Learning by Design: How Classroom Decor Affects Students

Learning by Design: How Classroom Decor Affects StudentsWhat hangs on the classroom wall — or not— can either alienate or engage students. (Photo by Steven Debenport/E+/Getty Images)

The typical American classroom is far from a bastion of design, but new research reveals that students might benefit academically if more thought were to be put into the environment they learn in.

And according to a 2014 Pearson index, our kids need all the help they can get: American students rank 14th worldwide (just behind Russia) in an assessment of cognitive skills and educational attainment. In an effort to catch up, much of the focus has been on what is being taught and who is teaching it. “People often think about how curriculum, quality of teachers, and parent involvement can influence students,” lead author Sapna Cheryan told Yahoo Health. “But the physical structure of the building or what the classroom actually looks like is often overlooked.”

Cheryan and her research team from the University of Washington reviewed the latest scientific literature to find out how the physical environment can affect the learning process and how U.S. schools measure up. They found that students who are exposed to more natural light perform better than students who are not. The study found that the optimal temperature range for learning is between 68 and 74 degrees. “Lighting, heating, plumbing, and noise level are all basic parts of the learning environment that are extremely important,” said Cheryan. “Yet more than half of U.S. schools currently have inadequate structural facilities.” These flawed structures are more likely to be present in schools that serve students from lower-income backgrounds, so it’s just one more way the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening, she added.

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Beyond the school’s basic structural features, what a classroom looks like, including how it is decorated, can also make a difference in student achievement. Cheryan said that certain everyday objects in the classroom — posters, statues, or figurines — can act as symbols that inadvertently signal which students are more valued. For example, pictures of presidents (all men), common to many classrooms, could discourage girls from pursuing an interest in politics. A teacher who fills his or her computer-science classroom with Star Trek memorabilia may alienate students who aren’t interested in science fiction. Balance is the key, said Cheryan. Positive images depicting female leaders through history, women in science, and strong minority figures can improve performance for students in those groups, according to the study.

The research team recommends that its findings be used in developing and implementing education policy and for training teachers. “Nothing has been codified about what we should do in the classroom, and that was really one of the motivations of our review,” said Cheryan. “In addition to optimal conditions of the facilities, we should also think about making recommendations to teachers about what the classroom should look like.”  

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Until that happens, Cheryan suggested, teachers can take a look around their classrooms and think about who would feel most empowered. If they come up with only one type of student, one type of identity, or one type of interest, then it might be time to broaden the decor themes. “The goal is to decorate the classroom in a way that evokes the idea that all students are valued learners,” she said. “It’s one more thing to think about when it comes to how kids are educated.”

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