Monday, June 29, 2009

The wallpaper curriculum

How can high-school teachers maximize learning time for students with short attention spans? Here's an idea.

When students drift off and stop paying attention to a lesson, they often look around at other areas of the classroom - anywhere but where the teacher wants them to look. The lawn-mower in the window was a particular favorite of mine in high school: the hypnotic back-and-forth movement and the pleasant drone could keep me occupied during a long hour of history class.

Teachers, when they set up their classroom, should aim to make it utterly impossible for kids to look anywhere in the room without learning something. Fine, don't look at the teacher - look at the maps and timelines on the wall, or the art, or the quotations from famous figures, or the posters depicting famous photographs and historical events. Or the rows of books that cover a wall - some with their spines out, some faced-out. You don't even need to open them to be intrigued by their titles: "The Philosophy of History" by G.W.F. Hegel; "The Open Society" by Karl Popper; "The Educated Imagination" by Northrop Frye; "Tales of Love and Loss" by Knut Hamsun; "Confessions of a Mask" by Yukio Mishima.

What about vocabulary terms in size 100 type? A garden, with the plants and vegetables labeled? An aquarium? Phrase charts in foreign languages?

Managers of retail stores are taught to never show their fixtures - to cover every inch of shelves and pegs with products. Products are for sale; fixtures are not. Showing the customer an empty shelf sells no books.

The same principle applies in the classroom. Empty wall space gives you no educational return-on-investment; in fact, bare walls evoke feelings of confinement and claustrophobia. Fill empty spaces. The classroom is not a modern, minimalist design studio: it is an attic and workshop for independent scholars with crackling, eager minds. A classroom's walls should contribute to students' impression that schooling is not a world unto itself, but rather an introduction and guide to the greater world of ideas, art, and informed action.


  1. I can see that it is going to be fun to follow your blogging this term,'re off to a terrific start.
    I'm glad that you wrote about this idea after you brought it up in class. You've made the case nicely, so I'll just add two side comments:
    First, one of the ways in which students are invited into a compelling community for learning is through modeling. Though young people have always made a bigger issue of differences between them and adults than they have about commonalities, I contend that teachers need to see beyond this a bit. Kids need and want role models, especially for how to engage with the world of ideas. I would further contend that classrooms that are more conducive to learning are ones that have a personality to them. Finally, I would contend that having your classroom reflect you as a teacher and a citizen, and how you like to engage with the creative/political/social world, is seizing upon a great opportunity to allow students both to know more about you AND to think more actively about who THEY are in relationship to the world.
    Secondly, in due time, I would encourage you to find ways to engage your students in helping to envision and create the visual environment. If they are stakeholders in the process, I think it would matter more to them. In addition, kids often feel pretty powerless to affect their school environment, so this could be a great opportunity to counter that feeling.
    Good stuff, Ryan...

  2. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks a lot for your great comment. I agree entirely about the need to make the kids stakeholders in the process of creating the classroom environment. Another idea I have is to offer a wide range of extra credit opportunities in the hope that my students will explore beyond the prescribed curriculum in a self-motivated way; creating relevant visuals for the classroom for extra credit could be an important part of that.

    I also agree with you about the connection between a "wallpapered" classroom and the need to give students a model for how to engage with the world of ideas. Classrooms, like everything in K-12 schooling, should point beyond themselves. A bare, empty classroom with the desks in rows bears little resemblance to places where engagement with ideas actually takes place - places like the office of a university professor, a law firm or boardroom, a newsroom or editorial board meeting, or a library.

    Thanks again for reading.