I came under fire in a previous school for the bareness of my walls, and so to fill them with colour, I had pupils do . . . posters! I won’t speculate here about whether the reprimands I received had anything to do with my being the only male member of the English department in that school. I will say though that I was astonished by the detail of the displays in some of the other English classrooms. The teachers had evidently put a huge amount of effort into them. They were works of loving craftsmanship, sorry, craftswomanship, which one could have gazed at for hours.
But there’s the rub. Do you want your pupils gazing at complicated displays, with words and pictures swooping around in all directions? The chances are, they spend a lot of their free time staring at complex moving pictures that are even more dazzling and alluring than your wall displays, so perhaps they won’t be particularly interested in any case. But if they do become interested, then their interest is being taken away from the most important person in the room: the teacher.
Serious subject matter and challenging concepts require total focus and concentration. Whole class teaching, the only way to give your pupils maximum attention and keep them reliably on task, means that you want their eyes and their minds to be focused on the the one doing that teaching, not some lovely papier mache volcano that’s exploding poetic words out of your wall.
If they have to be beautified, walls could contain a few classic works of art, or maps, which would have pedagogical value. I like putting quotations on my wall, such as Plato’s, ‘The first and greatest victory is to conquer yourself’. For years, I’ve had Atticus Finch’s comment that ‘The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience’. I also have Martin Luther King’s words from the letter from Birmingham Jail: ‘I agree with St Augustine, that an unjust law is no law at all’.
At least if my pupils’ eyes wander a little to the side, they’ll see something edifying, and in a font large enough to be read from their seats. But they know the drill: the ‘T’ in SLANT means ‘track the speaker’. They’ll earn demerits if they let their gazes wander too often. Why should I make it more difficult for them to focus on the teacher? Why should I fill my walls with distractions, when I want them to read the book in front of them, write silently in their exercise books, engage properly in whole class discussion, or listen attentively to my explanations?
Florid wall displays are what moral theologians have traditionally called an ‘occasion of sin’. They place pupils in a situation where it is very difficult to do the right thing. So for whose benefit are so many walls being plastered with so much colour, at a cost of so many teacher hours? Surely it couldn’t be so managers and inspectors can admire them?