Is classroom clutter confusing your class?

We’ve all seen the two extremes of classroom decoration. On one end of the spectrum is the Pinterest Teacher. Her walls covered stem to stern with flashy decorations and anchor charts. Student work displayed over here, reference posters over there, and a rainbow of colors everywhere you look. On the flip side, there’s the minimalist teacher. Maybe a poster in the corner, perhaps a data wall somewhere, but their classroom is mostly a barren wasteland of white. So which environment is better for students to learn in? For years we were told we should provide a visually rich environment, but a new school of thought says that less might actually be more.

Last year a study was published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology that gave a group of students two cognitive tasks to complete: one in a highly-decorated classroom and one in a bare-bones classroom. Overall, the students did better surrounded by blank walls, which flew in the face of what teachers had been told for years. The study concluded that too many visual stimulants could overload a child’s brain and get in the way of their learning.

Overall, the results from these studies indicate that children could have difficulty in ignoring visual distractors when these are embedded in the surrounding environment”

-Study Authors Pedro Rodrigues and Josefa Pandeirada

That’s the same message that several other recent studies have concluded. A report from Michael Hubenthal and Thomas O’Brien looked at the effects of over-decorating and said a child’s brain can only take in so much at one time, so crowding the walls with information can make it hard for students to sort through it all.

These studies are a huge sigh of relief to minimalist teachers and educators who may consider themselves “decoration-challenged”. While some teachers spend hours building a visually entertaining classroom, others prefer a more low-key approach. This new research seems to fall in favor of the toned-down educators, but there’s still more to the story.

While too many decorations can bombard a child’s senses, having nothing on your walls doesn’t exactly help either. The University of Salford released a study in 2015 that said it’s not so much a matter of how much you decorate, but what you decorate with. They said creating a “clever classroom” with the right amount of engaging items for students to digest can go a long way in improving their mood and test scores.

The research identifies many simple, quick and cost-effective ways for teachers to change their classrooms to make a real difference to a child’s performance in reading, writing and maths. We’re not talking about major investment on behalf of the school or local authority – quite the opposite – simple choices in how classrooms are used and evidence-based decisions when schools are being built.”

-University of Salford Lead Researcher Professor Peter Barrett

So then what should teachers do to give our students the best chance to succeed. Most researchers agree there are a few tips to keep in mind:

If you’re going to put something on the walls, make it meaningful.

Don’t just decorate to decorate. Posters should have information that is either interesting or important to your students. Data walls should have meaning to the classroom to give students ownership over it.

Get the kids involved.

You’re doing this for the kids, right? Then get them involved in the process. If every square inch of your room is covered in things you created, it’ll feel more like a museum than a classroom. Give yourself some room to display what your kids have done and make them a part of the process.

Make sure your decorations match the students in your classroom.

Bright colors, alphabets and number lines may work great for an elementary classroom, but wouldn’t have the same effect in high school. Posters with high-level science terminology or mathematical formulas might be useful to middle schoolers, but could confuse a 3rd grader. 

If it’s important enough to hang up, it’s important enough to talk about.

Really fancy posters or charts that are never used or talked about just become white noise after a while. Students may see it, but not actually process anything they’re looking at. So use the number line when you’re counting, and add to your word wall as the year goes on. Show your students what information you have for them and they’ll be more likely to absorb it.

Read: Why I Won’t Have a Pinterest-Perfect Classroom – And That’s OK

New Study Shows Too Many Classroom Decorations Can Overload a Child’s Brain and Get in the Way of Learning