Is displaying students’ work worth the effort?

Of all the observations I made about Michaela School, one which proved particularly controversial was their decision not put display children’s work. The rationale given for this was twofold. It takes teachers time to put up, refresh and replace classroom displays and it takes children time to create work for the purpose of such displays.

I’ve spent the week mulling this over and have arrived at a few thoughts. I’m all for not wasting teachers’ time in forcing them to engage in extraneous activities, but then, this is enshrined in legislation. The 2012 workload agreement says that teachers cannot be routinely required to undertake any clerical tasks including, “Preparing, setting up and taking down classroom displays”. I fully recognise that there are schools which find wiggle room in the word “routinely” and teachers are put under enormous pressure to create classroom displays but these are hopefully becoming rarer. No school should compel teachers to put up displays.

But what of the second consideration? Should children spend time creating work for displays? This is trickier. The assumption that displaying students’ work is automatically a ‘good thing’ leads teachers to devote curriculum time to making posters and other items of dubious educational merit. As an aside, the average Year 7 students spends far more time than you might believe feasible making posters. I’ve got nothing against posters per se but I seriously doubt whether they can be worth the time spent on them. Asking students to devote time to creating display work in subjects like English, science or maths is probably wasteful, but what of art? One of the lessons I most enjoyed at Michaela was an art lesson in which children were creating beautiful pastel landscapes demonstrating their understanding of perspective. Whilst these might not have been created with the express purpose of showing them off, the very nature of visual art is that it should be seen. What harm could come from these pictures finding themselves up on walls as long as someone other than a teacher puts them up? And further, might there be merit in displaying students’ work in other subjects as long as its purpose wasn’t to be displayed?

And further, might there be merit in displaying students’ work in other subjects as long as its purpose wasn’t to be displayed? One argument is that children can learn from seeing each others’ work in progress. This no doubt true but I don’t think sticking it up on a wall is the best way to accomplish this aim. Whether or not you have a member of support staff to display such work, teachers still have the tedious task of asking for it to be done. And asking someone else to bluetack up a few essays seems petty – quicker and easier to just do it yourself – it is thus good intentions ebb away. But there’s a better way! At Michaela – as at many other schools – teachers make excellent use of visualisers to share  and discuss students’ work. Isn’t this better than spending time on a tatty, temporary display?

But what of the motivational benefits of students seeing their work displayed? This series of tweets from Ruth Kennedy is worth considering:

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 09.18.34

Far be it for me to dismiss these children’s lived experience but I think we need to ask some questions of these responses. If children are only made aware of the potential quality of their work, or are only prepared to ‘pull out the stops’ when it is displayed, isn’t there something wrong? I understand the pride one might feel from having work selected as worthy of display, but maybe this sort of aesthetic judgement undermines intrinsic motivation?

As far as my Twitter timeline suggests, the consensus  is that many teachers love the creative expression they find in displaying students’ work. It would be churlish to forbid this, but I do think it would benefit everyone to think a little more deeply about exactly why we feel this to be such an important aspect of teaching. The more I think about the more marginal the benefits appear. Might display work be just another educational fetish? Are we perhaps mainly doing it to gull visitors into thinking, oh what a jolly school this must be? Might such colourful displays be used to paper over other cracks? Should we perhaps look at the evidence?

Fisher et al’s findings are counter-intuitive. In this 2014 paper they suggest classroom display may be detrimental to children’s learning. They found students were less likely to stay focused, and attained lower test scores, when experimental lessons were given in a “decorated classroom” compared to a “sparse classroom.” Furthermore, children’s test scores were negatively correlated with the amount of time that they were distracted, suggesting a direct relationship between these two variables.They conclude by saying, “colorful visual displays may promote off-task behavior in young children, resulting in reduced learning opportunities and achievement”. They do make the point that there was significantly less disruption after children got used to the displays in the second week. I’d suggest that’s the point at which the display has become meaningless wallpaper. Isn’t the very intention of most display to capture students’ attention? What then is the point of display which doesn’t distract them?

No one wants bare walls, but that doesn’t mean we have to display students’ work and it doesn’t mean we have to distract them. Carl Hendrick has considered the value of the motivational poster, and back in July 2013, I wrote this post in which I questioned the value of classroom display in general. The conclusion I came to then was, “So, what is the point of classroom display? Most people would readily agree that it should support students’ learning. If it fails this uncontroversial test, should we tear it down?” I stand by that.

25 Responses to Is displaying students’ work worth the effort?

  1. Pete says:

    As an art teacher, I’m an avid supporter of displaying beautiful work. We display large paintings on board as you would see in a contemporary gallery all over the school. It’s a stimulus for all students. For younger students, they aspire to create such incredible work in the years to come. For students doing their GCSE art, they put in far more effort and seek greater challenge, just to get their work placed in the hall. It plays a huge part in a schools culture. Display talks about what you value. We also have our wall of excellence, where all sorts of work is given the VIP treatment. A photocopy of an exercise book, a geography essay. All work of excellence. It is constantly referenced by students and teachers alike as to the standards our young people can aspire to. Recognition of hard work, making a big deal of it I would argue greatly Informs the culture of your school and so the culture of learning.

    • David Didau says:

      As I said in the post, displaying art work seems eminently sensible. As to the rest, there are other ways to value students’ work which might be less costly.

  2. missdcox says:

    Isn’t it an assumption that the work is made for displays? I get students to do work that is meaningful, I might put it on display. It isn’t work done for display.

    • David Didau says:

      Didn’t I specifically discuss that in the post?

    • Shaji Thomas says:

      Displays are informational and should be beneficial to the students. If students are asked to do a work for display, it can be waste of time unless it is normal for learning purpose. When I announce the ‘your work will be displayed’ students spend more time for beautifying the work. Is it totally beneficial?

  3. […] surprised me. Instinctively it ‘felt wrong’. I wrote today about their decision not to display students’ work after spending the week looking for evidence that countered my instincts and thinking about why I […]

  4. Pete says:

    Nobody designs learning for display opportunities do they?

  5. Jill Beckwith says:

    I did a survey asking my Year 12 (6th firm college) how they wanted to revise. Poster-making was one option. The majority responded vehemently hat they thought it was a waste of time. Maybe poster overload in their feeder schools?

  6. misslisa67 says:

    Interesting debate…especially the time issue. But it does lead to ‘when is a display not a display?’ Think of Carl’s big ongoing Shakespeare quotation and notes wall.. I guess it wasn’t conceived as a display in the ‘finished item/exemplar’ sense at all..but it did demo what ongoing learning and the development of understanding look like.
    @Lisa7Pettifer

  7. It is rare that I ask students to do work specifically to display. But sometimes they are so proud of something that they want it to be seen. I leave it up to them. I or we will find the time if that is what they want.

    Making a decision not to display… I’m struggling with that to be honest. Is that our decision to make?

  8. Clare Sealy says:

    Our policy is inside the classroom display is ‘ working wall ‘ type – directly concerned with giving prompts and models for learning and behaviour. Not so much for celebrating and prettify ing the place. The corridors however are a riot of artwork. Artwork units are planned with site specific display in mind- but not at the extent of skills development. If you are doing sculpture you need to know where it is going to go when finished so that is planned in from the off.

  9. […] “display work is lovely,” the time it takes for students to make it and teachers to put it up just isn’t worth the cost. So there’s no student work on display. She talked about the US Charter School method of […]

  10. […] Didau posts a very interesting question here: “Is displaying students’ work worth the effort?” Intuitively, my sense is that […]

  11. […] a greater and more unstable range of visual cues. (This might also factor into the discussion on classroom display.) And guess what? Their ability to transfer what they’d learned within the classroom […]

  12. Luke Pearce says:

    As someone who works in FE, I’ve often thought it would make more sense to commission Art and Graphics students to make relevant displays for other subjects. These would look more professional than ‘scruffy’ displays of essays or the class teacher’s efforts. They could also foster a sense of school community better than an anonymous class poster from 10 (or more) years ago. And it’s an opportunity for the Ar/Graphic students to work to a ‘spec’ as they would have to in the real world of work.

    • David Didau says:

      This sounds like a pretty good idea. Why the hell not?

    • The problem I see with teachers’ creative expression in putting up displays, is quite how poor they are at it. I see no evidence of displays being other than kitsch aesthetics, with no knowledge of layout or other graphic design principles. It teaches pupils that poor standards are acceptable.

  13. chr1ssparks says:

    To me it works fine where the classroom walls and bookshelves become a sort of scrap book of work, posters, photos, plants, fish tanks……, anything to make an interesting, stimulating environment. Once it’s going you don’t spend ages doing big displays, just take down something old for something new now and again, water the plants and feed the fish.

  14. ‘Display’ is really a form of publishing. I’ve often thought that one of the ways in which pupils in schools could get an appropriate feel of what real writing is about and for, would be if schools could see themselves more as publishing houses. This would entail thinking of themselves as places whose job was to think of all the different ways in which pupils’ work can be circulated – wall magazines, blogs, chap books, broad sides, pamphlets, fanzines, print on demand short stories, novels, comics and graphic novels etc etc. A good deal of written work lies uncirculated and effectively dead in exercise books. Why not put that effort into the real job of working out how to put the writing out there? A good deal of the editing work which is so rated by exam boards and secretaries of state for education could be put where it belongs, in producing readable texts which are actually read. ‘Display’ could then be put into that context.

  15. if displays are for normal learning purposes then no problem

  16. Kevin Pearcey says:

    The HEAD project has some interesting insight into classroom layout/displays to avoid under/over stimulation: http://www.salford.ac.uk/cleverclassrooms/1503-Salford-Uni-Report-DIGITAL.pdf

    • mrswilliamyu says:

      Good point! Classroom displays create ownership.
      ” A classroom that includes pupil-created work in displays is more likely to provide a sense of ownership.”

      “The classroom can be made readily recognizable from others by distinctive class-made displays / artwork of, for example, people, houses, animals, trees.”

  17. […] D. (2015) Is displaying students’ work worth the effort? Available at: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/myths/is-displaying-students-work-worth-the-effort/ [Accessed 5 January […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: