This week I am publishing a series of blog posts about classroom display. In May 2012, I wrote a Masters essay about classroom display entitled ‘Classroom Display: An alternative to wallpaper or a valuable learning resource?’ These blog posts will serialise my essay and this is Part 2. Click here to read Part 1.
Can Learning Be Incidental?
As stated in the introduction, this question arose as the result of Tommy’s shadow observation. On the same day of my observation, I downloaded and prepared a times tables display for my classroom, hoping that the children in my class would be able to use it to help them with their multiplication work. Over time, this display was used by the children in maths lessons to aid them with their work. An informal poll carried out in the class found that over half of the children had used it and felt that they had made progress because the display was there.
Having seen how this display encouraged the children to use the wall space to learn independently, I decided to extend this theory in a different direction. One morning when the children in my class arrived, some of them found slips of paper in their drawers listing what they saw as random and unconnected words. When the children brought these to me, asking what they were, I thanked them for giving me the pieces of paper, stuck them above the window where they would be clearly visible, and made no further reference to them.
The perceptive children had also noticed a question written in small writing at the bottom of the whiteboard at the front of the classroom.
This question asked ‘Who is Mrs Nerg?’ When the two pieces of evidence were put together, the children noticed that the initial letters of the words above the window spelled out the words ‘Mrs Nerg.’ When they asked me about this, I purposely brushed the question off and made no reference to the two pieces of information on the wall, which in fact spelled out the features demonstrated by anything that is living. Hegarty (1996, p.81) states that children must ‘be sufficiently motivated to examine the display carefully and purposefully.’ Having this display in a prominent area of the classroom and giving it an air of mystery meant that that the children spent time examining it and taking in what it said.
After two weeks of making no reference to the words above the window or the question at the bottom of my whiteboard, I removed the words. Later that day, I asked the children, ‘Who is Mrs Nerg?’ At that point, most of the children looked towards the window for help. They had made the link between that question and the words above the window. When they discovered that the words weren’t there, I prompted the children to write down on mini-whiteboards what the words were. Around half of the class were able to write more than three of the words that had previously been on display.
This exercise proved that the children were able to teach themselves the vocabulary of our next science topic. Even if they did not know what the word meant, they were able to attempt to say or write it. Attaching a meaning to the vocabulary is a relatively easy task for a teacher, yet learning the vocabulary is the more difficult part. In this exercise, the children did the most difficult part themselves, with my contribution being smaller, less laborious and less time-consuming. I found the children’s recollection of the vocabulary over the following weeks to be good, with most children able to remember nearly all the words.
The outcome of this exercise is that children do not always have to be taught something by a teacher: they are able to learn for themselves through incidental exposure. Just as Tommy consolidated his times table knowledge through the use of a poster on the wall, the children in my class were able to teach themselves about the features of living objects, even when they did not know what they were learning. What would happen if, several weeks in advance, teachers were to provide children with subtle exposure to information related to work that they would be covering in the near future? Would children be able to teach themselves more information, meaning that direct teaching time could be cut down? This could have major implications for the integration of creativity in the classroom, as it would allow for a much more creative timetable with a less formal approach to direct teaching.
Hegarty, P. (1996) ‘A Child’s-eye View: the development of children’s perceptual skills through display’, in Cooper et al. Display in the Classroom. London: David Fulton, pp. 78-93.