If you were to walk into any primary school in the UK and take stock of the environment, common themes emerge. In the corridors, you are very likely to see large display boards showcasing pupils’ work or celebrating success in sport etc. Headshots of staff, that I always think look more like a ‘rogues gallery’ (regardless of how big the smiles are) and large artistic looking photographs of children, looking happy, whether they are immersed in learning or at play. You are sure to see photographs of housecaptains or pupil parliaments and a wide variety of value or mission statements that seek to convey the ethos of the school.
Wander down the corridors and into the classrooms and here we see more similarities. Almost all primary classrooms are bright and welcoming, more so than secondary, that always seem sparse in comparison. (Please note that this is not a criticism).
Back to the primary classroom, where pupils’ work adorn the walls, windows or can be found hung on washing lines stretching from one corner or the room to another. There may be role playing areas (mainly in infant classrooms) and in all, there is almost certainly going to be a plethora of vocabulary and learning prompts for English and Maths (often courtesy of Sparklebox which caused much controversy in 2010 – so much so, that many schools blocked this popular site).
Class rules, health and safety, PSHE and Science posters may also be found on the walls, together with a variety of questions, quotes and popping up over the last five years or so – the Maths and English Working Walls and learning journeys. If we look at the furniture, tables are arranged to promote group work and, I think it’s fair to say, that teacher desks are thing of the past, because in most lessons the teacher can (and should) be found working with the children. I have to honestly say that my desk served no other purpose than to keep stationery in. I may as well have thrown it out!
I know that teachers work immensely hard creating a classroom environment that is not just warm and inviting but that is also a resource for pupils to engage and interact with. In essence, a physical and visual resource to scaffold and extend learning. But how much do the pupils really engage with their learning environment? Ultimately, does all of this hard work actually improve learning outcomes for pupils or is it just pretty wallpaper? Do the aesthetics of the classroom/school really matter?
My motivation for seeking an answer to this last question was prompted by the Headteacher I am currently working with. His vision for the aesthetics of the school and how each individual classroom would contribute towards the realisation of this vision, was fascinating to me, in what appeared to be, its very prescriptiveness. It became clear that this Head had incredibly high standards. As a huge advocate of the work of Ron Berger (if you haven’t read ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ than I suggest you do so) high standards and striving for excellence (in my opinion) are a prerequisite for leaders, teachers and learners alike – in fact – for every stakeholder in our learning communities (but that’s a whole other blog!)
So whilst I was visualising how our school was going to be transformed (will write more about this later) I was also considering the impact. Whilst I knew that the school would end up being more ‘aesthetically pleasing’ I kept wondering… Would it lead to better outcomes for pupils?
The positive impact of an ‘attractive’ classroom has been well documented. In 2009, Michael Hubenthal (IRIS Consortium, Education and Outreach Program) and Thomas O’Brien (University of Binghamton, School of Education) wrote a paper entitled: ‘Revisiting your classroom’s walls: The pedagogical power of posters,
They report (and I quote) that ‘Since the 1950’s, researchers have known that visually unattractive rooms produce feelings of discontent, fatigue and a desire to escape (Maslow & Mintz, 1956). More recently an ever‐growing body of research concludes that soft aspects of a classroom, such as climate, colour palette of walls and wall decorations, adjustable lighting systems, and seating have the ability to positively influence students’ emotions and have important effects on students’ attitudes and behaviours such as attendance, class participation, and rapport with the instructor (Graetz, 2006; Sommer & Olsen, 1980; Wong et al.,1992).’
Many people have written and blogged about classroom walls, concluding that once the displays become familiar to pupils they lose their impact – becoming nothing more than wallpaper. From my own experience, I was often frustrated that the carefully selected prompts I displayed to scaffold learning were rarely looked at by the pupils, even when pointed out to them, before, during and after a task. I have read arguments for and against keeping the walls free of all displays and read countless articles on the use of colour.
However, I was particularly interested to read the many studies that conclude that an effective classroom environment can improve outcomes for pupils. A pilot study by the University of Salford and architects, Nightingale Associates, concluded that the classroom environment can affect a child’s academic progress over a year by as much as 25%.
The transformation of our school began. Corridors and classrooms were stripped free of old furniture and display boards. With school accessibility in mind, the garishly painted walls were replaced with one calming colour in non reflective paint. Existing doors removed and replaced in one contrasting colour as was the flooring.
Teachers’ desks were removed (some prised from under the fingernails of teachers) and resources not essential for day-to-day learning centralised. Nothing was to be stacked on top of cupboards – absolutely all clutter was to be eliminated.
All of the corridors and classrooms were now nothing more than a blank canvas. Oh the endless possibilities!
The Headteacher then explained to us all that he would set up a ‘model classroom’ for us to see what his vision of a classroom would look like. However, I believe he had a far deeper purpose in mind when he proposed this. We can all look at photographs and pictures to see what something looks like – but to really change perceptions and make a vision a reality you have to change minds – and where there are fixed mindsets this can be challenging.
We weren’t allowed to see the ‘model classroom’ until the ‘big reveal’ and I’ll never forget that day. Much like the pupils did, when they walked into their classrooms on the first day of term, there was a sense of awe and wonderment amongst the teachers. It was so quiet – you could have heard a pin drop – and then, as teachers are want to do (because we are all big kids at heart) we started to explore. You see, the classes are linked to one topic, there can be nothing displayed on the walls that is not relevant to that topic. The space is one that is ‘designed’ to inspire and engage whoever walks through the door and this methodology extends to all spaces in the school. Our library is now world famous!
But what has been the impact on pupil outcomes? Behaviour is good. When you walk down the corridors you gain a sense of calmness, when you walk into the classrooms there is an air of purpose that was missing before. Attendance is rising, because pupils want to come to school. The pupils are proud of their teachers for working so hard to create such a stimulating learning environment for them. They demonstrate this everyday in the way they look after and respect our school. Above all, there is a sense of pride amongst the whole community that is almost tangible. Bonds are being formed and the buzz of positivity – even when the going gets tough – just seems to get louder.
Will all of this impact ultimately on pupil progress? Well you know – I have no doubt it will – because our high expectations seep into every aspect of school life. We have only really just started out on our journey but when I look around at our happy community and hear teachers and children laughing and learning together – isn’t that the outcome we should all be striving for?
Visit our school website at http://www.cordwalles.org
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Apologies for any spelling or grammatical errors. I have very tired eyes! 😉