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Dangerous Decoration: How Much is Too Much for the Classroom?

My English classroom has a fish in it. No, not a real fish. A fish sticker. A shiny fish sticker with glittery scales, blue eyes, and an intriguingly amused expression on his (her?) face. Sometimes it feels like the fish sticker is staring at me. Have you ever tried reading or writing with a shiny fish sticker staring at you? It’s tough. And I often find myself staring back.

As it turns out, I may not be the only little guy distracted by certain classroom decorations. According to an article on NBC News this week, some teachers are beginning to take steps to reduce those distractions by stripping some of their classroom decorations.

The crusade (okay, that’s a bit of an overstatement) against decorations is partially based on a recent study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon that found highly decorated classrooms can affect the learning of young students.

The [study’s] results showed that while children learned in both classroom types, they learned more when the room was not heavily decorated. Specifically, children’s accuracy on the test questions was higher in the sparse classroom (55 percent correct) than in the decorated classroom (42 percent correct).

The study also found that the rate of “off-task behavior” is lower in more sparsely decorated classrooms.

…when the researchers tallied all of the time children spent off-task in both types of classrooms, the rate of off-task behavior was higher in the decorated classroom (38.6 percent time spent off-task) than in the sparse classroom (28.4 percent time spent off-task).

Interesting stuff. Being the sharp young researcher that I am, however, I have to caution you against reading too much into these findings. I haven’t had time to dig deep into the study’s methodology, but even on its surface it has a few issues. Most notably, the study used a sample of only 24 students, and all of those students were kindergarteners.

The researchers theorize that the effects of wall decorations will decrease in later grades as children’s concentration improves. They are currently expanding the study through fourth grade to test that theory.

Regardless of the results, I think I can safely speak for all kids when I say that I’d rather not go to school in a totally bare classroom. As one person going by the compellingly mysterious name of “Facebook User” states in the comment section of the study’s summary page:

Somewhere between a pile of [junk] thrown at the wall and the sterility of an empty prison cell is something known as visual planning. All humans crave it. Interior visual design is based on relevance, organization, careful balance of visual elements, and functionality. To simplify more for you gals: Not too much yet not too little.

I agree. I don’t want my classroom to look like the Vegas Strip, but I’d also like to keep my shiny fish sticker. We’ve developed something of an understanding.