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The Bare Walls Theory: Do Too Many Classroom Decorations Harm Learning?

A recent study found that kindergartners taught in a highly decorated classroom were more distracted and scored lower on tests than when walls were bare.
Gloria Taylor teaches at Erie Charter School
Gloria Taylor teaches at Erie Charter School JULIENNE SCHAER

HARVEY, Ill.—To decorate her kindergarten classroom for the new school year, Lori Baker chose cheerful alphabet and number charts featuring smiling children of different races. In the reading corner, she hung three puffy paper flowers from the ceiling and posted dancing letters spelling “Welcome to Kindergarten.”

Otherwise, though, the 20-year teaching veteran exercised restraint and deliberately left several walls bare in her room at Whittier Elementary School in Harvey, Ill., a predominately African-American, working-class city about 25 miles south of Chicago.

The latest research suggests she’s onto something.

This fall, as teachers nationwide prepared their classrooms for the new school year, many reported being bombarded with a decorations blitz, from educational supply store promotions to classroom design blogs to Pinterest posts on themed classrooms with polka dots, owls and bumblebees.

But a recent study has found that for young children, adopting a more subdued approach, like Baker’s, is better. The study, published May 2014 in Psychological Science, was one of the first to examine how decorations impact learning. It found that when kindergartners were taught in a highly decorated classroom, they were more distracted and scored lower on tests than when they were taught in a room with bare walls.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University followed a group of 24 kindergartners taught in two simulated classrooms: one with bare walls, the other decorated with commercial materials like presidential photos, science posters and maps, as well as the children’s artwork.

During the lessons, children sat on carpet squares in a semicircle facing the teacher, who read aloud from a picture book. They participated in six lessons of five- to seven-minutes each in which the teacher read aloud on topics such as plate tectonics, the Solar System and bugs. After each lesson, the children took multiple-choice picture tests. Lessons were observed and videotaped to monitor how often the children were focused on the teacher or “off task,” distracted by themselves, other students or the visual environment.

In the sparse classroom, the kindergartners got distracted by other students or even themselves. But in the decorated one, children were more likely to be distracted by the visual environment and spent far more time “off task.”

Anna V. Fisher, the study’s lead author and an associate psychology professor, said the findings showed that the classroom environment can be distracting and negatively impact learning. But, due to the study’s small size and controlled setting, further research is needed.

In a highly decorated classroom, children were more likely to be distracted by the visual environment.

Fisher and her team at Carnegie Mellon are now observing students in kindergarten through fourth-grade classes. She suspects that what’s on the walls is less significant in the upper grades because concentration improves as children age. Older children are also less likely to be placed in highly decorated classrooms.

For Gillian McNamee, director of teacher education at the Erikson Institute in Chicago, the new study affirms what many educators knew intuitively about classroom design: Too much visual stimulation can negatively impact learning.

“When I walk into a classroom, often they are almost wallpapered with materials from head to toe. And for an adult, let alone a child, it can make you dizzy and lose focus,” McNamee said.

Some early childhood experts say the study highlights the need for more teacher guidance on classroom design.

She advises new teachers to be wary of “the shopping mall effect” in decorating their rooms. “When you go to a shopping mall, after about an hour and a half, it’s just too many people, too much visual stimulation, noise,” she said. “It can wear a person down.”

At Whittier Elementary, a school surrounded by several foreclosed homes that has seen its enrollment plunge amid a housing crisis, Lori Baker faces a particularly delicate balancing act to make her kindergarten classroom look inviting while keeping kids on task. She believes in waiting to post material until she covers it in class.

“My personal approach is you don’t put anything up if the children have not made some sort of prior connection to it,” she said. Nearly 98 percent of Whittier’s 200 students come from low-income homes and are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches. The school has been underperforming on Illinois Standards Achievement Tests, but scores have been improving faster than the rest of the state.

At Erie Elementary Charter School in Chicago, kindergarten teacher Gloria Taylor hangs few wall decorations, but she uses tall lamps, strings of leaf-shaped green lights, lime-colored window sheers and several large mirrors to brighten her classroom. Her school, in the city’s diverse Humboldt Park neighborhood, serves a predominantly Latino, low-income population, with 19 families in living situations so unstable they are considered homeless. Like Whittier, Erie has been showing steady growth but remains underperforming in Illinois state standards

Taylor’s approach to decorating stems from her training in a Montessori classroom, which encourages teachers to have sparsely decorated classrooms with elements of the natural environment. Now a five-year veteran of kindergarten classrooms, Taylor believes the look conveys a calming effect that improves children’s learning.

“When I came to Erie, I wanted my classroom to have the same feel,” she said. “Maybe it would have been different if I would have been in a classroom with decorations.”

Susan Pryor, another Erie kindergarten teacher who has a dual-language classroom, uses some visual wall displays to help Spanish-speaking students communicate phrases for “Can we play together?” or “Can you help me?” However, she steers away from commercial, store-bought decorations, which she says are often irrelevant to learning.

“Kids need environments that are not over-stimulating, especially in preschool and kindergarten,” said Pryor, who has taught little ones for six years. “They need environments that they help to create so that there is a sense of ownership.” But Pryor did confess that she worries about kindergarten parents visiting her class and not understanding why her classroom is so plain.

“All the promotional stuff is more for the teachers and parents than it is for the kids,” she said. “What’s on the wall should only be useful and helpful to kids.”

Regardless of how they decorate, many kindergarten teachers said they received little information on classroom design in graduate school and more guidance is needed.

“What’s on the wall should only be useful and helpful to kids.”

Erikson’s McNamee also said more discussion on classroom design should occur within schools, so teachers can create a continuity of experience for children as they move from grade to grade.

Baker, the kindergarten teacher in Harvey, recalled buying two big bags of decorations out of excitement before she began her first year teaching. Her purchases included a set of bumblebees, each listing a rule such as “Be polite” and “Be nice.” Baker proudly posted the bees on the wall, but at the end of the year, she realized she had never referred to them. Her thinking on decorations has since evolved.

“Don’t buy stuff for your walls unless it’s something that you are going to use in that classroom,” she said. “Otherwise it’s just taking up space.”

Still, Baker said she couldn’t imagine teaching in a classroom with bare walls for a full school day. She said children need some educational displays to engage them.

During the first week of school as Baker was working with a small group, she noticed a boy reading a number chart she had made counting by 10s to 100. He whispered quietly to himself, “10, 20, 30, 40…”

“Now, did he learn his numbers by looking at that chart? No,” she said. “He already knew them. But he was still noticing things in the environment that he was in, and that’s important.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.