuinely honour the students work or has it been contrived by an adult? 
  12. How do your walls reflect the lives, families, cultures and interests of your students? 
  13. What are the assumptions about how students learn, and how are these reflected on your walls? 
  14. Do your walls respect students as active, curious learners with ideas to communicate? 
Reference List:

Gandini, L. (1998). Educational and caring spaces. In The hundred languages of children. The Reggio Emilia approach – Advanced reflections, 2nd ed, eds. C Edwards, L. Gandini & G Forman, 161-78. Greenwich, CT: Ablex.

Hoffman, J. (2014). Rethinking the Colourful Kindergarten Classroom. Retrieved on 12th August 2014 from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/

Tarr, P. (2004). Consider the Walls. Retrieved on 12th August 2014 from http://www.naeyc.org/files/yc/file/200405/ConsidertheWalls.pdf

Rinaldi, C. (1998). The space of childhood. In Children, spaces, relations: Metaproject for an environment for young children, eds. C. Ceppi & M Zini, 114-20. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children.

Simco, N. (1996). Whose work is it anyway? Display in a negotiated classroom. In Display in the classroom: Principles, practice and learning theory, eds. H. Cooper, P. Hegarty, P. Hegarty, & N. Simco, 78-93. London: David Fulton.