The Dangers of Wall Displays

Plato-raphael

This chap’s allowed on my wall

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?

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13 thoughts on “The Dangers of Wall Displays

  1. “But if they do become interested, then their interest is being taken away from the most important person in the room: the teacher.”

    Most important person in my class would be the learner. I have my walls covered in definitions and diagrams showing models which I use on a regular basis during lessons. I find it lovely to be able to wander over and point to a definition/model without having to flash it up on the board or for a learner to be able to do the same to reinforce previous learning.

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  2. The only thing on the walls of my school classrooms I can recall is the Periodic Table (in the Chemistry lab, of course). As you say, one was either watching the teacher, the black board, or one’s text book. No reason to adorn the walls

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  3. Interesting to note, there is a massive pushback right now in Canada, against the progressive ideology surrounding inquiry/discovery based strategies used to teach arithmetic in the classroom. One of the interesting points to the discussion, came from John Mighton, founder of JUMP Math. He was on a radio interview last week in Toronto, and revealed that there is latest evidence that has concluded kids learn math more effectively through black and white images, rather than coloured images. The reasoning being, is that the coloured, fanciful diagrams on graphs, and other diagrams, are very distracting for kids, and take away from the actual learning.

    Similar to your point here. I also find the present day classroom overwhelmingly cluttered. There are so many items to look at in a primary classroom, that one cannot find the teacher’s desk, or even where the teacher should present their material, let alone focus on the content of the lesson. If an adult gets over stimulated by all the “stuff” in a primary classroom, how does a child know what to deem relevant in the course of a discussion?

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  4. Managers care about “selling” the school and primary school type displays look wonderful in school website photos. Trouble is, all school websites and brochures are now depressingly similar – close ups of laughing children with smiling teachers against a background of garish wall displays. In my experience other countries are far less besotted with the cult of display. Moreover, there is research evidence against cluttered display from Carnegie Mellon University
    http://www.cmu.edu/news/stories/archives/2014/may/may27_decoratedclassrooms.html

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  5. Hi Anthony, great post! I particularly like your use of the word ‘swooping’ which makes me think of seagulls and it’s also good to know there are others out there that understand how distracting ‘busy’ walls can be. Wall displays also encourage children to ‘outsource’ their memories to the wall and when it comes to key knowledge such as times tables for example, this limits their ability to progress.

    In my school, walls are everything, and I find it so difficult to keep them constantly updated. The children ignore them anyway.

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  6. St Bernard saw much of church decoration as a distraction from piety, and in one of his letters he condemned the more vigorous forms of early 12th century decoration:

    But in the cloister, in the sight of the reading monks, what is the point of such ridiculous monstrosity, the strange kind of shapely shapelessness? Why these unsightly monkeys, why these fierce lions, why the monstrous centaurs, why semi-humans, why spotted tigers, why fighting soldiers, why trumpeting huntsmen? …In short there is such a variety and such a diversity of strange shapes everywhere that we may prefer to read the marbles rather than the books

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    • So thatś two for the roundheads/Presbyterians/.. Continuing your religious theme I am reminded of Saint Pat who when comparing the new Protestant services to the old Catholic Mass commented: Where´s the mystery ?

      Progress means that now churchgoers have freedom of choice they can go (drive) and attend the worship that they prefer, or indeed none. The child in the class environment described has no such variety of experience on offer.

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  7. Thank-you for publishing your views on teaching. I am a relatively new primary school teacher (KS2), and to hear a different point of view (and one I happen to agree with 99% of the time) from the view that is prevalent in the schools I have taught at is extremely appreciated. I shall continue to plough my rather lonely furrow and by that I mean to only undertake activities that result in the children in my class learning.

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  8. In my music classroom when I was a student we had one poster, a poster of the history of music. It was useful, it had a timeline of composers and the different musical periods. But I do remember just gazing at it for long periods of time. It has resulted in me knowing which composer was from which period which can be useful but I got into so much trouble for not listening to the teacher because my focus was elsewhere.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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