Why we should Ban All Displays in the classroom!

Written by: Craig Barton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Classroom displays actually hamper learning – so much so that they should be banned. Maths teacher Craig Barton argues his case

I am trying to start a movement, and so far there is only me in it. Part of the problem is I don’t really have a catchy acronym – the best that I can come up with is, rather ironically, BAD. The other issue is that it involves taking something from teachers that they hold very dear.

Yes, I am proposing that we Ban All Displays.

Now, I love nothing more than classroom walls overflowing with wonderful examples of the bright and colourful work that my students have done. And my students love it too. Even the most mathematically reluctant takes a certain amount of pride from having their finest work on display for all to see.

The problem is that all that bright and colourful work is pretty hard to ignore. Our students have very limited capacity in their working memory, and need to keep as much free as possible to attend to the thing we are trying to teach them.

Working memory is the place where all thought happens, and it doesn’t take much to fill it up, especially when we are trying to learn a complex skill for the first time.

The Redundancy Effect from Cognitive Load Theory explains that redundant information – which can be thought of as anything not directly related to the matter in hand – needs to be processed, or effortfully filtered out, which takes up precious space in our students’ working memory and may lead to unsuccessful thinking.

So, if during a particularly tricky worked example of how to draw a probability tree diagram, Matthew’s attention gets drawn towards Olivia’s lovely piece of work on visual representations of sequences, then Matthew may find he suddenly lacks the cognitive capacity to successfully process all he needs to about probability tree diagrams.

The message is simple and unpopular: fill your boots on corridors, but classroom displays should ideally be placed at the back of the classroom. We need to reduce all forms of information that are not pertinent to the matter in hand.

However, when I present this suggestion to teachers, there are three common responses. First, things like number lines, fraction walls and mathematical definitions are really useful. Yes. But are they useful for all topics? Are they useful in a lesson on angle facts, estimating the mean, or the laws of indices? If not, then there is a chance students will be thinking about material not directly related to the concept at hand. If they are relevant, then we can simply put the display back up, or project it on the board.

Second, good displays help students to remember key information. I am not entirely sure this is true. Sure, it is great to have a display containing the first 100 prime numbers, or a poster with key area formulae on it, but I think these can also make students dependent on having such information readily to hand.

Practising retrieval is the key to long-term learning and retention. If students are using these displays as a crutch – they know they are there, so what is the point in trying to remember the information? – they are not forcing retrieval from long-term memory.

It is like students revising by going over notes and examples – the reading of them feels familiar, so students think they have committed them to memory. It is only when they find themselves in a situation where that support is not available (like an exam) that students realise they have not, in fact, committed the information to memory at all.

We need to give our students opportunity to go through the effortful process of attempting to retrieve information from their long-term memories, because it is this process of retrieval that leads to learning and retention. Hence, I prefer to have the information from the displays handy – print-outs or knowledge organisers are great for this – so I can give them out as and when they are needed. But I want students to have the opportunity to induce retrieval of the information first.

The third objection is that the senior leadership team will not like it. Well, they do not like a lot of things, but that does not make it right.

I much prefer “Whiteboard Walls”. They can be as simple as whiteboards stuck around the classroom, or as sophisticated as special paint that means you can write directly on the walls with pens and then rub off.

Students have an opportunity to showcase their work, I can model work to small groups, the work is always directly relevant to the lesson, it can be easily rubbed off when it is not needed, it is always changing and hence always fresh, and perhaps best of all it allows students to take advantage of something else from Cognitive Load Theory – the power of studying worked examples.

So, my BAD club is currently accepting members. Do get in touch if you would like to join.

  • Craig Barton is a maths teacher in the North West of England. His book, How I wish I’d taught maths: Lessons learned from research, conversations with experts, and 12 years of mistakes is published by John Catt Educational. For details, visit http://bit.ly/2D8WYW1 and to contact Craig Barton, visit his website at www.mrbartonmaths.com


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