Of all the observations I made about Michaela School, one which proved particularly controversial was their decision not put display children’s work. The rationale given for this was twofold. It takes teachers time to put up, refresh and replace classroom displays and it takes children time to create work for the purpose of such displays.
I’ve spent the week mulling this over and have arrived at a few thoughts. I’m all for not wasting teachers’ time in forcing them to engage in extraneous activities, but then, this is enshrined in legislation. The 2012 workload agreement says that teachers cannot be routinely required to undertake any clerical tasks including, “Preparing, setting up and taking down classroom displays”. I fully recognise that there are schools which find wiggle room in the word “routinely” and teachers are put under enormous pressure to create classroom displays but these are hopefully becoming rarer. No school should compel teachers to put up displays.
But what of the second consideration? Should children spend time creating work for displays? This is trickier. The assumption that displaying students’ work is automatically a ‘good thing’ leads teachers to devote curriculum time to making posters and other items of dubious educational merit. As an aside, the average Year 7 students spends far more time than you might believe feasible making posters. I’ve got nothing against posters per se but I seriously doubt whether they can be worth the time spent on them. Asking students to devote time to creating display work in subjects like English, science or maths is probably wasteful, but what of art? One of the lessons I most enjoyed at Michaela was an art lesson in which children were creating beautiful pastel landscapes demonstrating their understanding of perspective. Whilst these might not have been created with the express purpose of showing them off, the very nature of visual art is that it should be seen. What harm could come from these pictures finding themselves up on walls as long as someone other than a teacher puts them up? And further, might there be merit in displaying students’ work in other subjects as long as its purpose wasn’t to be displayed?
And further, might there be merit in displaying students’ work in other subjects as long as its purpose wasn’t to be displayed? One argument is that children can learn from seeing each others’ work in progress. This no doubt true but I don’t think sticking it up on a wall is the best way to accomplish this aim. Whether or not you have a member of support staff to display such work, teachers still have the tedious task of asking for it to be done. And asking someone else to bluetack up a few essays seems petty – quicker and easier to just do it yourself – it is thus good intentions ebb away. But there’s a better way! At Michaela – as at many other schools – teachers make excellent use of visualisers to share  and discuss students’ work. Isn’t this better than spending time on a tatty, temporary display?
But what of the motivational benefits of students seeing their work displayed? This series of tweets from Ruth Kennedy is worth considering:
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Far be it for me to dismiss these children’s lived experience but I think we need to ask some questions of these responses. If children are only made aware of the potential quality of their work, or are only prepared to ‘pull out the stops’ when it is displayed, isn’t there something wrong? I understand the pride one might feel from having work selected as worthy of display, but maybe this sort of aesthetic judgement undermines intrinsic motivation?
As far as my Twitter timeline suggests, the consensus  is that many teachers love the creative expression they find in displaying students’ work. It would be churlish to forbid this, but I do think it would benefit everyone to think a little more deeply about exactly why we feel this to be such an important aspect of teaching. The more I think about the more marginal the benefits appear. Might display work be just another educational fetish? Are we perhaps mainly doing it to gull visitors into thinking, oh what a jolly school this must be? Might such colourful displays be used to paper over other cracks? Should we perhaps look at the evidence?
Fisher et al’s findings are counter-intuitive. In this 2014 paper they suggest classroom display may be detrimental to children’s learning. They found students were less likely to stay focused, and attained lower test scores, when experimental lessons were given in a “decorated classroom” compared to a “sparse classroom.” Furthermore, children’s test scores were negatively correlated with the amount of time that they were distracted, suggesting a direct relationship between these two variables.They conclude by saying, “colorful visual displays may promote off-task behavior in young children, resulting in reduced learning opportunities and achievement”. They do make the point that there was significantly less disruption after children got used to the displays in the second week. I’d suggest that’s the point at which the display has become meaningless wallpaper. Isn’t the very intention of most display to capture students’ attention? What then is the point of display which doesn’t distract them?
No one wants bare walls, but that doesn’t mean we have to display students’ work and it doesn’t mean we have to distract them. Carl Hendrick has considered the value of the motivational poster, and back in July 2013, I wrote this post in which I questioned the value of classroom display in general. The conclusion I came to then was, “So, what is the point of classroom display? Most people would readily agree that it should support students’ learning. If it fails this uncontroversial test, should we tear it down?” I stand by that.