Do Highly-Decorated Classrooms Distract Students?

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Classrooms, always an integral part of a teacher’s game plan, have normally been designed and decorated before the students arrive. It is not unusual to see alphabet and number charts; happy paper flowers placed carefully around the room; banners and welcoming posters; and maybe a hamster in a cage. But some teachers are beginning to exercise restraint when it comes to how their classrooms are decorated, and research suggests this is a good decision to make, says Margaret Ramirez of NBC News.

A recent study has found that for kindergartners, at least in their classrooms, less is more. Published in May of this year, the study in Psychological Science was one of the first attempts at trying to discover the impact of classroom decorations on a child’s learning. Not surprisingly, it found that classrooms which were decorated to a high degree caused students to be more distracted and to score lower on tests than those students who were taught in a room with bare walls.

An experiment conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University followed 24 kindergartners.  First, the children were taught in a classroom decorated with presidential photos, science posters, maps, and children’s artwork. The children sat in front of the teacher on the floor for a five to seven minute science lesson followed by a multiple-choice picture test. The children were videotaped during the lesson to monitor children’s ability to focus.

The students in the sparse classroom did get distracted by other students and by themselves, but in the decorated room the students were less focused and were distracted by the visual environment. Anna V. Fisher, the study’s lead author and an associate psychology professor, said this showed that classroom environment can have a negative impact on children’s ability to learn. She added that the experiment was too small, and not thorough enough, to be useful without further research.

Fisher suspects that the effect of decorations in the classroom is less significant in upper grades. Gillian McNamee, director of teacher education at the Erikson Institute in Chicago, says many seasoned educators already knew, intuitively, that too much visual stimulation can be a negative when children are being asked to concentrate. An Illinois elementary teacher, Lori Baker,who teaches mostly low-income students who receive free or reduced-price lunches, says:

“My personal approach is you don’t put anything up if the children have not made some sort of prior connection to it.”

Another teacher uses sparse decorating in her classroom because of her training in a Montessori setting, which encourages little decoration except for natural elements.

Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, writing for RealClearEducation, sees two important reasons to be cautious when interpreting these results.  First, the paper notes that children will habituate to the wall decorations in time, about two weeks, after being introduced to the decorated classroom. So, deduces Willingham, it is possible that they might return to baseline distraction-level soon. Second, is there a downside to not having a warm, inviting, cheerful classroom setting? Possibly, there could be a cost to outcomes that were not evaluated in the study.  Perhaps, he says, there is another choice. A classroom that is not busy and overstimulating, but is homier, with serene paint colors, a vase of flowers, and so forth.

Included in an article by Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post, Alfie Kohn, lecturer and author of books about education, parenting, and human behavior, quotes a friend, who quipped:

“While we’re at it, maybe we should just design classrooms without windows.  And, hey, I’ll bet kids would really perform better if they spent their days in isolation.”

Kohn says the study should have: included more than 24 kids; assessed the value of the science lesson that was read to the children; established why test scores were the “primary, or even sole, dependent variable”; and should have recognized that an “exemplary student is [not] one who stifles his curiosity, exercises his self-control, and does what he’s told “.

In an interview by Kaye Burnet, on WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR station, Fisher says she is not telling teachers to start tearing things off their classroom walls.  Instead she encourages teachers to put a little more thought into their classroom setup.

“Improving education outcomes for children is such a complex and complicated issue. There are so many parts to this problem…there are so many things, and some things are not easy to change for educators,” said Fisher. “Classroom visual environment is just one of those things that’s malleable, it’s something that is under the control of the teacher.”