The war against cluttered classrooms: Do our classrooms impact negatively on children’s ability to learn?

Nicola McDowell, Massey University

As an educator supporting children who are blind or who have low vision, I am often surprised by the amount of visual clutter that all children are faced with every day in their classroom environments. It is not uncommon for every area of the classroom wall to be covered with brightly coloured, stimulating educational material. In some situations, even the windows are covered with colourful displays. This not only blocks out natural light, but also reduces the opportunity for children to give their eye muscles a break from the constant near vision work they do in class. Probably the most detrimental addition to the overall visual clutter in a classroom is hanging items from the ceiling. This adds a layering element, requiring children to have effective depth perception to be able to distinguish between the information in the foreground and background.

From a teacher’s perspective, I can understand the desire to create an inviting, aesthetically pleasing classroom environment. We want children to enjoy coming into our classrooms and, of course, it is also important to display children’s work so that they have the opportunity to be proud of what they have created. Intentionally managing and curating the learning environment is also a dimension of our professionalism: In the Education Council’s ‘Our Code, Our Standards’ document, under the standard of learning focused culture, teachers are expected to:

  • “Manage the learning setting to ensure access to learning for all and to maximise learners’ physical, social, cultural and emotional safety.”
  • “Develop an environment where the diversity and uniqueness of all learners are accepted and valued.”

But, as a profession, have we ever stopped to consider whether an overload of visual stimuli is actually having a negative impact on children’s learning experiences and behaviours? Fortunately, research is starting to focus on this very concept, with the results suggesting that visual environments play an important role in how young children allocate their attention during instruction. More specifically, researchers have found that the visual features of the classroom environment can be potential sources of distraction. This distraction can impact on children’s ability to attend to the content of the lesson, ultimately hindering their learning.

Given my passion for supporting children with cerebral visual impairment (CVI), who have particular difficulties with visual distraction and in processing visual information, I decided to explore this concept further. I wanted to try and establish whether classroom clutter impacts on the learning experiences and behaviour of children with CVI – but my findings, outlined below, turned out to have implications for all members of the classroom environment.

My research

For my Master’s professional inquiry, I de-cluttered two classrooms at a NZ special school (a school that provides high-needs students with specialist support). In this particular school, six of the eight children were known to have CVI. The de-cluttering strategies included:

  • covering open shelving with plain coloured sheets
  • creating blank areas of wall for the children to face towards when doing work that required full concentration
  • removing unnecessary information from the walls, windows and hanging from the ceiling.

For two weeks, the teachers, teacher aides and students followed normal classroom routines and completed usual activities in the newly de-cluttered environment. After the two weeks, I interviewed the teaching team to see if they had noticed any changes in the children’s overall functioning before and after the de-clutter.

So, what did the teaching team say?

Individually, the teachers felt they had only noticed small changes in the students’ functioning. However, when these changes were all combined together, the overall picture suggested that the de-cluttering had indeed impacted on the students’ learning and behaviour. Specific changes that the teachers described included:

  • an increase in student focus, visual awareness, visual attention and general attention
  • better student concentration, less distraction and more engagement in routine activities
  • the students seemed more relaxed and there was less tension in the room.

In terms of providing more suitable learning environments for students with CVI, these findings are important and will hopefully prompt specialist vision educators to start making some changes to their classroom environments.  

But these findings are also significant for all classrooms

Another major finding from my research, which surprised the three teachers and three teacher aides, was the impact the de-cluttered classrooms had on their own experiences. The teachers and teacher aides themselves did not have CVI or other vision impairments, but in general, the teaching team felt that the de-cluttered environment had a calming effect and that it created a more peaceful classroom for them personally. They also described being able to see more easily without the clutter, having better focus and being less distracted throughout the day. One teacher commented that she had anticipated that the de-cluttering would be good for the students with CVI, but that she had not expected it to have an influence on her as well:

“When I first walked into the classrooms and I hadn’t seen how it was with all the de-cluttering, I went in and it wasn’t a thought, I didn’t think about it, I just felt oh, this is so calm and peaceful”.

So, what does this tell us?

To put these findings into perspective, the students in these classrooms with CVI all had significant visual difficulties. Some had previously been reported to not even be able to see past the end of their wheelchair tray. Yet, with de-cluttering, these students showed increased visual functioning, as well as better focus and concentration, less distraction and more engagement in classroom activities.

But wait a minute – isn’t that what we want for all our children? – especially when you consider that the teaching team, who did not have any visual difficulties at all, also felt more focused and less distracted in the de-cluttered classroom. In fact, the teachers loved the calm and peaceful classroom so much, they wanted some of the changes to be made more permanent!

It seems logical, therefore, that by de-cluttering classroom environments, we may potentially be giving all students a better opportunity to learn in a more accessible environment. Surely it’s worth giving de-cluttering a try in your own classroom/s … The results may surprise you!


Nicola.jpgNicola McDowell works as a senior tutor in the Institute of Education at Massey University, New Zealand. She is the Coordinator of the Blind and Low Vision endorsement of the joint Massey/Canterbury Specialist Teaching Programme. Previously Nicola has worked as a Developmental Orientation and Mobility (DOM) Specialist and a Resource Teacher Vision (RTV). Nicola is currently undertaking doctoral research in education, focusing on supporting children with cerebral visual impairment. 

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