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Is your learning environment visually noisy?

Please note, I wrote this blog post a few years ago but the concept is still relevant especially with the pressure some of us feel to create pintrest perfect classrooms!


Recently I came across an article (Rethinking the colourful kindergarten classroom) talking about some research into visually crowded classrooms and the effects of this on learning for children. This was really interesting for me from a teaching/learning perspective as it was something that had been brought to my attention a number of years ago.


The article shared some recent research which explored the difference in performance of a small group of young children between working in an austere classroom and a more colourful, dare I say, typical western classroom. Admittedly the sample is small, 24 kindergarteners (so likely children around 5-6 years old). And the time in the learning spaces was limited, only 5-7 minute lessons taken over several days. So to be fair the findings are not conclusive at all but they are worth considering.


This research suggests that for young children competing visuals interfere with their ability to concentrate on the task at hand. They find it hard to discern what is important if everywhere they look there is important stuff. As children get older they get better at working out where they need to focus so this may be less of an issue for older students. I find this ironic as traditionally secondary/senior classrooms tend to be more austere whilst the early primary classrooms are usually more decorated. There is also the question about commercially produced material and the proliferation of this in our classrooms.


A number of years ago during my first year of working in a mobile classroom with an attached small office, I was having an appraisal. As part of that my manager spent time in my little office going through my paperwork and writing up some records. He was in there for nearly an hour and came out with books in hand stating that he would find a room in the school to work in as my office was 'visually noisy'. That surprised me as I thought the office was bright and interesting, it was tidy with everything needed in easy reach. However when I reflected on it I could see where my manager was coming from and as we talked I realised that I had also created a classroom environment that worked for me but it may not have worked for all of my learners.


As a regular classroom teacher I loved creating interesting displays for my own classroom. I was so lucky to have generously sized classrooms and we still managed to fill them up! I am pleased to say most of the material on walls was the children's work. When I moved into the mobile classroom environment (I worked in health based education where my classroom was about the size of a refrigerated unit on the back of a semi-articulated truck that was delivered to different schools) I still ensured that there was a lot of visual information available for the learners to make it an attractive environment despite the original intention of the classroom being blank when children entered it and the learning displays built as the sessions progressed. After my appraisal I revisited the original intent of the blank classroom and the fact that we had the children working with us for such a short time, we could ill afford to create distractions or make it harder for them to concentrate on the area of focus. So I changed my practice. I did still use some posters and other materials but made sure they related to the topic of conversation and if possible were actually referred to or used in the learning session in some way. I confess it actually made a difference for me too, I think I ended up being more focused as well! This was something of a revelation for me at the time and I have shared it with my colleagues over the years.


I have been reminded many times, in many settings, that less is more. (Those of you who have offered me this advice over the years please know that I am improving... slowly!) I know I would do things a bit differently now if I was back teaching in my own classroom. Most importantly I would observe more and talk to the children to find out what works for them, and if needed change things around to better meet their needs not just my whims. I would align the classroom displays even more to fit with big themes/topics and keep it relevant, so perhaps display less but change it more often.


The key message that I take from this is that we have different preferences in learning environments and as teachers we have the ability to set up the environment to better meet the varied needs of our diverse learners rather than just doing what appeals to us. Generally speaking (and this is a gross generalisation) teachers have succeeded in information-dense learning environments and so it could be argued we create an environment that reflects how we like to learn. I think we need to reflect a little more about why we do what we do and experiment knowing that we have a range of learners in our classrooms.


As an aside, another thing that I will do when I am teaching is to turn off the fluorescent lighting as soon as possible. I was listening to the very inspiring Karen Boyes in the weekend, speaking about creating a great study/learning environment, and she mentioned fluorescent lighting and how distracting/stress inducing it can be. I hadn't even noticed the lighting until we turned them off and was amazed at how much calmer I felt. I just thought, "wow, I wonder how that would impact on behaviour in the classroom?" So many little things together contribute to the classroom learning environment we create, it isn't just the stuff on the walls!


I am thinking the challenge here is how we create a stimulating learning environment without creating a distracting or stressful one. The learning environment we create does have the capacity to make a difference for our learners. This is another aspect of our teaching/learning programme that contributes to success for our learners and so is well worth taking a second look.


Extra bits:

To read the article itself click here

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