Less is more… Again

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There is a new article making the rounds that nicely dovetails with a couple of my recent posts. “Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom” discusses new research from Carnegie Mellon, which shows that young children who are still learning to focus, like those in K and 1st grade, are more distracted, less focused on the teacher, and learn less in heavily decorated classrooms.

I wrote about similar theories in Keeping a Child Focused and Trouble in Interactive Book Paradise. It was definitely my experience with my two kids that the more extraneous decoration there was around the material they were learning, the less focus they had for the material itself. Sesame Street ABC cards were quickly discarded for my homemade letter cards because of the distraction of characters climbing over the letters. And I’ve become a broken record on how much I like the BOB Books for their simplicity and black and white pages.

Interactive books and classrooms with busy walls may have their place for older children (the article mentions 6th graders who are more capable of dealing with the distractions), and even for younger children in the right circumstances.  But this study advocates the “less is more” approach.  It also makes this one more area of Maria Montessori’s century-old approach to teaching children that has been backed up by recent research. As the article reminds us, “Montessori schools have long emphasized a calmer, understated look.”

More studies are needed to really understand the impact of classrooms with busy walls. Perhaps the children absorb what is on the walls over time, reinforcing the verbal lessons they pay less attention to? Perhaps the children in the more heavily decorated classroom learn faster how to focus and ignore distractions? Or, are the children in the decorated classrooms ultimately more inspired and excited about learning, or do they continue to miss lessons, fall further behind, and lose interest because they are struggling? What does this tell us about teaching the many children with attention issues?

I’m obviously only a researcher within my little family, but the article quotes another researcher of early education, unassociated with this study, who feels that her own research is in line with the results of this study.

I want to throw myself over those scalloped borders and cute cartoon stuff and scream to teachers, “Don’t buy this, it’s visually damaging for children!”

says Patricia Tarr, from the University of Calgary.

Tarr wrote an article in 2004 on this topic which is worth a quick read, particularly for those who will be decorating classrooms next Fall.  She implores educators to rethink their classroom decorations.  One of the classrooms she observed was heavily decorated.  After looking at the commercial decorations that adorned the walls and bulletin boards, Tarr became convinced that they create stereotypes that are counterproductive to the learning going on in the classroom.

The image of the learner embedded in these materials is that of a consumer of information who needs to be entertained, rather than a child who is curious and capable of creating and contributing to the culture within this environment.
She sees value in some postings on walls, but feels they should be based on work done by the children or should be accessible and relevant to work the children are doing, rather than commercial decorations.  If there is a word wall, are they words that are relevant to the children in that classroom, and are they readily visible as a resource, or just a decoration filling a back corner?
I hope you find this food for thought for school and home classrooms, and for the level of distraction that our young ones can handle when simultaneously learning a difficult new task.  Happy reading!