Are Teachers Distracting Students With Bad Interior Design?

Research suggests that sparsely decorated classrooms help students better retain information.

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.

Image credit: Carnegie Mellon University

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.

Though the researchers don't suggest that teachers immediately rip down every piece of carefully crayoned student art on their classroom walls, it does suggest that the visual environment of a room can impact kids' ability to pay attention, an effect that should be taken into account when designing a classroom.

[Image: Sixth grade, Boulder City, Nevada, public school via Wikimedia]

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4 Comments

  • regantindell

    The sample size is too small. Kindergarten students are not comparable to the entire range of elementary school students. Also, was the highly decorated classroom new to them or was it the same room they are in everyday because that really makes a difference. From my experience with preschool students in a highly decorated environment, I noticed that they were only distracted by the displays when they were swapped out, and then only for a short time. There are too many other factors at play that were not accounted for in this study .

  • Whenever I hear "research shows" or "in a recent study" ...my "Oh, Oh" detector lights up. If the "study" does not comport with common sense or actual experience I DO NOT BELIEVE IT. Blank class room walls. Isn't that what they have in prisons? And THIS study was TWO FULL WEEKS ...well then, it must be true. I don't buy it.

  • Let's also take into account the benefit of children absorbing the environment that is curated on the walls; that aid in shaping their interests, identity, and confidence. Maybe there is something in having a dynamic classroom that allows for the open mind and the focussed mind.

  • Good point. I would think this might also lead a teacher to put up fewer, more carefully chosen examples of art and to change them out frequently.