Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have found that heavily decorated elementary school classrooms can be disruptive to student learning. The various maps, number lines, visual aids and motivational posters that can be found in most classrooms are often distracting to the students they are meant to help.

A research team comprised of Anna Fisher, Karrie Godwin and Howard Seltman published a paper in Psychological Science that presents the conclusions of their investigation into heavily adorned learning environments. Through their study, the researchers found that children working in classrooms with cluttered walls, “were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed.” These results indicate that a minimalist approach to classroom decoration may be more conducive to a productive learning environment.

The Writing on the Wall

Teachers in elementary school classrooms often decorate their walls with a variety of bright and colorful materials. Whether they are showing off student work, celebrating class accomplishments, or monitoring student behavior, teachers often cover their classrooms with information. All these separate items together form a space’s visual environment. It was specifically the visual aspect of the learning environment that Fisher et al. studied in their research.

However, a learning environment is composed of much more than just the posters on the wall. It is also comprised of the layout of the desks, the air temperature, and the location of windows and doors, not to mention all the non-physical components like the attitude of the teacher and students. Fostering a creative and supportive learning environment means considering all elements of your environment.

Making Adjustments

After learning about the results of the Carnegie Mellon study, many teachers may be tempted to take everything off their walls so as not to distract their students. Before you completely whitewall your space, there are a few considerations to take into account. First, this study was conducted with kindergarteners. These students are very young and much more prone to distraction than a fifth grader. Even a second grader will be able to exercise much more self-control than a kindergarten student. As such, if you are teaching older students, you need not worry as much about their ability to stay focused in a highly decorated space.

In addition, while a display of many posters may be a distraction, a display of no posters may be worse. Though research into the effectiveness of bare walls has not been thoroughly explored, it would be wrong to assume that if full walls are distracting then empty walls promote focus. While empty walls may be less distracting, they are also less interesting. A boring classroom is likely to cause students to become disengaged and uninterested in learning. The key is to strike a balance between overbearing and dull. You can make your classroom interesting and engaging without overloading your students with stimuli.

Take a good look at your classroom this summer while the students are away and use the opportunity to take stock of what you have on your walls. Is all of it absolutely necessary? When determining the appropriate level of wall decorations, remember these interesting findings from the Carnegie Mellon study:

Of 24 kindergarten students:

  • Those in a higher decorated room spent an average of 38.6 percent of their time off-task
  • Those in a sparser room spent an average of 28.4 percent of their time off task
  • Those in a higher decorated room scored an average of 42 percent on tests
  • Those in a sparser room scored an average of 55 percent on tests

These results should give you a good idea of how distracting a cluttered classroom can be.