You’d be hard pushed to find a classroom that doesn’t have some kind of display, yet very little is known about their impact on achievement. Recently, however, a few studies have arisen that attempt to establish the extent to which classroom displays can help or hinder learning.
Early research has discovered that putting up student’s work can increase self-esteem, so might have an indirect impact on achievement, however, this relationship is complex (Maxwell & Chmielewski, 2008).
More recently, however, the emphasis has shifted from self-esteem to attention (or, rather, distraction) and the possibility that students find it difficult to concentrate and focus when the classroom walls are covered with brightly coloured displays. This type of research is still in its infancy and it will be some time before we can reach any definitive conclusions, nevertheless, the studies that have been conducted (and there appear to be very few) do point to a potential problem.
The Role of Attention
Our ability to sustain our attention and focus on the task in hand has obvious benefits for learning and academic achievement. Carroll’s time on task hypothesis asserts that learning is a function of time one allocates to a learning task. Thus, time off-task reduces learning opportunities and is therefore thought to be detrimental to achievement. It follows that anything that encourages time off-task (such as distractions) is going to negatively impact learning.
Human attentional abilities follow a developmental trajectory, that is, as children get older they become better at staying focussed and avoiding distractions, but these abilities also vary between children, even those of the same age. Lucy Erickson and her co-researchers, for example, found that attentional control was associated with performance on classroom-type learning tasks. Higher attentional control leads to less interference from distractors, such as peers, noise or other environmental stimuli (Erickson, Thiessen, Godwin, Dickerson, & Fisher, 2015).
However, we also need to be able to change or modulate the focus of our visual attention, which is also important for learning. For example, studies have found that children look at the teacher or experimenter when being given information but look away when they are thinking – so-called gaze aversion (Riby, Doherty-Sneddon, & Whittle, 2012). Children functioning on the autistic spectrum also modulate their gaze to look away when thinking but also display more gaze aversion during listening (Doherty-Sneddon, Riby, & Whittle, 2012).
Attention and classroom displays
It’s clear that attention is vital to learning, but does this mean that a classroom containing an abundance of visual displays will increase the likelihood of attention being directed ‘off-task’ and what impact might this have on academic achievement?
In one study, researchers explored the impact of visual displays on typically developing (TD) children (twenty-four children with an average age of just over 5 years).
Researchers systematically manipulated the amount of visual displays in a laboratory classroom throughout 6 brief science mini-lessons. The classroom displays varied between heavily decorated and no displays. Lessons were video recorded and behaviour coded in terms of visual engagement (on-task – looking at the teachers or books; off-task – looking at peers of at the walls).
There was far less off-task behaviour recorded in the no displays condition, although the children were still distracted by their peers. Children also scored lower on learning tasks in the heavily decorated condition (Fisher, Godwin, & Seltman, 2014).
Barrett looked at several physical characteristics of 153 classrooms in 27 UK primary schools (total number of children 3766), including complexity and colour (which would include displays). He concluded that physical characteristics accounted for 16% of the variance in academic progression over the course of one year but discovered a curvilinear relationship. This indicates that too much and too little physical complexity was predictive of poorer academic progress. Barrett cautiously concluded that the complexity of the classroom could interact with a child’s ability to focus attention in the classroom which may then impact upon potential learning (Barrett, Davies, Zhang, & Barrett, 2015).
It’s worth noting that Barrett didn’t manipulate the level of classroom visual distraction, thus, we cannot be certain that the visual displays directly impacted learning. Fisher did manipulate the visual displays but the sample size was very small and the study used measures of eye gaze which are much less precise than, say, eye-tracking techniques.
The most recent addition to the literature (at least as far as I can trace) looked at the impact of classroom displays on both typically developing children and children with ASD (Hanley et al., 2017). A total of 89 children were recruited – 37 with ASD between the ages of 7 and 10 (average 10.6), and 52 typically developing children between 5 and 13 years old (average 9).
The children were presented with a video lesson where a teacher stood in front of a screen that was either decorated with a display taken from an actual classroom, or a blank screen (see below). The children were then assessed using a worksheet and eye-tracking equipment was employed to detect where the children were looking.
All children spent more time looking at the display in the visual display condition and less time looking at the teacher than those in the no display condition. ASD children spent the most time looking at the display. Those who spent more time looking at the display scored lower on the assessment.
This study provides useful information on how displays may have a greater negative impact on those children whose attentional abilities are already impaired. However, the artificial nature of the study is certainly a weak point. First of all, this was a video and not a real classroom setting. Also, it might not be typical for a teacher to stand in front of a display and would more likely be standing in front of a board of some kind. This makes it difficult to determine if these findings could be replicated in a real-world classroom.
The current evidence base (although small) does suggest that classroom displays can negatively impact learning – at least in younger children. The ability to stay focussed and avoid distractions increases with age and research is yet to investigate if older children are as easily distracted (if you have come across any please comment below). What we don’t really know from these studies is whether or not the kind of display makes a difference or if there is a saturation point – a point where the complexity and intensity of the displays has the most negative impact.
Barrett, P., Davies, F., Zhang, Y., & Barrett, L. (2015). The impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning: Final results of a holistic, multi-level analysis. Building and Environment, 89(February), 118–133. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.buildenv.2015.02.013
Doherty-Sneddon, G., Riby, D. M., & Whittle, L. (2012). Gaze aversion as a cognitive load management strategy in autism spectrum disorder and Williams syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 53(4), 420–430. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2011.02481.x
Erickson, L. C., Thiessen, E. D., Godwin, K. E., Dickerson, J. P., & Fisher, A. V. (2015). Endogenously and exogenously driven selective sustained attention: Contributions to learning in kindergarten children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 138, 126–134. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2015.04.011
Fisher, A. V., Godwin, K. E., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning in Young Children: When Too Much of a Good Thing May Be Bad. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1362–1370. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614533801
Hanley, M., Khairat, M., Taylor, K., Wilson, R., Cole-Fletcher, R., & Riby, D. M. (2017). Classroom displays—Attraction or distraction? Evidence of impact on attention and learning from children with and without autism. Developmental Psychology, 53(7), 1265–1275. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000271
Maxwell, L. E., & Chmielewski, E. J. (2008). Environmental personalization and elementary school children’s self-esteem. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28(2), 143–153. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2007.10.009
Riby, D. M., Doherty-Sneddon, G., & Whittle, L. (2012). Face-to-face interference in typical and atypical development. Developmental Science, 15(2), 281–291. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2011.01125.x