Moving schools and with more than an eye on headship is sure to get you reflecting. The following posts are what I think about various things, in no particular order. First up – displays.
Displays can take up vast areas of wall space and many hours of adults’ time, therefore teachers and leaders must be sure of the impact that they are having on learning so that what is on display is justified and not simply a waste of time and space. Put simply, before a display goes up, we must ask: What will this display do to improve outcomes for children? For this to be answered with any sort of reliability, the question must be framed within a sound knowledge of how children learn and what learning is – a change in long term memory.
Recognition vs retrieval
Information displayed in a classroom can lead children to recognise rather than retrieve the knowledge and concepts that they have been learning. Recognising information that they have spent some time thinking about is much easier than recalling it from memory and can give the illusion of understanding both for the child (‘Oh I know this…’) and for the teacher (‘Hurrah – she knows this!’). Classrooms with lots of information displayed can become a trap, a trap where both children and teachers come to believe that children have learned what we wanted them to learn. Research by Robert Bjork into desirable difficulties differentiates between short term performance and long term retention. Children can quite easily ‘perform’ if they know where to look in a classroom to find information that they can recognise and use to show their teacher that they know something. However, it is the act of retrieving that strengthens memories – after all if we deliberately practise remembering things, we get better at remembering them. If we practise looking for things when we need to know something, we get better at looking for those things. Some would argue little difference between those two scenarios but the difference is subtle. If children have knowledge and concepts to mind almost immediately, that means that finite working memory capacity is freed up to focus on other things such as paying attention to solving more complex problems.
Displays should serve three functions. Firstly, they should act as memory prompts for the knowledge, concepts and ways of communicating and thinking that children are currently learning or have been learning. Images, symbols and words should be used to trigger memories and scaffold thinking and talking, with children being given regular opportunities to use displays in this way. For example, rather than displaying definitions of sentence types, display something like this:
Then, get children to regularly use it to think and talk about the concept.
Secondly, displays should set a standard for the extent of knowledge and the quality of work expected of children. When displays are beautifully set out and are talked about with care by teachers and leaders, it shows that we value the quality with which work is produced. This is why neat borders, carefully spaced work and pride in what’s on display are important – it’s one way of setting standards of children’s work in their books. If we allow irrelevant content, or not enough depth of content, or display boards to become tatty, then we’re hypocritical when we expect the those same things in children’s books.
Thirdly, they should make the classroom an inviting place that stimulates interest in the subject content to be learned. They should trigger enthusiasm for learning – one of many hooks so that the teacher can work with receptive minds.
Pitfalls to avoid
Displays should not be used in an attempt to prove that a particular initiative is embedded. Posters about mindset or school rules, for example, if displayed on a wall, do not mean that those aspects are established as part of the school culture. Displays like that mean nothing unless the ideas behind them can be articulated by children, teachers and leaders. It is important here to return the first idea of recognition vs retrieval: displays about mindset and school rules (to name just two – there are, I’m sure, many other applicable projects) can be useful as long as they are thought about carefully. Use images, symbols and words and give children regular opportunities to think about and express their meaning.
With the sheer amount of content that children are expected to learn, it can be tempting to plaster every inch of wall space with some sort of display. This is a mistake. Children can only attend to so much from the environment around them before working memory is overloaded. A result of this is that some displays barely even get looked at and if that is the case, why are they there?
Displays, if done well, can have a significant impact on children’s learning or they can be a colourful yet ignored decoration. If we take into account what is necessary for children to learn and use those principles when planning displays, we’re more likely to create an environment that has a greater chance of contributing to long term learning rather than short term performance.