About Colette Bennett

Colette Marie Bennett is the Curriculum Coordinator for English Language Arts, Social Studies, Library Media, and Testing for the West Haven Public School System in West Haven, Connecticut. Previous to this position, she served as the Chief Academic Officer (7-12) for Regional School System #6 in Litchfield, Connecticut. She has 23 years of teaching experience in English Language Arts from grades 6-12, including electives in journalism, drama, and film studies. A graduate of the Alternate Route to Certification, Bennett also has a Masters in English from Western Connecticut State University a 6th year in Advanced Teaching and an 092 Administrative Certificate from Sacred Heart University, and graduate credits from the GLSP in Social Studies at Wesleyan University. She holds a Literacy Certification (102) from Sacred Heart University for grades K-12. She has presented how technology is incorporated in classrooms at the Connecticut Computers in Education Conference (2010, 2012, 2014), the National Council of Teachers Annual Conference (2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015), and the Advanced Placement Annual Conference (2011) the Literacy for All Conference (2012), and the ICT for Language Learning in Florence, Italy (2014). She blogs about education at Used Books in Class: http://usedbookclassroom.wordpress.com/ She tweets at Teachcmb56@twitter.com

It is summer, and most elementary classroom walls have been laid bare for repainting or for cleaning. Their empty exposure reminds me of a classroom from an earlier age, from my own elementary school. At the risk of dating myself, from grade 3 on up I could count on one singular decorative element….the cursive alphabet that hung over the chalkboard:

Cursive

I stared at that alphabet, and thought to myself that of  all the letter companions, neatly penned in upper and lower case, the most fun to practice, the most enigmatic, the most beautiful-and the most confusing if not done correctly -was the letter Q q or Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 6.01.18 PMScreen Shot 2016-06-27 at 6.01.05 PM.

Of course, there were no other decorations in the classroom.

Today’s elementary classrooms are markedly different. There are classrooms that receive Pinterest-inspired wall, door, or window treatments. There are multiple software programs that let teachers create posters or infographics chockfull of facts for every content area. Inspirational posters are ready to be to copied, to be downloaded, to be printed for every grade level. Once school is back in session, rainbow-brite colors combine messages with eye-popping fonts in a competition for attention.

And that’s the problem...competition for attention.

Apparently a supersaturated color and text-rich environment is not good for learning.

Beginning as early as preschool, classrooms may be decorated to an extreme. In many cases, “clutter passes for quality,” a  sentiment expressed by Erika Christakis in her book The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups (2016). In Chapter 2 (“Goldilocks Goes to Daycare”) Christakis describes the average preschool the following way:

“First we’ll bombard you with what educators call a print-rich environment, every wall and surface festooned with a vertiginous array of labels, vocabulary list, calendars, graphs, classroom rules, alphabet lists, number charts, and inspirational platitudes – few of those symbols you will be able to decode, a favorite buzzword for what used to be known as reading”(33).

In addition, hanging in plain sight, Christakis notes, are a myriad of mandated regulations: hand washing instructions, allergy procedures, and emergency exit diagrams:

‘In one study, researchers manipulated the amount of clutter on the walls of a laboratory classroom where kindergarteners were taught a series of science lessons. As the visual distraction increased, the children’s ability to focus, stay on task, and learn new information decrease” (33).

Christakis’s position is supported with research by researchers from The Holistic Evidence and Design (HEAD) which assessed hundred fifty-three U.K. classrooms to study the link of classroom environment to the learning of 3,766 pupils (ages 5-11).  Researchers Peter Barrett, Fay Davies, Yufan Zhang, and Lucinda Barrett published the The Holistic Impact of Classroom Spaces on Learning in Specific Subjects (2016) and reviewed the impact of different factors on student learning measured by progress in reading, writing, and math.

The principle of stimulation included the measure the impact brought about by color and complexity:

“The scientific research into color is extensive and color can affect children’s moods, mental clarity, and energy levels (Englebrecht, 2003). The measure of complexity here relates to visual impact from both architectural and display elements in the classroom. For example, Fisher, Godwin, and Seltman (2014) found more distraction and off-task behavior in children in more visually complex environments” (Barret, et al).

Their results showed that both reading and writing performances were particularly affected by stimulation.

Stimulation in the form of posters has
 the potential 
of
 overwhelming
 a student’s working
 memory. According to Michael
 Hubenthal and Thomas
 O’Brien
 in their research Revisiting 
Your Classroom’s
 Walls:
 The 
Pedagogical
 Power
 of
 Posters (2009) a student’s working memory uses 
different components 
that
 process 
visual
 and verbal 
information
. 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.

In contrast to overwhelming posters, there are good choices for classroom decorations. Education reformer Alfie Kohn published suggestions for decorating the classroom in his article Bad Signs  (2010) fall issue of Kappa Delta Pi. He listed several “Good Signs” that a classroom could be decorated as a model learning environment:

  • Walls covered with student work;
  • Evidence of student collaboration;
  • Signs, exhibits, lists created by students (not the teacher); 
  • Information and personal mementos from the people who learn in the classroom.

Kohn also stated that the best classrooms, regardless of age level or academic discipline, have a different approach to decoration, one that is distinctly non-commercial. The best classrooms:

“….often feature signs, exhibits, or other materials obviously created by the students themselves.  And that includes students’ ideas for how to create a sense of community and learn together most effectively — as opposed to a list of rules imposed by the teacher (or summarized on a commercial poster)” (Kohn).

Just as too much color or text complexity will have a negative impact on student learning, a sterile classroom with too little decoration may not help to activate the students’ brains. Therefore, teachers should be prepared to decorate a classroom to make it an active place to learn. They could ask the following questions:

  • What purpose does this poster, sign or display serve?
  • Do  these posters, signs, or items celebrate or support student learning?
  • Are the posters, signs, or displays current with what is being learned in the classroom?
  • Can the display be made interactive?
  • Is there white space in between wall displays to help the eye distinguish what is in the display?
  • Can students contribute to decorating the classroom (ask “What do you think could go inside that space?”)

These six questions can help teachers to create classrooms that can engage students without overstimulation.

Speaking of questions, the word questions starts with the letter Q…and thanks to that singular decoration in my elementary classroom, I know how to script a  capital and lower case letter “Q”:q

It is still a beautiful letter in cursive.

classroom organization

Print Friendly