Display – Is it, in fact, cognitive spam?

A bit of stimulus to begin with:

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I was in Kenya over Christmas. To be honest, I was underwhelmed, the lions just loafed about and the giraffes were average at best. The Boy was indifferent to the animals, he’s seen them on the telly, but what you don’t see on the telly is the poo. He was fascinated by the poo. £3000 to see poo. I’m told this was an excellent deal. AND I had the joy of spending a week with my Mother in Law. Apparently I had a wonderful time.

My point. We don’t see what they see. What we value they don’t value.

We have missed the point about display.

Count the number of passes made between the players in this video:

The case for the prosecution:

Visual scenes are cluttered and contain many different objects. However, the capacity of the visual system to process information about multiple objects at any given moment in time is limited.

(Broadbent, 1958 cited in Mcains & Castner 2011).

Or, more simply:

Converging evidence from physiology and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies suggest that neural correlates underlying this limited processing capacity are competitive interactions that occur automatically among multiple stimuli present at the same time in the visual field. Multiple stimuli have been shown to compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked neural activity throughout visual cortex.

(Miller et al., 1993; Kastner et al., 1998; Reynolds et al., 1999 cited in Mcains & Castner 2011)


….there is generally a feeling that display of children’s work is beneficial, with all users of the school studied by Maxwell (2000) agreeing that display of students’ work made the school more welcoming. Although Alexander does question the wisdom of displays being pursued as ‘ends in themselves’ (1992, p.38), and Dudek (2000), with an architect’s eye, sees the display of children’s work as making the visual aspect ‘cluttered’, other writers argue that they increase feelings of ownership and involvement, leading to improved motivation (Killeen et al, 2003).

Rather Awkwardly;

Maxwell’s (2000) study demonstrates that perception of the adequacy of display may vary between school users. She found that although the parents, teachers and students all appeared to appreciate the display of work, the adults thought the school achieved this while the students were less satisfied.

(The Design Council 2005)

FInally a report from the basic skills agency:

The way in which practitioners approach their environment reflects what they understand about how children learn and this is where much more thought and consideration is needed… All too often, the environment is planned by adults for adults, yet we know that the space belongs to and is for the children,’ says Lesley Staggs. ‘This routine error can lead to a crucial lack of focus and confidence regarding what is right for children.’

This was roundly and narrow mindedly condemned as absolute garbage by the NAHT.

The case for the defence:

Screen Shot 2013-02-01 at 01.48.29

(From O’Brien, Cambridge 2012)

There is a problem with this study, which is the quality of the questions, which are loaded and imply there is a correct answer. The children felt that tidiness was more valuable than display. But the questions were so loaded that the children still agreed that inside was better then outside. Very strange.

An extract from the conclusion:

“I was particularly struck by one response to a question about which displays the children would change. Sophie selected a certain board, telling me that whilst it was very attractive, there was nothing on it that could help her to learn….”

My proposal:

Turn this:

into this:

I offer a set of alternative guidelines:

Apply good advertising & architecture principles, minimise the impact of the clutter and maximise the impact of the message.

“Gossage’s basic philosophy of advertising stressed the importance of a single advertising message delivered with respect for the intelligence and values of its audience. An advertiser who prepares a targeted, interesting and entertaining ad would no more have to run it multiple times than the newspaper has a need to run the same page one headline day after day.”

(Rotfield, J )Journal of Consumer Marketing, vol. 23 (#4, 2006), p. 180-1.

Provide a single, clear message for the lesson, reduce the visual stress for the children, remove any clutter which will detract from that.

Provide a space that kids deserve – not a space that they perceive that you want, they will reflect back exactly what the teacher has told them is important. Remember that for kids, the golden rule of school is to give the teacher the answer they think the teacher is looking for.

Here’s a teachernet article about display: The best it can do, is cite unsubstantiated research suggesting that children learn best when engaged in their classroom, and use that to prove that existing display good practice works. Schools have developed a set of rules and regulations about display, together with misquoted and misaligned research from third parties. Many policies cite compliance as a goal, others cite a range of beliefs about the impact of display. Have we descended into faith driven pedagogy with reductionist measures of compliance? Is that wise?

Does double mounting matter?

Does the number of staples matter?

What matters is impact, not what is currently advocated as good practice.

The Manifesto for display:

  • Put a concept or image in the middle of a plain board and change it daily or even every lesson.
  • Get rid of all dust gathering time soaking displays.
  • Blog children’s work, then the world can celebrate it, not just those with a CRB who made it past the gate and the administrator.
  • Focus on the message you intend to deliver.
  • Do some research with the kids, asking far better questions than above and establish if this works. Keep a log of the number of behaviour incidents you have before and after the change. Verify that it has made an impact.
Courtesy of Tom Barrett

Courtesy of Tom Barrett

16 thoughts on “Display – Is it, in fact, cognitive spam?

  1. Compelling.

    What the artist or visual designer might point out is the importance of ‘white space’, figure and ground, which often seem to be missing in cluttered displays. I think this works in temporal ways too – sometimes clear, sometimes cluttered and sometimes only minor changes (where’s Wally today) to keep interest high. Some displays I experienced as a child were so compelling I can recall them now – so content, quality matters. Finally there is a social dimension, which you rightly point out is well done through blogging – but sometimes celebration which is private to the class is going to matter. Surely the real value for all this is found by everyone participating in the decisions of what and when to display, as Juliette Heppell reminded us at TeachMeet BETT with regard to learning environment design more generally.

  2. Great questions posed here.

    I’ve oft wondered about the validity of display. As you know from our Twitter covos. I feel that teachers pit a lot of effort into pretty things that in essence reflect their personality but may not actually impact student outcomes.

    If displays are so important are we automatically saying teachers without their own classrooms are automatically bad as they have nowhere to display things.

    I’m not anti displays but I’m for things that definitely make a difference to pupils’ learning. We sometimes say that we don’t have much time so lets spend it on things that really matter.

  3. To me there is a big difference between display and exhibition. I totally see the purpose of clean white spaces when learning. An uncluttered mind to focus on the quality of what is being learnt. I do, however, see recognition of brilliance or just hard work, incredibly important. But this should be a long way from those curvy corrugated display boards full of writing you can’t read. Purpose is everything. Public exhibitions and blogs which celebrate the brilliant young minds in front of us can be incredibly valuable for all students. I am now, on the back of this going to get rid of a lot of crap in my room and get the white paint out again… Will let you know what the kids think!

  4. This has really challenged my thinking.
    Every available space in my classroom is used, because I have always believed that children’s work should be celebrated in this way. They bring in work from home, I stick it on the wall or line. They create lovely art work, I display it. They write, I peg it on the line. I always thought that this was motivating them to do their best as they had an audience beyond me.
    I blog their work too – I want their families and the wider community to see the wonderful work that they do. So now I’m wondering – does it need to be displayed twice? I have nearly always involved the children in the display decision process (‘Which display should be changed? Would you like your work on the wall?) and they are changed regularly. Some are interactive, some are ‘working wall’ type displays.
    I am now worried that I put time and effort into my displays for the wrong reason. I get lots of compliments for my room and the ‘lovely work’ on display. It makes me feel proud of what we do. Even last week one of my colleagues came back to my room (after I’d led a staff meeting there) to have a closer look and pinch some of the ideas she had seen. The positive reactions I get (from adults) have made me continue to plaster stuff around my room, without thinking of the impact on children’s learning. I need to rectify this.

    Thank you for challenging me!

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  6. A great blog post this. I have had a lot of, shall we say, ‘challenges’, regarding my holding the line on keeping wall space clear from my colleagues. We have display boards still – for student work etc. but it is about keeping them usable and adopting them/adding to them regularly. The most useful thing I have ever done with displays is get students to decide on what should be displayed and why – the ‘why’ being crucial in that is gets them to revisit the knowledge they have learnt and makes them process it once more, moving a step towards keeping it in their long-term memory. The actual display itself becomes wallpaper in days!

    The cognitive dissonance rings true. I am still hunting down further evidence on the matter, but this blog post has been a boon. Great evidence! Teachers need to evaluate and reflect upon our habits and pedagogy – posts like this really help – as shown by the respondents to this point. So you can count me in for the clear walls revolution!

  7. I asked 100 pupils in our school about displays and the response was a resounding ‘yes displays help me learn’ further answers built on this. So I guess it’s a case of how you use them in your lessons and the nature of the children. I work on SEN

    Enjoyed reading

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  10. Completely agree as a designer who works with teachers and schools, I think it is really important to design your classroom. Showcase the tools and displays what help students learn. Give them pride of place. Then decorate with additional resources or student work as per your taste.

    First off decide what would students benefit from viewing every lesson. Spelling, literacy, numeracy, marking or independence tips? Depends on your students I guess.

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