How heavily decorated classrooms affect learning


After the pedigree of a school and the quality of its teaching staff, research has shown that its facilities and by extension, the ambience are the next things most parents take into cognizance when making a choice for their kids/wards. Indeed, walking into a classroom festooned with a groundswell of pedagogical materials can sweep a parent off his/ her feet. A classroom’s visual environment, experts say affects how much students learn or fail to learn. A recent research by scholars at Carnegie Mellon University, and their colleagues from University of Salford, Britain, lend credence to this. ENO-ABASI SUNDAY, in this report ferrets just how much, classroom decorations, which enliven the ambience of schools contribute to positive learning or serve as a source of distraction to the little ones. 

WHEN Mrs. Ifeoma Nsobundu arrived at what would end up being her daughter’s primary contact with Western education, she was wowed by the spectacle presented by the sparkling clean and heavily festooned classrooms and school premises.

  Apart from sundry odds and ends of the teaching profession, including instructional and pedagogical materials, which were carefully arranged on the class teacher’s tables, assorted murals, varying sizes of maps, artworks, number lines, shapes and so on jostled for space on the four walls of the classroom.

  From a layman’s prism, this was the best place for her chubby son, Ikenna, to commence his educational odyssey. The fact that the academic staff had impressed her when she first visited the school for enquiries, made her fall head-over-heel in love with the school.

  For her, the combination of brilliantly painted walls, interactive whiteboards, monographs, murals, drawings, the air-conditioning system and lavish display of sundry pedagogical materials formed the right atmosphere for teaching and learning. 

   But with a recent research, which shows that too much of a good thing may become a hindrance rather than a help; Nsobundu is sure to have a change of mind.  

  According to her, “There was a high number of educational pictures and materials posted on the classroom walls that I could not, but fall in love with the school. For a while, I thought the decorations were a little too much, but I also convinced myself that the school managers having been in this business for more than 20 years could not have been wrong.”

  Mrs. Taofeekat Adelakun is another parent who thinks classroom decorations have no negative effects on learning at a tender age. That explains why she also decided to place the fate of her daughter in the hands of a Lagos-based school hallmarked by heavy classroom decorations.

  “There are so many educational materials splashed on the classroom’s wall of my daughter’s school. These visual materials aid in understanding of topics and are a plus to effective learning. As a person, I like the design/decoration of their classrooms and my colleague that recommended the school to me can vouch for its pedigree,” Adelakun stated.

  To the average parent and even teachers, the more decorated a classroom is with educational materials, the better its capacity to communicate knowledge to its students. In fact, not many school owners and parents have ever paused to think about the demerits of having their classrooms highly decorated with pedagogical materials.

  When principal and chief executive officer of Olashore International School, Iloko-Ijesha, Dereck Smith, recently said that education in the 21st Century has moved beyond packing large crowds of students in one classroom and teaching them, he meant every word of it.

  For instance, classrooms that used to be crowded, bland, with austere furnishing, almost bare and devoid of good sense of aesthetics, have now metamorphosed into comfy set-ups, where learning is done through hi-tech devices and where Information Communication Technology (ICT) dictates the pace.

  From crèches to universities, classrooms or schoolrooms as they are called in some climes are rooms where classes/lectures are held. Classrooms may also be found in other places where education or training is provided. These include companies, faith-based organisations and humanitarian organisations. 

  Since classrooms attempt to provide spaces where learning can take place uninterrupted by outside distractions, their layouts, designs and décor, experts say, have a significant effect upon the quality of the educational experience.

  According to Pamela Woolner, in her book, The Design of Learning Spaces, paying attention to the acoustics and colour scheme of a classroom may reduce distractions and aid concentration in a classroom. The lighting and furniture also influence students’ attention span among others.

 In history, only few pupil-centric design principles were used in the construction of classrooms. In fact, in 19th century Britain, one of the few common considerations was to align new buildings in such a way that the classroom windows faced north as much as possible, while avoiding west or southern facing windows. This was so because in Britain northern light causes fewer glares.  

  More often than not, desks were arranged in rows and columns with the teacher’s desk located in front of the class, where lectures are conducted. The row/columns pattern are reputed to allow teachers ample space to walk around the classroom, supervise students while they work and easily fish out misbehaving, playful students as well as sleepy heads.

  The 1950s and part of 1960s began to witness the use of cheap and harsh fluorescent lights in classrooms. One of their down sides was their ability to afflict students with eyestrains. It is also worthy to note that very little colour was deployed in early classrooms in order not to distract the children. 

 Another characteristic of classrooms of old was the presence of large writing surfaces, better known as blackboards, where the teacher/instructor or students share notes with other class members. Now, alternatives like flipcharts, whiteboards and interactive whiteboards have made blackboards uncommon in well-equipped schools.

  In time past, researches had suggested that optimal use of daylight; acoustics, colour selection as well as the arrangement of furniture in the classroom have roles to play in pupils’ academic successes.

  Also, only recently, scholars from Carnegie Mellon University, United States, posited that children in highly decorated classrooms were more distracted from learning, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed.

  Published in Psychological Science, the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology, Carnegie Mellon’s Anna V. Fisher, Karrie E. Godwin and Howard Seltman, looked at whether classroom displays affected children’s ability to maintain focus during instruction and to learn the lesson’s content. Parts of their findings were as revealing as they were interesting. 

  “Young children spend a lot of time, usually the whole day in the same classroom, and we have shown that a classroom’s visual environment can affect how much children learn,” said Fisher, lead author and associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

  With the findings of the study, one is tempted to question whether teachers are advised to take down their visual displays. “We do not suggest by any means that this is the answer to all educational problems. Furthermore, additional research is needed to know what effect the classroom visual environment has on children’s attention and learning in real classrooms,” Fisher said, adding, “Therefore, I would suggest that instead of removing all decorations, teachers should consider whether some of their visual displays may be distracting to young children.”

  In the course of the study, 24 kindergarten students were placed in laboratory classrooms for six introductory science lessons on topics they were unfamiliar with. Three lessons were taught in a heavily decorated classroom, and three lessons were given in a sparse classroom.

  The results showed that while children learned in both classroom types, they learned more when the room was not heavily decorated. Specifically, children’s accuracy on the test questions was higher in the sparse classroom (55 per cent correct) than in the decorated classroom (42 per cent correct).

 “We were also interested in finding out if the visual displays were removed, whether the children’s attention would shift to another distraction, such as talking to their peers, and if the total amount of time they were distracted would remain the same,” said Godwin, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and fellow of the Programme in Interdisciplinary Education Research (PIER).

  However, when the researchers tallied all of the time children spent off-task in both types of classrooms, the rate of off-task behavior was higher in the decorated classroom (38.6 per cent time spent off-task) than in the sparse classroom (28.4 per cent time spent off-task).

  The researchers therefore, hoped these findings lead to further studies into developing guidelines to help teachers optimally design classrooms.

   Academics from the University of Salford in Britain, earlier on had also examined how much pupils’ environment affects their performance, looking at whether certain types of classrooms encourage learning. Their findings were published in the latest issue of the journal, Building and Environment.

  Researchers examined the academic achievement of a total of 751 pupils, studying in 34 classrooms in seven schools. Their observations found that 73 per cent of the variation in pupils’ performance could be explained by environmental factors.

  In fact, the difference between the academic performance of an average pupil placed in the worst classroom, compared with that of a pupil placed in the best classroom, was equal to the average improvement of a child during an entire academic year.  

  On some of the environmental factors that significantly influence students’ ability to learn, the researchers enumerated among others: “Classrooms that received natural light from more than one direction, and with high-quality electric lighting, benefited pupils; design features that allowed pupils to feel a sense of ownership towards their classroom also helped them to learn; comfortable and larger desks and chairs were an aid to progress even as they maintained that pupils benefited from a range of activity zones within a single classroom, allowing different types of learning to take place at the same time.

  To management consultant and current head of Legacy Schools, Lagos, Sukanmi Vaughan, “Classroom design is an essential part of learning. From my experience, the most common problem is that most Nigerian classrooms are more likely to be less or sparsely decorated than expected, rather than over decorated. The reason is because there is a whole lot involved in classroom design and most schools are hampered by lack of human and material resources for excellent and effective class design. 

  “However, over decorating a classroom is borne out of having too much of unnecessary designs or creating a clutter out of even necessary materials. To avoid this, a model classroom design should meet the needs of the teacher for educating that category of pupils, for the period allotted for that topic. Classroom design should have inputs from both the art unit of the school (especially if the teacher doesn’t have excellent artistic abilities), and the pupils work in the form of write-ups (for example, their goals, bio-data etc) or artwork. 

 Asked to what extent the visual environment of a classroom enhances learning? Vaughan said, “A great length. Pictures, for example, say a thousand words, orderly, spatial arrangement and visual impression of educational materials in the brains of pupils can be long lasting. If the displayed work is from the pupils, it improves their self-esteem and they have a special attachment and endearment to the class. Overall, it is positive to learning.” 

  The importance of sticking to age-appropriate materials in designing a classroom cannot be over emphasised. And the school head could not agree less with this submission. “It’s very important to use age-appropriate materials because of the different stages of learning available in the school system. It would be wrong to deploy materials meant for high school students for use by Year Two pupils for example, no matter how visually appealing the materials may be. 

  “Age-appropriate materials can also be presented in a manner that conveys learning in simple, friendly, fun and practical ways. For example, the picture of a fellow classmate dressed in a Chef’s attire and seen rinsing vegetables in the kitchen sink while standing on a stool is simply hilarious and fun to use in teaching occupations. 

  “Materials can be used to represent the arrangement of the real concept to be taught in class. For example, the planets, sun of the solar system, foreign climates and culture, power stations etc can be represented in class in material terms without visiting the sites or prior to visiting the sites in such a way that it will provoke learning and stimulate thinking. 

  On whether it was imperative for the development of guidelines that would help teachers optimally design classrooms in order not to go overboard, Vaughan said, it was. “But it should not be the responsibility of the teacher alone. Remember that it is the responsibility of the employer to provide the resources and materials at the teacher’s request. The guideline would be useless if teachers make requests and employers don’t provide the materials. Be that as it may, the teacher’s deep understanding of the academic content of the class and the age-appropriate materials of the class is key. So, the unit head must request teachers to submit their appropriately referenced design materials for approval and ratification before they are eventually displayed. Approved designs should be physically inspected and validated before commencement of the term.

  Head of School, Omolola International School, Sango- Otta, Toyin Emehelu, believes that the visual environment of a classroom plays a critical role in knowledge acquisition and so should be carefully designed. 

  “The process of learning (acquisition, retention and recall) takes place through the five senses, which visual is an integral part. It has been discovered that more than three-quarter of what is seen can be recalled easily compared to what is said. This readily validates the importance of visual in enhancing classroom learning,” she stated.

  According to Emehelu, who is also chief executive of Coreskills Developmental Services, “Classroom decorations when creatively and modestly handled provoke learning and stimulate creative thinking by stimulating or giving rise to strong imagination, reinforcing topics taught in the classroom, helping students gain better perspective of topics and opening the line of communication for interactive learning.”

  On when these pedagogical materials in class can be said to be too much and constitute a hindrance rather than a help to knowledge acquisition, the educational psychologist and consultant, said, “Classroom decorations and designs become too much when the materials do not reflect the curriculum, the scheme of work and lesson plan of the occupants of the particular classroom. Hence carefully orchestrated designs readily put the students in the mood for learning and help them absorb knowledge relevant to their levels per time.”

  Shedding more light on the issue of age appropriateness of pieces of classroom decoration materials, Emehelu said, “Age appropriateness is relative as students have both chronological and mental age; and both develop at variance. Education deals more with mental age hence that is what determines the appropriateness of materials to be used.

  Like Vaughan, Emehelu thinks, “There should be a guideline, which emphasises the principles of designing that is in tandem with the curriculum, scheme of work and lesson plans but also not inhibiting creativity of a teacher or the designer.

 Headmaster of Mount St Mary’s College, a leading Jesuit independent day and boarding school in the heart of England, Dr Nicholas Cuddihy, has been working in education circles and studying education for more than 20 years. On a recent trip to Nigeria, he visited five schools in Lagos including Vivian Fowler College, St Saviour’s School, Ikoyi and Grange School.

  Cuddihy, a former headmaster Crescent College SJ in Limerick, Ireland, who said he was delighted to have the opportunity to share his reflections on classroom design and the impact the classroom environment can have on learning said, “For many years, undergraduate and postgraduate students in universities all over the world have conducted researches into how people learn best. What helps children learn is a big question for parents, for teachers, for every school principal and for every school owner because all these stakeholders want to know is what can be done to improve the quality of learning in our schools.

  “Is classroom design important in this pursuit? He responded in the affirmative thus: “The simple answer is yes. There are hundreds of studies that conclusively confirm what common sense tells us: Simple things like comfort, ventilation, the presence of natural light (especially if it comes from more than one direction), various colour schemes, eye catching displays, acoustics, and the presence of a range of activity zones within a single classroom, can all contribute positively to student learning. He also referred to another study from Salford University (Barrett, Zhang, Moffat and Kobbacy 2012), which provides an excellent summary and even goes as far as to show general discomfort and factors like excessive and inconsistent noise and temperature levels can have such detrimental effects on student learning and can also undermine the positive impact of all other environmental and design features. 

  “Even high quality teaching is rendered ineffective in colder, stuffier, noisier classrooms. So, classroom design matters. It matters across the spectrum of learning from the nursery to the post-doctoral research and conference rooms. The world has moved on from the Darwinian era when formal school buildings and classrooms were first built in large numbers.” 

  So, “There is need for careful attention to be paid to classroom design and layout especially with younger students. Ideally, classrooms should be designed in such a way that it is possible for the teacher to transform the room and move from orderly rows to group work without too much difficulty. But there’s more to it than that of course. Let’s look back a little.

  “The attention currently paid to classroom design is not exclusively a 21st century phenomenon. Back in the first decade of the 20th century, the ideas and philosophy of the Italian Physician Maria Montessori inspired a generation of teachers. The Montessori Movement is regarded by many as the root of a lot of the best practices in many of today’s schools and even colleges. The Montessori method was the first real child-centered approach to education. Today, as in the early 20th century, Montessori classrooms are designed as special learning environments that focus not on order or discipline, but on the changing needs of the students up to 12 years. In their layout, these classrooms recognise that students learn through activities and interaction with others and not just by obedient listening,” he stated.

  Cuddihy continued, “Montessori’s ideas were revolutionary in their day but they now are well established within mainstream approaches to education. We now accept that modern classrooms need to provide opportunities for exploration and manipulation of objects, activity and repetition, abstraction, and communication. Montessori classrooms differ according to the age of the student recognising that the learners need to gradually move from the physical and tangible to the abstract and the creative. 

  The administrator, who during his recent visit to Lagos led a workshop on school leadership, sharing his research and experience with middle managers and school leaders from all over Lagos said, “I was pleased to see that in the schools I visited in Lagos, the design of the classrooms recognised that children in the early age groups need more colorful and imaginative classroom designs and access to educational toys and other objects so that they can use their senses to explore and manipulate. I noticed that the classroom displays and designs gradually evolve and became more advanced, challenging the students to use their growing powers of reasoning, imagination, and creativity. 

  “Of course, as I remarked to one of the school heads in a conversation, we do need to be careful when it comes to issues like this in education. Too often, school heads and authorities seek the quick fix, the latest fad in school improvement is the mistaken belief that teaching and learning are easily improved. It is not. Education, teaching and learning are complex disciplines. In the case of classroom design, we must remember that learning is not merely a process of osmosis. No matter how excellent the design, children don’t learn by just being in the room. Certainly we do need to pay attention to classroom design when we want to improve learning and the quality of our schools. But let’s be honest, interactive whiteboards and other ICT hardware, the latest in décor, exhibits, charts and paintings, etc do not by themselves teach. They are tools for the teacher and the school to use. How and not if these tools are used determines their effectiveness.  That is the simple bottom line of classroom design and school improvement.

  “Does comfort and design matter? Yes they do. Can it ever replace good teaching or make up for bad teaching, no. That is why we must continue to invest in the training and on-going development of our teachers if we really want to help our children learn better.

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