Are bare walls best for learning?

Lavishly decorated classroom walls may lead to less learning, warn Carnegie Mellon researchers. Kids are easily distracted.

Don’t tear down all the posters, responds Dan Willingham. Students may get used to decorated walls and be less distracted.

In the study, students in a classroom-like lab listened to six read-alouds on science topics (e.g., volcanoes, the solar system) in groups. Afterwards, children answered six questions about the lesson. The walls were either  bare or very decorated.

“Kids spent a greater percentage of time looking away from the teacher in the decorated classroom (38 percent of the time vs. 28 percent of the time). And kids in the decorated classroom scored lower on the assessment (42 percent vs. 55 percent).”

Even if students don’t become habituated to classroom decorations, there could be a high cost to bare walls, writes Willingham. Teachers decorate to create in inviting social environment. It may be more difficult to build a sense of classroom community in a sterile environment.

Creating (and equipping) a bright, cheerful, welcoming elementary classroom isn’t easy, writes a teacher. “Teachers spend many hours finding ideas for organizing and decorating classrooms.”

About Joanne


  1. SuperSub says:

    As with everything else, there is a happy medium. I always try to keep the front of the room clear and reserve decorations for the side and rear. Also, I only put up decorations with text that is hard to read beyond 3-4 feet to discourage students being of task in their desks.

  2. Ann in L.A. says:

    There are also things that *should* be up on the wall: number lines, alphabet, maps, timelines, etc. Things that should actually work as visual aids and can be used during teaching.

  3. I’m ok with a picture or two if the colours aren’t garish, but most classrooms look as though they’ve been decorated by a circus clown on acid.

  4. Ruth Joy says:

    This study set up a choice between bare walls and an overwhelming amount of teacher-store stuff. Both are bad. The room should be decorated with a lot of the kids`s own work, teacher-made stuff, and the kind of things listed by Ann in LA. Also, the study`s findings seem at odds with the classrooms typically found in high-performing charter schools.

  5. My kids like the classrooms with informational posters on the walls. It gave them something to read while the umpteenth review session was going on.

  6. PhillipMarlowe says:

    Well, the bare walls are great for those school-to-prison drop-out factories.
    Get the kids ready for life behind bars.

  7. Ted Craig says:

    How much of the decoration is for the kids and how much is for the teacher?

  8. Just for context: for years (in NYC and other districts), the mantra has been, “bombard the kids with print.” A so-called “print-rich envirinment” was a visually and physically overwhelming environment because of the sheer amount of stuff that teachers were supposed to put in walls. A lot of that stuff was uninformative, uninteresting, and generic (such as the four-square chart, the steps of the “writing process,” and so on–yet such stuff took priority over interesting things. Administrators would come by with checklists and note which required items were missing from walls. This was (and is) especially prevalent in elementary and middle schools, yet even high schools weren’t exempt from the nonsense.

    When I was in high school, we had mostly bare walls, and I was happy with that. But then, it was a lovely building, and the classes themselves were so interesting that you didn’t need adornments.

    That said, I have often paused to look at an interesting bulletin board–but not the kind of bulletin board prescribed by the DOE. In NYC, bulletin boards must have a task, standard, rubric, and student work with grades and comments. It is practically forbidden to have a bulletin board that focuses on an interesting question (unless it also has those required items).

    A classroom wall could range from bare to lively–but the material on the wall, if any, should be attractive, interesting, or informative, or some combination of the three–and not tedious, excessive, or redundant.

  9. I agree with Ann and was happy to see posters with the rules for capitalization and punctuation on my grandson’s second-grade wall. It’s far better than expecting the kids to “discover” those things for themselves (which they don’t). He and his twin also bring home grammar work every week.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    Studying French in high school, I was frequently distracted, thinking of being “in” the huge posters of Mt. St. Michel, or Chartres Cathedral, or the French countryside.