Teachers and educational practitioners are frequently presented in newspaper articles and on social media, with claims that “research shows…” such and such to be the case. Yet rarely is that research subject to critical and systematic scrutiny, which is hardly surprising. Such scrutiny is complex, requiring some considerable understanding of key elements and processes involved in sociological and psychological inquiry. In evaluating research there are some basic questions we need to ask:
What was the sampling strategy? How generalisable are the findings beyond the sample used? What research methods were used, and were these appropriate? What alternative explanations were considered? Why was the research undertaken? Who funded it? Who is the audience?
Having taught research methodology at doctoral level for almost 20 years, I am well aware of the difficulty in critical research scrutiny even for those undertaking a PhD. Most “traditional” research reports and articles draw on a literature review, which itself often comes with no critical engagement. As a result, some research may indeed rest upon unsound foundations. However, more disconcerting is when research is misunderstood and misrepresented by others who may have their own agenda to pursue.
This article was stimulated by two tweets regarding classroom displays, from two maths educators for whom I have considerable respect.
Now I have no idea what the backstory is here, but presume someone had said something critical about classroom displays. The website referred to “The Association for Psychological Science” seems to be making quite definitive and categorical claims for the research:
This then became the subject of an article five years later in the Times Educational Supplement by one of its regular columnists Mark Enser on display in the classroom titled “4 reasons to ditch your classroom displays” (16th June 2019):
Mark’s use of this article is questionable and suggests to me he has probably not read the original research, which is worrying given he is “head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College”. The by-line for the article says “Classroom wall displays can be a distraction – they are often more trouble than they are worth” which Mark backs up by cherry picking this sentence (verbatim) from the abstract:
“Children were more distracted by the visual environment, spent more time off task, and demonstrated smaller learning gains when the walls were highly decorated than when the decorations were removed.”
Mark’s call to “ditch displays” also does not match the recommendations of the researchers:
“Additional research is needed to know what effect the classroom visual environment has on children’s attention and learning in real classrooms. Therefore, I would suggest that instead of removing all decorations, teachers should consider whether some of their visual displays may be distracting to young children.” (Disruptive Decorations, Carnegie Melon University)
So, in order to unpick what is going on here, I went back to the original research and read the article in detail because there are a number of issues it raises.
The research was published in 2014 and was a laboratory-based study by two American psychologists. It appears to have been part of the doctoral study of one of the authors, Karrie Goodwin, who on the Carnegie website says she is “particularly interested in investigating the role of the physical environment on children’s distractibility”. Her supervisor was the article’s main author, Anna Fisher. Karrie is now at Kent State University having obtained her doctorate in 2015.
I am not for one minute wanting to question the veracity or professionalism of the research. The article has been peer reviewed after all. Indeed, I have published with doctoral students in the past. However, it does place the study in context, and in a genre. The study is a classic small-scale naturalistic psychological experimental study, which one often sees as part of a doctoral programme. They used 24 kindergarten pupils, who were very young children of 5-6 years old, from predominantly high socioeconomic status households, whom they placed in a room which they set up as a classroom in their university. The room was first decorated by the researchers for three lessons, then stripped out leaving bare walls for the other three.
The “teacher” was a research assistant who “read aloud from a book… which is a common instructional activity in kindergarten”. Two pages were read to the children. The assessment of learning consisted of “asking the children to select the correct answer from four pictorial response options” in a workbook. Now this is all a far cry from a standard classroom, where a teacher knows the children, and uses the room as part of the educational environment. The researchers made the point that “distractibility…decreases markedly with age” and hence would not be likely to be an issue with older learners.
In the study, “distraction” was measured by the “direction of the pupils’ gaze”; anyone not looking at the teacher was marked as “distracted”. “Learning” was measured by a written test after the lesson which consisted of the pupils being read to. The correlation between ‘time off task’ (the measure of which the study admits is contentious) and learning score is minimal. As is the case with studies in this genre, considerable attention has been given to measurement and the calculation of statistics – down to two decimal places in some cases. In that sense, the results are quite statistically reliable, that is, we are all likely to get the same results. However it has weak explanatory validity since there is likely to be disagreement over exactly what it claims to be measuring – distraction and learning.
The researchers however are guarded in their conclusions:
Classroom visual environment can induce changes in attention and learning outcomes in kindergarten children. However further research is needed to examine the optimal level of visual stimulation in primary grade classrooms. (Fisher, Godwin and Seltman, 2014, p. 1368)
This is hardly the evidence supporting Mark’s somewhat sensationalist argument that teachers “ditch classroom displays”. I do not dispute the need to think carefully about what we put on classroom walls; indeed, the researchers are pointing that way themselves. However, to misrepresent research in order to claim teachers need to “ditch your classroom displays” is clearly disingenuous and unhelpful and a misuse of research.
As for Mark’s article, the “four reasons” he gives come across as all unsubstantiated personal opinion, for example:
If we are going to use our classroom walls for displays then it would seem sensible to deploy a “less is more” strategy and only include things we will be referring to directly.
Beautiful displays take up hours of time and need refreshing frequently if there is even a hope of. […] At a time when workload is spiralling out of control for many, are these expectations really healthy?
It is very unlikely that putting this work on display will ever mean it is being read. […] most pupils are completely unaware of the content of things on display even when they are sat next to it.
Classroom displays can split pupils’ attention between the place where we want it to be and these beautiful displays we work so hard on. If they are thinking about the inspirational poster above the board, they aren’t thinking about the information on the board.
It is impossible to make any judgement here as there is no evidence for any of these claims in the article apart from Fisher et al. and a rather disconnected reference to an EEF study on metacognitive self-regulation which itself does not reference the classroom environment.
There seems little sensitivity here to how teachers might use classroom displays and in particular how this may vary with the age of the pupils. As a secondary practitioner Mark’s experience and perspective may be quite different from that of primary practitioners. There is also some contradiction in the claims – that pupils don’t look at the display and yet get distracted by them. Can it be both? Indeed, it possibly can, yet this requires a much greater critical scrutiny of the classroom culture. There is no empirical evidence in Mark’s article, nor any suggestion he has spoken to any teacher about their practice. For example, teachers may have other interests than short term learning goals and are quite happy with some possible distraction given the gains that a creative and welcoming classroom environment brings.
So, what questions might this pose? Is there a level of display that is optimal to learning? What effect do different forms of classroom display material have on children? What is the impact on a pupil’s self-esteem when their work is displayed? Why do teachers put up displays? How are they used?
I am sure many teachers could add to this list, but one overarching question for contemporary classrooms is one Mark does point to. Is it worth the effort given all the demands on a teacher’s time? These are however, empirical questions requiring much more investigation and systematic research.
Since this was published, I noticed I appear to have been blocked by Mark Enser on Twitter. Whilst I do block individuals myself, I do so as a result of abuse or racism, never as a response to an intellectual critique.