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Cluttered Classrooms Paper

In his book 'Emotional Intelligence' (featured in our Emotions section) the author Daniel Goleman wrote:

In terms of biological design for the basic neural capacity of emotion, what we are born with is what worked best for the last 50,000 human generations, not the last 500 generations - and certainly not the last five.

Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, ch5 p3

This does not apply just to our emotions. Our brains evolve. As for other creatures they have evolved over millennia, slowly adapting to environmental changes - but now - and it's a big but - our environment is no longer changing slowly, it is changing rocket fast!

Our physical environment is evolving faster than we can possibly keep up with.

From the time of our earliest ancestors, we have been evolving, for over a hundred thousand years. Yet earliest civilisation, when human environments started changing significantly, goes back only 6,000 years. For many, modern civilisation started with the Roman Empire, just two thousand years ago, as people started moving from the country into towns and cities. Only 250 years ago, with the coming of the industrial revolution and the development of many inventions, the world began to change beyond recognition.

And this change has accelerated into the technological world we live in today.

Although some of these dates and times are approximations, there is a clear evolutionary argument, that the physical environment we now live in, is evolving faster than our brains can keep up.

So can we cope?

Our Brains Can't Keep Up

Think of something as seemingly simple as sleep, and the problems so many people have with sleep. Our brains evolved to release a sleep hormone when it gets dark, and when the sun comes up, the light through our closed (sleeping) eye lids shines on the retina on the back of the eye to send a signal to the brain that it is daytime and time to wake up. This worked fine until less than a hundred years ago when electric lights were invented, followed by many more artificially illuminated devices, including televisions, computers and smartphones. So, when it is dark outside, we are still looking at bright things, and the brain does not know when to switch into sleep mode This is essential not just for learning, but ultimately essential to survival - our brains simply can't keep up!

For over one hundred thousand years our brains and the light and dark produced by the rising and setting sun synchronised to regulate our sleep cycles. In under one hundred years, since the arrival of electric lighting, and more and more illuminated devices, our brain simply can't regulate sleep the same way, leading to an increasing global epidemic of insomnia. Our brain can't keep up.

The Visual Brain

And what about our visual brain, only five hundred years ago, most people would spend most of their time outdoors, working the land and tending to livestock.

Look at this view:

Think about your brain's visual processing, and how much work it has to do if these open fields are all you have to look at. This is really where our brain has evolved to be. It is where the brain is up to in evolutionary terms, outside and in the open... it is no surprise that many people find quiet open spaces peaceful and relaxing.

With this perspective, we also still retain a very powerful and fast protective visual instinct (called Blindsight), so that if a wolf or bear suddenly appeared from the side we could react and act, to fight or flee. Without realising we are constantly giving background attention to the peripheral scene, to make sure it's safe, and checking when something draws our attention (see our sections on Attention & Its Calibration for more information).

We have hunter gatherer brains, from over a hundred thousand years of being hunter gatherers. However over only the last few hundred years, our physical landscape has changed and changed and changed, into...

The same parts of the brain that have to visually process this busy shopping mall, mostly without us realising (non-consciously).

You may not be aware that being in a mall takes much more visual processing effort that processing a quiet outdoor scene. If your brain was a laptop computer, handling so much data would heat the processor, turning on the computer's fan to keep the system cool, but this would use up more energy, and quickly run the battery down.

So what are the signs that visual processing of crowded noisy scenes is challenging?

  • Becoming tired
  • Becoming irritated
  • Becoming clumsy
  • Being exhausted or stressed later
  • Developing a headache
  • Needing to sit down and rest

This is true for everyone.

Think of your brain as a battery, and be mindful of how hard you are making it work, and whether this is needed or needless. Many cluttered environments put needless demands on your brain, and waste power that could be used much more productively like... learning!

For people with CVIs, where they have a less reserve capacity for visual processing challenges, due to their brain related impairments of vision, cluttered, busy and noisy environments are especially challenging.

So clutter can mean:

  • That learning becomes more difficult, if not impossible
  • The person can become frightened
  • The person may be confused
  • Challenging behaviours can develop

So what about classrooms?

Arguably we learn all the time, but schools are dedicated to learning. Yet some are the most cluttered environments there are. Think of your brain as a computer once more, and think which of these two classrooms would best aid learning?

We need to go back in time - less is more when it comes to visual learning environments.

The right hand classroom is where children were taught only 50 years ago, The light was natural and the only things to look at were the teacher, blackboard and desk. Now look at a modern classroom, and think of the child's brain as a battery, and how much of that precious power is simply being wasted processing so much clutter. We need to go back in time - less is more when it comes to visual learning environments, and the institutions which recognised this and changed their presentations are museums and art galleries

With our understanding of the visual brain, we would suggest that all children can learn more effectively in an uncluttered environment, yet classrooms are some of the busiest, fussiest places anywhere. For typical children clutter can inhibit learning. For children with CVIs clutter is a hazard. For those most affected, clutter does not have to be walls full of pictures and posters. One teacher told us that a child she was working with was unable to focus on an activity due to a single white plug on a black wall, constantly drawing their visual attention - this child would benefit from working inside a completely clutter free tent (see Suzanne Little's work for more information).

The Paper: The Perspectives of Teachers and Paraeducators on the Relationship Between Classroom Clutter and Learning Experiences for Students with Cerebral Visual Impairment

This paper by Nicola McDowell considers the effects of clutter in classrooms for children with CVIs, and the impact on learning of removing the clutter, which as expected is considerable, even on the teachers!

Nicola McDowell sustained a brain injury aged sixteen, and for the following seventeen years was unaware that she had CVI.

Nicola is a qualified teacher of pupils who are visually impaired, as well as an orientation and mobility specialist. She is currently working on her PhD at Massey University, New Zealand. Nicola is a trustee of CVI Scotland and is sharing and explaining her journey through a series of very popular blogs.

Nicola has introduced her paper in a wonderful blog (blog 20, reproduced below), published on this website on 6 June 2018.

The War on Cluttered Classrooms Begins
by Nicola McDowell

As a teenager, I didn't have much control over many of the environments that I spent time in, including my classrooms at school. This meant that the majority of my day was spent in an environment that was visually cluttered with pictures, art work and posters plastered all over the walls, covering the windows and at times, hanging from the ceiling. This clutter, combined with the overload of other sensory information, such as the constant noise, movement and smells of a classroom full of students, meant that I spent the whole school day feeling anxious and on edge. Being in these cluttered environments was also exhausting and I soon learnt, that the only way I was going to survive each day, was if I allowed myself some quiet time during break times. These solitary time outs ended up becoming one of my most important strategies for dealing with the anxiety, confusion and fatigue my visual issues created.

Although I didn't really understand why, I soon realised that visually uncluttered, quiet environments made me feel calm and relaxed. So, I turned my bedroom into the quiet oasis that I so desperately needed, since it was the only place that I had any control over. To do this, I removed the pictures of pop stars and sports players off my walls, I found a better storage place than my spare bed for the hundreds of teddy bears that I had been given while I was in hospital and to my mum's great surprise (and delight), I started keeping my room tidy and organised. Everything had a place and everything had to be in that place at all times. I was also very strict about who could move objects or furniture in my room - absolutely no one apart from me! As a result, I loved spending time in my bedroom and would shut myself away in my 'safe place' whenever I possibly could.

As I continued through life, attended university, went flatting, rented houses with my husband and then eventually bought our own home for our family, I continued to develop safe places in every house I lived in. To start with, it was just the bedrooms, but now my whole house is a safe place and just walking in the front door, can calm me down, no matter how stressed I am. But as I started a career as a vision education and rehabilitation specialist, I started to have the same problem with cluttered classrooms. Being an itinerant teacher, I didn't often spend a whole day in a classroom, but I would visit many schools and spent up to two or three hours in each location. I started to find that being in these cluttered classrooms made me feel anxious and exhausted all over again. At times it even made it hard to think straight and concentrate on what I was doing with the students I was working with.

This got me thinking.

As an adult with CVI, most of the time, I can control my emotions. And when I find an environment overwhelming, I have strategies in place to make it easier. For instance, having small breaks away from the chaos, finding a quiet spot in the classroom where I can shut out the sensory information, or even something simple as staring out the window for a couple of minutes to give my eyes a break from the jumble of visual stimulus in the classroom. But what if I was a kid again? Could I tell the teacher how I am feeling? Could I explain to them that the clutter is making me anxious? I know I certainly couldn't at 16, so there is no way I would have been able to it 6 or even 10. And what if I was a kid with CVI that was non-verbal? I would have no way of explaining to anyone that the classroom environment is making me anxious and tired.

So, in my view, the responsibility needs to be placed on the adults that set up the classrooms. But I realised that no one is going to believe this and change the long held perspective that classrooms should display as much of the children's work as possible, unless I proved to them that cluttered classrooms affects the learning experience and behaviours of children with CVI. So that's what I did. I started my war against cluttered classrooms and I conducted research on two special school classrooms with students who had CVI. First, I de-cluttered these classrooms by:

  • Covering glass panel sliding doors between the two classrooms with thick black paper.
  • Hanging sheets over open shelving.
  • Creating what became known as the 'black hub' - an area in the classroom that had black, blank walls, that was used for concentrated, focused work.
  • Removing unnecessary equipment and furniture from the room.
  • Removed information that was on windows, walls and hanging from the ceiling.

Teachers, teacher aides (paraeducators) and students then worked in these classrooms for a period of two weeks, following their typical daily routines and completing usual activities.

Following this, I interviewed the teachers and teacher aides about whether they felt there was any change in their students behaviour. To their surprise (but not mine), the entire teaching team saw great improvements in the students learning capabilities and behaviours while the classroom was de-cluttered. Students were more focused, concentrated better, and some students even showed improved visual responses! But what surprised the teaching team the most however, was that both teachers and students found the classroom calmer and there was less tension in the room!

Let's think about this some more.

Adults, without visual impairments, enjoyed working in the de-cluttered classroom so much, they wanted to make the changes more permanent.

These are adults that can articulate how they are feeling and can understand their own emotions. So if they noticed that the de-cluttered classroom made it easier for them to teach in that environment, imagine what it did for the students with CVI! Although these students weren't able to describe the difference of a de-cluttered classroom, it was evident in their actions and behaviour.

This highlights an important message, not only for teachers that support children with CVI; but for all teachers.

A cluttered classroom that has colourful displays on every available wall space, may not be a conducive learning environment for your students! So, if you are a teacher, why don't you try an experiment of your own? Try de-cluttering your classroom and see if you notice a change in the learning and behaviour of your students. You may be pleasantly surprised!

Who wants to join me in my war against cluttered classrooms?

If you would like to read an extract of my research 'The Perspectives of Teachers and Paraeducators on the Relationship Between Classroom Clutter and Learning Experiences for Students with Cerebral Visual Impairment' or purchase the full article, from the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB), please click here.

Please also see our section on Clutter.

Nicola McDowell


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