These findings make sense to me and yet also don’t.
Few environments feature such a cacophony of decor as the elementary school classroom. Colorful bulletin boards, scientific posters, state maps, and student artwork tend to cover nearly every inch of wall space. Yet a new study on classroom design from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University suggests that all that educational flair may not be all that great for getting kids to learn.
The study, carried out over two weeks, examined 24 kindergarten students who were taught six lessons on topics they had not yet learned in school. Half the lessons were taught in a highly decorated classroom environment, with posters and art all over the walls, and the other half were taught in a classroom with no decoration.
CMU’s researchers found the kids spent more time off-task and were more distracted when the room was brightly decorated, and they tested better on subjects they learned in the sparser classroom compared to the ones they learned in the more visually stimulating environment.
Elementary school children typically stay in one room all day, so classroom decorations don’t necessarily match the subject matter they’re learning at any given time. If they’re sitting in front of a U.S. map, they’ll be looking at that all day whether the current lesson is on geography or math. This study, though very small, adds to previous research from the same psychologists showing that visual stimulation that’s irrelevant to on-going instruction can distract kids.
The study doesn’t go on to offer any ways to necessarily improve the classroom design, although the article does give other links discussing it.
Nature can be fairly visually cacophonous, so what is it about classroom designs that are so distracting? I also wonder how much of their distraction is from an unnatural learning style, and then other more engaging things to look at. That is not an attack on the teacher, I’m just skeptical whether any human is capable of sitting in one room for 6-8 hours, with a couple of lunch breaks, and concentrate the entire time, for an extended period of time. Even grown-ups have a hard time doing that, and suffer when they try to sustain that for too long.
What are your thoughts? Leave them in the comments below.