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Study Shows Classroom Decor Can Distract From Learning

It’s hard to imagine a kindergarten room without colorful drawings and posters, crafts on display and educational charts and maps covering the walls.

But a recent study by Carnegie Mellon University shows that decorations in classrooms may actually hurt the learning process.

Associate professor of psychology at CMU Anna Fisher led the study, which tested the effects of classroom decorations on focus and ability to learn in children ages 3-5. When placed in a highly decorated classroom, the children spent more time off-task and retained less information.

Fisher, who co-authored the study with psychology student Karrie Godwin and CMU professor of statistics Howard Seltman, got the idea for this study when she was teaching a class a few years ago.

“We were talking about the development of attention regulation skills in young children, and I was just struck by a paradox,” explained Fisher. “It’s not news that young children’s attention regulation skills are not mature at this age. They are pretty fragile, and children are easily distractible. The paradox to me was that the classroom in which I was teaching college students, whose attention regulation skills are less fragile, did not contain lots of sources of potential distraction … but from my memory of elementary classrooms, the classrooms for young children look very different.”

In preparation for this study, Fisher and her team visited local kindergarten classrooms to see what was on the walls and what distracted the students. They found the rooms were filled with number lines, charts, maps, artwork on display, and educational posters. Since most kindergarteners spend the entire day in one classroom, the room’s decorations often did not match the subject matter.

“You have a lot of information that is irrelevant to any ongoing lesson,” said Fisher. “You have your number lines during reading, you have your maps during math, and so forth.”

Fisher also found that even the simplest decorations could be distracting.

“For example, we observed one child playing with nametags that were on the wall. I don’t think that nametags are all that inherently interesting, but they were there,” said Fisher.

For the study, Fisher and her team recruited students from The Children’s School, CMU’s permanent preschool and kindergarten. The learning facility also serves as a research base for psychology and education students.

Twenty-four kindergarten students were placed in laboratory classrooms and taught six science lessons on unfamiliar topics. Three lessons were taught in a colorfully decorated classroom, and three were taught in a comparatively bare space. Students were given a test before the lesson and after the lesson, and the tests were compared to gauge how much learning took place.

In the sparse room, students got 55 percent of the questions correct, compared to only 42 percent in the decorated room.

The researchers also videotaped all the lessons, and watched them in slow motion to monitor when the kindergarteners were on-task and off-task. The researchers watched the children’s gazes to determine whether they were paying attention to the teacher or if they were distracted by the room, their fellow students, or something else in their environment. In the decorated room, students spent 38.6 percent of their time off-task, compared to 28.4 percent in the bare room.

Although the research seems conclusive, Fisher does not advise teachers to change their current classrooms.

“One question I am often asked is ‘Should teachers go into their classrooms and start tearing things off the walls?’ and the answer is ‘absolutely not,’” said Fisher.

Instead, she encouraged teachers to put a little more thought into decorating their classrooms next fall.

“Consider the possibility,” Fisher advised instructors, “that the visual environment might not only be stimulating but it might also be distracting.”

Although a few posters on the wall may not seem like a big deal, Fisher says classroom design is an important area of research because it is something teachers can improve easily. According to Fisher, teachers may not be able to improve the socio-economic status of parents, make sure the kids are getting enough sleep at home, or expand the resources of the school, but they can design their classrooms well.

“Improving education outcomes for children is such a complex and complicated issue. There are so many parts to this problem…there are so many things, and some things are not easy to change for educators,” said Fisher. “Classroom visual environment is just one of those things that’s malleable, it’s something that is under the control of the teacher.”