Modern Day Pin-ups: Are the Days of Learning Displays numbered?

#TeamMagicalEducators: @honeypisquared

Are the Days of Learning Displays numbered?

We’re all guilty of it.  You walk into a fellow teacher’s classroom – or the one your own children are taught in –  and the first thing you notice is the brightly-coloured displays.  The grammar bees buzzing around the flowers of language; the torn edges of aspirational UKMT posters; the prominent classroom rules that highlight RESPECT and being PREPARED for lessons; all seem to point towards the quality of the learning that happens beneath them. Judging a teacher by their classroom walls is a practice we cannot condemn, as long as we recognise that is only a small part of the picture.

teacher display fail funny

More to the point, really, is what actually works.  In a profession becoming more about solid evidence-based practice and less about papering over the cracks, it is time to ask what the research tells us about classroom displays and their effect on learning.

So, as a community of outstanding or aspiring-to-be maths teachers, how can we ensure our walls tell the right stories? And how can we make sure the displays are really a part of – and not a distraction from – the excellent classroom practice we are demonstrating?

A round-up of the more recent research:

Hattie’s metaresearch suggested around a relative 0.56 measure can be attributed to ‘class environment’ (Hattie, 2003) but this is a wide definition that provides no helpful or practical advice for teachers specifically in terms of learning displays.

A review of the literature on the impact of environment on learning at the University of Newcastle (Higgins et al, 2004) noted the ‘ relative paucity of research on effective learning environments’.  The concluded on the topic of learning displays that

“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).”

Hattie’s metaresearch suggested around a relative 0.56 measure can be attributed to ‘class environment’ (Hattie, 2003) but this is a wide definition that provides no helpful or practical advice for teachers specifically in terms of learning displays.

The Cambridge Primary Review (Alexander, 2010) found that the quality of the physical learning environment can have a measurable effect on both teachers and pupils, following a study of published research on the topic.

This study, cited in the Telegraph in May 2014, suggested that ‘sparse’ classroom displays are more beneficial to learning than ‘highly-decorated walls’ , which ‘undermined pupils’ ability to concentrate during lessons and absorb teachers’ instructions’.  However this was a small study of only 24 primary school pupils and the differences found were not significant enough to suggest anything useful.

It is clear when reading this research that data tends to be qualitative, focusing on either questioning pupils or teachers on their reactions to displays.  In short, we still don’t exactly know what works –  if specific displays help students retain information, become more motivated, or work harder. Should we continue to push learning displays as genuinely valid to classroom practice, or give them up as a futile nod to Ofsted or SLT’s demands?

Some teachers argue that knowledge-based teaching can suffer when students are presented with too many visual cues; others are persuasive on the ‘broken window effect’, suggesting classroom displays work as shorthand for how on-the-ball the teacher is.  More recent trends have advocated use of classroom wall space as ‘working walls’, where students use the displays to record their journeys towards their learning objectives. There is much anecdotal data to suggest that interesting text or a carefully placed image can spark curiosity in the classroom, and that displaying pupil work that shows extraordinary effort can make a difference to child’s behaviour and effort.

The key, here, seems to be to work out what you want from your displays.  Above all, recognise that displays are not specifically included in a teacher’s job description and need not be the first thing that you care about when Ofsted come a-knocking – spend time on them if you enjoy it or want to, reserve the right to do the bare minimum if you wish.

If you want the environment to be stimulating and thought-provoking: use intriguing images or pieces of art.  Make a weekly ‘challenge wall’, where pupils can tear off problems or write on a whiteboard; put up a photograph and ask them to try and find out who it is (not helped much by Google, this one).  Disadvantages: can be distracting from lessons; requires frequent updating.


If you want the environment to be calming and serene, keep it sparse and monochrome.  Have one central feature, something beautiful like an Escher print or fractal.  Clean your whiteboard frequently (try not to leave little marks in the corners: apparently it drives some pupils mad). Have the class timetable and any other significant info prominently but simply displayed. Disadvantages: colleagues may sniff; you’ll need to locate your whiteboard cleaner and rubber constantly (a toolbelt might help).



If you want the environment to be a reference point for behaviour, make sure you have a clear policy with stepped consequences on display (not just platitudes like ‘respect each other’ or ‘zero tolerance’).  Personalise it and add humour if you wish – it shows you have made it your own and not just replicated the school’s behaviour policy verbatim.  Make a scale with colour coding and point to where the pupils are if they trangress, making it clear they can choose to progress either way.  Also a good way to display negative numbers. Disadvantages: can gather dust and become outdated if not frequently referred to; requires you to be manically consistent with enforcing; can be used as a stick to beat you with if you don’t follow it to the letter every time.

If you want the environment to be a working record of learning, forgo neatness for utility.  Use whiteboards, post-it notes, a graded scale, work-in-progress graphs, and allow every pupil access during the plenary to record their progress.  Get pupils to make avatars of themselves (this is a pretty revealing exercise) and laminate them. Disadvantages: pure chaos until (and sometimes after) they get used to it; takes time every lesson; walls can be hard to get at; doesn’t always look pretty.



If you want the environment to be inspiring and motivating, make a ‘wall of fame’ where pupils can achieve immortality with only the most spectacular of efforts (must be differentiated and scrupulously fair). Use quotes from role models, both historical and bang up-to-date. Disadvantages: requires constant effort to notice and respond at the exact moment pupils produce best work, however inconvenient; quotes can feel trite or conventional.

If you want the environment to be personal and inviting, use photos of pupils, cartoons, memes and notes to show your human side.  Cut out pictures of your own kids with huge comedy balloon text saying ‘that’s my Daddy, let him come home and see me sometimes too please’ (I once did this and my Year 11s found it hilarious/poignant/didn’t care a jot). Put up newspaper articles or research on your subject or on pedagogical issues. Disadvantages: you have to know the fine line between banter and embarrassment; be prepared for comedy moustaches or similar defacement.

Posted in Display, G Post Tagged with:
2 comments on “Modern Day Pin-ups: Are the Days of Learning Displays numbered?
  1. Alison Hogben says:

    I have really tried to master the working wall in maths this year instead of taking several weeks to create a lovely maths display but pretty useless when you’ve moved on maths topics. I read (somewhere) that children often can’t relate a beautiful, neatly presented display to what you’ve just taught so I’ve used laminated blank bits of card and large sheets of paper to introduce new concepts that can be then stuck up on the wall for children to keep looking at. I have definitely noticed that children have referred back to these much more frequently as a reminder, as well as having their own solutions to problems put up in their original state eg a photo of their mini whiteboard work which they look back at and use each other’s solutions to apply to new problems. Therefore displays are frequently changed as new concepts are introduced. It’s not attractive but it has much more impact on learning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *