The case for displays in the history classroom

Thanks to Secondary Committee member Gemma Hargraves (@History_Girls) for this latest post, inspiring us to make meaningful and appropriate use of classroom wall displays. You can find some resources that may be useful in the ‘display materials’ category of this blog.

Open Days are approaching and many schools expect classroom walls to be adorned with displays to enhance learning, or at least to give a positive impression of the school. Here I will explain that beyond the basic requirement for covered walls, History displays are an opportunity to deepen knowledge and understanding and stimulate intellectual curiosity. 

Full disclosure: I like displays. I like maps in my classroom and I refer to them often. I like flags, images, and colour on my walls. It makes my classroom a more pleasant environment for me to spend my days. In addition, research has shown that personalising classrooms with a student’s own work can increase their level of self-esteem (Maxwell and Chmielewski, 2008) and this cannot be ignored as a factor given the impact on pupils’ wellbeing and self esteem due to the COVID pandemic.

In making the case for displays in the History classroom I am not suggesting they surround the whiteboard or projector area. There has been much research on how too much information in this area can be distracting and overstimulating, especially for Autistic pupils (Hanley et al, 2017). In my classroom pupils are taught in rows, but can of course see classroom walls when I leap up to point out a country on the world map, or an area on my large Germany map and accompanying images. Timelines can also be helpful to aid pupils in grasping chronology, and cause and effect of key events. 

My thoughts on displays have been developed by reading The Museum Makers (2020) by Rachel Morris. She argues that “museum interpretation sets our imagination alight” and it made me wonder if this could be the role of classroom displays too? To ignite pupils’ curiosity or nudge them to see that the history they are learning in class is colourful, exciting and engaging? Morris also makes an interesting point about how museums may put the most highly regarded exhibits closest to the front door, and therefore we should consider if that inadvertently translates to the classroom? Granted, classrooms are not museums, and I am not advocating for displays around boards at the front of the room but perhaps by highlighting something on the first board pupils see when entering a room, we are saying that this event or period matters more? I would suggest that the focus should be History specific, if possible, rather than school rules or notices, so pupils are very aware they are in a History classroom with all the argument, reading and stories that entails. 

Whether displays should be distinct to topics, delineated with clear lines and headings as seen in more modern museum displays (Morris, 2020) or more free range is a matter for debate. Displays focused on distinct topics may be helpful if they cover, for example GCSE topics, or questions styles, particularly for pupils who sometimes struggle to remember which events or question structures fit with which topic. However, history is not clean and easily separated. As Sarah Churchwell said; “If history starts as a guest list, it has a tendency to end like the memory of a drunken party: misheard, blurred, fragmentary.” Therefore classroom displays can blur lines between topics, highlight fragments of the past and amplify voices. My Germany display links to elements of the Germany GCSE topic and also the Cold War, where Berlin is pivotal. It could also link to KS3 content on the First World War and even A Level content on Napoleonic Wars but I did not explicitly add those links to the board as I felt that would be overwhelming. 

Morris says that “all museums are driven by a vast and semi-doomed ambition to stop time, save the past and map and order the world” and for me that is the purpose of my displays – certainly I include lots of maps which experience has shown me help pupils to map and order their understanding, and they aid my teaching and clarity of explanations. Perhaps hoping to have a classroom where each display is engaging, up to date and clear is also a “vast and semi-doomed ambition” but I don’t think that means we shouldn’t try. Classroom displays seem to be used well in primary schools and it seems strange that when transitioning to Year 7 such things would no longer be desirable. 

Admittedly there is an opportunity cost with displays – if a teacher is designing, printing, laminating and putting up displays, could their time be better spent on something else that would improve pupils’ learning? Perhaps. But, with summer Open Days approaching, many schools will expect classrooms and corridors to have full, fresh and interesting displays so why not take this opportunity to add a display that interests you. I have not seen any evidence that pupils are distracted by my displays but they offer useful prompts when I need to refer to maps or images and I feel they provide a positive learning environment.  Personally I do not put up much pupil work as I would rather the displays I have are useful and practical rather than simply decorative but I can see the value in displaying exemplary work. 

As a pastoral leader as well as History Teacher I cannot ignore the role displays could have in promoting positive wellbeing and belonging.  My classroom, for example, includes an LGBT History display, and a rainbow sticker above my door. My next display will be on experiences of Black women through time and how they are represented in our curriculum. 

I hope this blog has nudged you to reconsider how classroom displays could be an opportunity to shine a spotlight on a neglected period of history, help pupils feel they belong, and stimulate their love of learning and consolidate their knowledge of History. 

References:

Hanley, Mary and Khairat, Mariam and Taylor, Korey and Wilson, Rachel and Cole-Fletcher, Rachel and Riby, Deborah M. (2017) ‘Classroom displays – attraction or distraction? Evidence of impact on attention and learning from children with and without autism.’, Developmental psychology., 53 (7). pp. 1265-1275.

Maxwell, L. E., and Chmielewski, E J. (2008). Environmental personalization and elementary school children’s self-esteem. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28, 143-153.

Morris, R (2020) The Museum Makers. September: Poland. 

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