Thursday, 26 May 2016

What every teacher needs to know about… classroom display

Once again the finest monthly publication for secondary teachers, Teach Secondary, have demeaned themselves by publishing another of my sloppily put together rants. This month my barrel scraping has reached a new as I quibble about such harmless trivia as teachers putting up posters. Sorry. 

The firmly established, yet largely unexamined, position on classroom display is that there’s nothing quite so magical as a classroom plastered in beautiful display work and nothing half so bleak as a bare wall devoid of all humanity and joy. A good teacher will, as a matter of course, strive not only to fill every inch of wall space with exciting display, but also seek to refresh this display as often as possible to ensure their eager charges always have something new and shiny to occupy their attention.

The first and most obvious counter-argument is that putting up all this display takes time. Sadly, it’s not going to put itself up and, while a few schools employ support staff to ensure their walls are a thing of beauty, in most cases it’s the classroom teacher who’s saddled with juggling the staple gun, acres of sugar paper and a roll of crinkly cardboard edging. Time spent gluing things to walls is time which cannot be spent on any other activity. There may be some teachers with nothing else to do, but most of us are expected to plan lessons, mark books, phone parents and, um… teach. In order for classroom display to be worth the effort it should have some merit beyond the purely aesthetic.

But does it? The display in most classrooms consists of a mixture of the following: 1) decorative or inspirational posters, 2) useful information such as subject specific keywords, mathematical facts, quotations and formula and 3) students’ work. Let’s examine the value of each in turn.

Firstly the poster or inspirational quote. You might think slapping up a job lot of off-the-shelf classroom posters would save a lot of time and trouble as well as looking lovely and you’d be half right – it would save time sourcing them yourself but to what end? Why would you want to plaster your walls with bland, meaningless platitudes? Be your best! Failure is good! Four legs growth, two legs fixed! At best this stuff is just wall paper which no one notices after the first fun-packed five minutes, but this stuff can actually end up having a toxic effect on kids: instead of believing they’re stupid, they end up believing that failing to swallow this nonsense means they have, horror of horrors, a fixed mindset and are inveterately lazy toads.

So, what about the kind of display that actually tells students something useful about the subject they’re meant to be studying? Surely that’s worth the effort of breaking out the blu-tac? You know the type of thing: lists of French verbs, the formula for finding the circumference of a circle, sentence starters to help you write a corking history essay. My problem with this stuff is that if kids notice it at all, they become dependent on it. Next time you’re in a classroom decked out in this stuff watch what happens when students are asked to do some work. Instead of having their heads down as they write and occasionally closing their eyes in concentration, they look for the answers on the wall. They rely on external resources instead of internalising the information they need to succeed. We put up the display as a statement that these things are worth remembering and then leave them up so there’s no need to remember them. This type of display is like a Sat-Nav, constantly showing us where to go and never asking us to think or puzzle out the route. It’s not so much that this kind of scaffolding is bad, it’s that it’s mis-used. Instead of leaving it up as permanent display we should be taking it down as soon as possible. We should warn students it’ll be taken away so that they’re motivated to try to remember it. If they’re struggling to much we should put it back for a while, but, as I’ve found to my cost, it’s a thoroughly tedious business to be continually putting up and taking down the same set of posters. Much better, perhaps, to use laminated table-mats which can be easily swapped out and replaced.

Finally, we have displays of students’ work. If, gun to my head, I had to choose something to put up on my classroom wall, this would be it. But even this most benign of display comes with costs and problems. First there’s the dilemma of who’s work to put up. Should we just select the neatly coloured in bubble writing of the cleanest, most middle-class girls? Or should that scruffy lad who’s smeared a dead spider across his work of staggering genius be allowed a turn? Should students’ work be displayed to look nice or to demonstrate what’s possible? Should it be the best and therefore demotivating for some, or should it show what even ‘these kids’ are capable of? Ideally perhaps it should be mix? The second problem comes once you’ve made your selection – what do you do with it once it’s on the wall? Often it’s too small or messy to be of any actual use as exemplar material (far better to use a visualiser) so it ends up being a mere sop of children’s feeling; a prop to their fragile egos: Look! I’ve put your illiterate scrawl on the wall! You must be special!

The point of all this is to suggest that while there may sometimes be adequate reasons for all the effort that’s put into decorating classrooms, most times the point is merely that: decoration. Display will most have a neutral effect on children’s effort and outcomes and there’s some reason for think it could have negative effects. The important thing to remember though is that classroom display isn’t really for children at all. It’s to make teachers look and feel good. As long as classrooms look nice for senior leaders when they do their termly rounds, everyone’s happy.

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