Monday, June 16, 2014

Teachers, tear down those wall hangings!

Even as preschools compete to become more “academic,” kindergarten still marks, for most kids, a time of unprecedented demands on their attention spans. All of a sudden, they find themselves having to spend most of their class time focused on activities that their teachers choose for them. With the recent expansion of kindergarten into full, 6 ½-hour-a-day affairs, these expectations are unprecedented not just personally, but also historically. 

Also unprecedented—so far as I can tell--is the amount of time kids have to spend listening to one another during Circle Time. Extended Circle-Time peer-talk, after all, is one of the apotheoses of cooperative, child-centered learning. It also happens to be, as far as maintaining focus is concerned, one of the most trying tasks of all—at least for 5 and 6 year olds. For here, unless it happens to be your turn to speak, you have to sit still, criss-cross apple sauce style, with nothing to lean on, and quietly look and listen as one after another of your not-so-articulate classmates (they are, after all, only 5 and 6 years old) eventually gets their point across.

Should your attention wander away, to, say, the objects in the room or posters on the wall, your teacher may interrupt the discussion to rebuke you. J got a special dispensation (for being autistic), but my daughter did not, and I can’t tell you how many times she (and I) were told she was disrespectful and/or unkind for fidgeting and not attending to peers. (Countless others, of course, are judged not as morally deficient, but at attentionally so—and medicated accordingly).

Now a recent study reported in last week’s Science Times confirms what I (and many others) have long suspected. If anyone is being--however unwittingly—inattentive or inconsiderate, it’s the teachers of their students:

A large body of evidence supports the importance of focused attention for encoding and task performance. Yet young children with immature regulation of focused attention are often placed in elementary-school classrooms containing many displays that are not relevant to ongoing instruction. We investigated whether such displays can affect children’s ability to maintain focused attention during instruction and to learn the lesson content. We placed kindergarten children in a laboratory classroom for six introductory science lessons, and we experimentally manipulated the visual environment in the classroom. Children were more distracted by the visual environment, spent more time off task, and demonstrated smaller learning gains when the walls were highly decorated than when the decorations were removed.
Teachers of the world, before you assume it’s the kids’ fault, cut down on Circle Time, and tear down those wall hangings!


FedUpMom said...

I'm getting flashbacks to my Younger Daughter's year in first grade. I had many conversations with the teacher about her inability to sit still in circle time. Ugh. Who decided that it was necessary for 6-year-old kids to sit quietly in a circle on the carpet? It's uncomfortable; they're craning their necks; they have no demarcated personal space. There's a reason why chairs and desks were invented.

On the other hand, I think taking away decorations and visual "distractions" is a scary idea. It reminds me of the bare, sterile corporate environment that makes me utterly depressed.

ChemProf said...

I'm not sure this study showed what they think it did. In a NEW environment, lots of stuff on the walls is distracting, but in a FAMILIAR environment, the decorations aren't distracting because they are familiar, and for the most part classroom decorations stay there from day to day. This is more a reason that you shouldn't expect your kindergartener to learn anything the first week or so of school, when everything is new.

It's funny - in my daughter's VERY non-academic preschool, they did do circle time and each child got to choose a short song for the class to sing. But in addition to teaching them to function in the circle and wait for their turn, she was also definitely teaching them to come up with something and say it quickly!

Katharine Beals said...

Good points, FedUpMom and ChemProf.

Another confounding factor is the Hawthorn Effect ( which has the opposite effect!

A nice balance would be a moderate level of decoration--of the sort you'd find in pleasant home environment--as opposed to the ever-changing clutter of new stuff (new units, new displays of kids' work) One should restrict this stuff to the walls outside the classroom.

lgm said...

It is not the wall hangings. It is the noise (adult aides, fellow students) and the boredom from trying to concentrate thru that noise on the words of students who have not learned to speak coherently or stay on topic.