Sunday, October 28, 2007

Clutter

I didn’t feel the education world was filled with clutter until the early 2000s, when two directives came down the pipeline to teachers of all subjects:

“Put a word wall up in your classroom”

and

"Hang up your students' work."


What started out as a couple of new bits of pop-methodology developed over time into fierce mandates. The absence of a word wall or displayed student assignments soon resulted in letters to the file and became in some cases a piece of hard evidence that a teacher was, in Klein's DOE, showing signs of incompetence.


Actually, I have nothing against word walls or hanging up some examples of great student work. These are not new ideas, and each certainly has its use. I’ve been putting up these things for as long as I can remember.

What I object to, apart from anyone mandating how I teach or that I set my classroom up in a specific way (especially administrators, most of whom don't know much about my subject at all), is the sheer verbiage on the wall. It’s clutter, pure and simple.

And would it have stopped there, with the word walls and the student work, but in the past couple of years, mandated wall items have most definitely proliferated. (Whether they're a sign of teacher quality is for another discussion, though they certainly do say something about the quality of inspection check-off lists.) In any case, here are some of the more recent mandated items:
Class rules
Class goals
School goals
School grading policy
Rubrics for assessment
Descriptions of what the assignments are supposed to achieve

Of course, these are all in addition to the fire drill posters and ongoing announcements for clubs, fund-raising campaigns, student council meetings, summer camp, bell schedules, and the like. You do feel guilty when someone tells you “Post this, please” and you deep six it. Thus, some of these papers do find their way onto the walls one way or another.

If you are on the “outside,” please try to use your imagination for a minute and put yourself inside a classroom looking at the walls.

You can’t actually read any of these things from a distance unless the lettering is over two inches tall. What you are able to see from your seat is poster after poster, paper after paper of messy or indecipherable lettering, patches of color with squiggles on them plastering much of the entire room, even the glass windows.

How can this possibly improve education?

It can’t, and it doesn’t.

The kids tune out ALL of it, and with any luck, so do I. Otherwise, how could I keep my mind clear enough to talk extemporaneously for 44 minutes, or respond to questions without getting distracted by the chaotic visuals, or get the kids to focus on their texts and their writing, or in essence: how could I do my job?

This stuff is supposed to foster a “text rich” environment. Instead, it results in two very simple and very obvious things: frustration that you can’t read much of it from your seat and a kind of numbness to the entire panoply. It reinforces one thing only: that the written word doesn’t mean much after all, so why bother worrying about what’s up there. And of course, students don’t worry about it. They don’t read it, and they couldn’t care less.

Just like they walk past a dozen signs up and down the hallways saying "No hats, No electrical devices," all the time sporting hats on their heads and checking messages on their cell phones. Signs become meaningless after a while.

A cluttered visual environment is the same as a cluttered aural one. I can’t even begin to teach music unless I first teach kids the difference between sound and silence. It takes a lot of skill to get them to make a sound (like clapping) for, let's say, 4 beats and be completely silent on beat 5. They never get it the first time, or the second. The class clowns will then screw up purposely for another five or six shots at it, but at something like the seventh attempt, when everyone miraculously achieves that precious instant of perfect silence at exactly the same time: wow, what a feeling. Broad smiles all around, sometimes with applause as well for their own collective achievement.

Visual clutter is the same thing as noise, and educators should be raging against it. It does nothing for the mind, which needs to be quieted to learn, and since most posters and papers have no artistic skill, there’s not a shred of aesthetic pleasure from much of it. It certainly does nothing to improve reading skills, since you mostly have to put your eyeballs into the wall to even see the stuff, and who has time for that rushing from class to class.

The ugly chaos we see on so many classroom walls is a kind of environmental contamination, and it shores up an insecure reader’s defense mechanism against written language altogether.

16 comments:

Diana said...

Bravo. I love all your points, especially the one about the role of silence in music.

And likewise with literature--the ones who "get it" are the ones who can actually pay close attention to the text. Why set the kids up for distraction?

Visual clutter is much like mandated groupwork--have everyone sitting and talking in groups all the time, and they'll never quiet down enough to think about a complex or subtle question.

Anonymous said...

That's the subject of a whole other post: groupwork. That's where they train kids for 3 solid years not to think for themselves, then thrust them into high school work and expect them to do it on their own.
When will parents and teachers take this system back?

Anonymous said...

Visual clutter is bad educationally, especially with easily distractable students and in particular students with attention deficit problems. I have seen such students just "get lost" looking around the room at the numerous hanging papers.

Also I think it's not just clutter, but even well organized postings lose their effect when there are too many of them.

yomister said...

I kid you not... my principal has a list of 24 items that must be displayed in my classroom, including incentive charts, motivational posters, and two or three items I don't have a clue as to what they are.

Classrooms are beginning to look like garage sales gone strangely awry.

Woodlass said...

Is he a Tweed grad?

Anonymous said...

You forgot that all the state standards have to be posted. In fact, I was shocked to learn that the DOE expects the students to know the standards...yes, memorize them.....that they don't know multiplication tables (that type of memorization is bad) or can't recite a poem by heart is good according to the eductrats at Tweed.

Tweed, Klein, Bloomberg and Weinsatan (I mean Weingarten) are destroying public education....

How right you are that the amount of work we have to post in the classroom and on the ever expanding number of bulletin boards in the hallways is nothing but intellectual pollution.

Diana said...

Another problem with all this is the demand that we post a rubric and task description with each display of student work.

I often find that students who interpret the assignment in their own way (and who don't follow directions exactly) come up with the most thoughtful and creative work. And yet, according to a rubric, I would have to take off points because they didn't fulfill the charge of the assignment.

Not that people really examine the rubrics that closely--but if they don't, the whole charade is phony (no surprise).

Rubrics can be useful to a degree, insofar as they establish expectations for those who need that sort of guidance. Other than that, they can stifle initiative and independent thought.

Yes, students need to learn to follow directions, but that should not be the be-all and end-all. Students who come up with their own ideas and execute them well should be encouraged and respected. Bulletin boards with rubrics sometimes appear like propaganda posters: "Conform and you will get a good grade!"

loonyhiker said...

This was great. In addition to that stuff, our school required that we have the school's vision and mission statement also. My student's never read these. Isn't it more important to post things that may help student's achieve success in school?

Woodlass said...

I'm learning a lot from you guys -- keep it coming!

Jose said...

I'm all about this too. Too much clutter messes with the feng shui. At first, I was in love with putting tons of stuff up for decor, and it had a lot to do with people's utter desperation for all these aesthetics. People don't realize that nothing can be aesthetically pleasing too. Good post. I'll be forwarding this to a couple of people. Peace.

Anonymous said...

Yes, everything you say is TRUE TRUE TRUE but many teachers don't speak up because it is akin to telling the emperor he has no clothes. Seriously, the visual clutter is educational malpractice. A sign of an effective teacher isn't what's on the walls. It is reflected in the student work. WHEN WILL THEY GET THAT?

Woodlass said...

I still feel as strongly about this as ever. A year later and it's getting worse and worse.

Anonymous said...

I just had this discussion this morning during a meeting. I am an art teacher and I was told that visual learners need to have this information available to them. I laughed and asked if they thought it was possible that I was a visual learner? The teachers were saying they had no more room to post things in their classrooms, they are putting things on closet doors and WINDOWSHADES!!!! and they have a three foot square of chalkboard available to use. It is amazing to see that teachers have been saying it is too much for TWO years. When will someone listen to us?

UnderAssault said...

Since education is now designed at the top levels by know-nothings, teachers should just start defying the bums and do what they have to do to protect young humans from environmental garbage. It's the moral high road. You'll get that letter in the file, all right, but when everyone starts thinking of letters in the file as badges of courage, maybe the tide will turn.

Lauren M said...

Different strokes for different folks. I arrived as a new art teacher in a classroom filled with clutter from floor to ceiling. So many posters and magazine pictures and comic strips on every surface: wall, doors, cabinets, shelves, sides of file cabinets. Pictures everywhere. Some was past student work: mediocre paintings and drawings, large scale paper mache projects (more of these than you would think possible). Other things were spoofs of famous artwork, prints of paintings, just tons and tons of visual clutter. I started immediately taking down everything that was falling down already. Students noticed the change. Some were not happy because the previous teacher had passed away, but others said it looked nice and less cluttered. This year I'm making the classroom my own and that means neat and tidy and MUCH less on the walls! How can you come up with your own imagery if all you can see is everyone else's imagery around you?

Under Assault said...

So happy this post struck a chord in you because it's not a recent one. Interesting about the kids. They probably grieved over the changes you made more than the individual mounted items, don't you think? Plants and lighting help also, but what do I know, I'm just a music teacher (LOL).

PS: It's two years later, and I thought they would have reinvented their ideology by now. Nope. Same directives for Word Walls, Rubrics, Print-Rich Environments, etc. So the battle continues.....