THE ERA OF DISPLAYS – A MINIMALIST VIEW ON CLASSROOM ENVRIONMENT

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By Stephanie Crawford

Have you ever walked into a classroom and felt seriously overwhelmed? Not just about being
back in school, but by the magnitude of anchor charts, posters, and materials that literally
cover the room floor to ceiling (sometimes even on the ceiling!)? In today’s classroom, that
seems to be the norm and the expectation. Everything we learn, every standard we touch on
throughout the day, every goal that each of our 20 students need to meet – smacked on the
wall for the whole world to see. But in my classroom, this just wasn’t possible.
I am, what you would call, a neat freak. At home, at school, in my car; I just like a clean,
organized space. When it comes to setting up and maintaining my classroom, I keep it neat
all year round, admittedly for my own sanity. But I started to see that my classroom was
different from comments that fellow colleagues made. For example, when our custodians
repeatedly claim that I have the cleanest room in the building. Or when teachers visit my
classroom and say “wow, your room feels so open” or “this room just calms me”. It got me
thinking, isn’t that what it’s supposed to do? Aren’t our classrooms supposed to feel like a
safe, engaging space for students to learn? That’s when I realized that maybe my classroom
didn’t look like my fellow teachers, and I was ok with that. Turns out, research supported my
thoughts as well.
A study conducted by researchers at University of Salford, UK explored how various
environmental factors in the classroom impact students’ learning and achievement. Factors
including lights, air, temperature, wall displays, and access to nature were all taken into
account while examining 153 classrooms across the UK. Overall, the study found the
classroom environment played a major role in student learning, benefiting students’
achievement when the visual stimuli was at a moderate level, and detrimental when it was
overwhelming (Barrett et al, 2015). Fisher et al. (2014) conducted a study examining
achievement levels of Kindergarteners placed in either a well-decorated or a sparse
classroom. Results showed that the students in the well-decorated classroom not only spent
more time distracted from learning, but also performed lower on post assessments than
their peers in the sparse room. The Reggio Emilia method of teaching even labels the
classroom environment as the Third Teacher, “recogniz[ing] the instructive power of an
environment” (Carter, 2007). If our environment yields such influence over student
performance, why the great pressure to post everything? Why are educators constantly told
by higher powers to hang up this, display that, if we know it’s at the expense of our students’
potential growth?
Since this realization, I’ve taken on the title of “aspiring minimalist teacher”. I make sure that
my classroom assists my teaching by providing an enriched yet calming space for my
students to learn. I avoid clutter, clean often and attempt to keep only the materials I use
frequently.

“Aren’t our classrooms supposed to feel like a safe, engaging space
for students to learn? That’s when I realized that maybe my
classroom didn’t look like my fellow teachers, and I was ok with that.”

Therefore, to aid other aspiring Minimalist teachers, I’ve come up with suggestions
to help you evaluate your classroom environment and arrange it to best fit you
and your students’ needs.
1) Big furniture should act like a map – at the beginning of each school year, I
start with a clean slate. I move all the furniture to one side of the room, and then
start to envision how my classroom would best function. Furniture should create
well-defined areas and easily accessible pathways to maneuver around the
classroom. Anyone should be able to come to your classroom and see where
various learning centers are, how they are used (individual vs. group work), and
how to get to them easily. Furniture should not block windows, as they provide
students access to nature while they’re inside.
2) Pick the right colors, and the right amount– Think of a place that calms
you. Did you say a beach? Sunset over the mountains? Rolling hills or a starlit
night? If those places are calming for you, mimic those colors in your classroom.
Natural wood furniture and colors found in nature will bring a serenity to your
classroom without looking dull. If you bring more intense color into your
classroom, balance it out, and have a reason to draw students’ attention to the
bolder hue. Too much color, or not enough can be distracting to the eye, and a
daydreaming child.
3) Keep what you need, chuck what you don’t– teachers are notorious
hoarders; we accumulate things over the years, and no matter how often you
clean out our room, the stuff never goes away. Now, I’m not telling you to go full
Marie Kondo (but maybe some do…) but really assess what in your classroom you
USE and NEED. If there are activities you like, take a picture and keep it in a binder
along with master copies, instead of keeping bulky memorabilia. If there are
materials or resources you haven’t used in a year, maybe it’s time to find them
another home. Having too many materials, especially out cluttering up the
classroom, makes the space feel smaller and overwhelmed. For the items you do
keep, find them organized homes in bins or inside cabinets to diminish the
cluttered look.
4) Clean off your desk!– this one also blew my colleagues’ minds. When I leave
school, EVERY DAY, I leave my desk completely clean. Yes, nothing on it beside a
clipboard with my lessons for the next day. Crazy, I know. But sometimes that
clutter gets too much for you, and your students, to overcome. Anxiety builds as
the layers of papers on your desk do, and your students can feel it too. For me, it
was like leaving my day with a clean slate, and inversely starting the new day with
one too. Visually allowing my space to be neat and organized helped me keep my
mind more organized. Whether you have trays for your papers or need to take 10
minutes after class to find your desk, this small task becomes managable and
helps your mental space remain clear.

5) Reset the classroom each day – take the principle from above, and now
apply it to your students. Your students need to have a clean slate each day too,
and that means coming into a clean, tidy classroom. I used to take time after
school (seriously 15 minutes, nothing crazy) to straighten up tables, put away
materials, and get prepped for the next day. When my students came to my class,
they knew what to do and where to go because their class was organized. I know
many teachers at the end of the day have procedures where students aid in
cleaning the room up. That’s a great way to have them help keep the classroom
organized, and also de-clutter their mind at school.
6) 1 month on the wall – this topic gets a lot of talk from principals, districts
reps, mentors and coaches. But believe it or not, our students’ achievements and
our teacher efficiency is not measured by the amount of items hanging on our
walls. I try to only put items on my walls that are meaningful to my students and
their learning at that moment – no fluff, no extras, just what’s important. Thus,
most items stay on my walls for no longer than a month (the usual length of our
units). Usually, I try to change out student work weekly. I know that might sound
crazy, but I felt that if the items weren’t in the top 3 things I was teaching that
week, I didn’t need to display it. Barrett et al. (2015) claims that “as a rule of
thumb, 20-50% of the available wall space should be kept clear”. Remember, if
you’re going to display something that could pull your students’ attention away,
make sure it’s for something meaningful.
Hopefully, you haven’t been scared off yet, and these suggestions get you thinking
about your teaching practice and your classroom. As you start your next school
year, think of small changes you can make in your room. How will this benefit my
students? How will I be able to tell? How can I make my room work for us, instead
of spending hours working on my room? It just takes a few steps in the right
direction to start seeing big changes. Happy organizing!
Citations:
Barrett, P., Davies, F., Zhang, Y., Barrett, L. (2015) Impact of classroom design on
pupils’ learning: Final results of a holistic, multi-level analysis. Building and
Environment,89, 118-133.
Carter, M (2007) Making Your Environment “The Third Teacher”. Exchange, The
Early Leaders’ Magazine, July/August, 22-26.
Fisher, A., Godwin, K., & 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, 1362-1370.
Rodrigues, P., Pandeirada, J. (2018) When visual stimulation of the surrounding
environment affects children’s cognitive performance. Journal of Experimental
Child Psychology, 176, 140-149.

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