Using classroom walls to create a thinking-rich environment, by @EoinLenihan

Take a look at Photo A and Photo B. Which elementary/primary classroom do you think is preferred by its students?





You may be surprised to hear that the students of classroom B were happier with their room. I recently conducted a survey of student attitudes towards their school community in six schools in Ulm, Germany. I surveyed more than 600 students. One of the questions on the survey was simply “Do you like your classroom?” Students answered on a scale: 1 (Not at all), 2 (It is nothing special), 3 (It is quite nice) and 4 (I like it very much). The students of classroom A gave their classroom an average rating of 3.0 while the students of classroom B gave it a rating of 3.2. Both sets of students felt that their room was “quite nice” but as you no doubt noticed, these two rooms are quite aesthetically different.

The difference that emerges when these classrooms are considered alongside all other classrooms studied, is that there tend to be two types of wall-display in schools: the teacher-arranged room and the student-arranged one. In the former, the teacher will often invest a great deal of energy in “presenting” the room at the start of the school year, making it an interior design project, the results of which will be aesthetically pleasing but owned by the teacher and not the students. It is common to see colourful decorations labelling student profiles, neat arrangements of grammar charts and mathematical rule posters that come free from company booksellers. It looks good to any visiting parents; a principal or colleagues will see order, neatness and “things” happening and assume that this must be a good teacher. However, check back at Halloween or Easter and you are likely to find the exact same wall displays. According to the walls, students are still learning the same grammar and their student profile has not changed as though they themselves have had no personal and social growth in the intervening months. In such instances, classrooms are aesthetic things only but do not change and do not support deeper learning and social growth.

In photo B, though there are no colourful displays and only minimal thought has been given to the whole aesthetic experience, the work is unmistakably that of the students and for that reason above any other, students liked this room more. Ideally, teachers should aim to have the walls of their classroom both aesthetically pleasing and supportive of deeper student understanding and social interaction.

In 1987, Creekmore [1] identified the importance of classroom walls, or the fixed architecture of the classroom, in supporting student understanding. He recommended that each of the classroom’s three walls (the fourth usually being a source of natural light) serve a specific function, naming them the “Acquisition Wall”, “Maintenance Wall” and “Dynamic Wall”.

The wall which students are exposed to the most, reflecting the dominance of Direct Instruction, is the wall with the board on it. This should be the Acquisition Wall. Creekmore argues that it is on this wall that all new and difficult concepts should be displayed so that they are continually reinforced throughout the teaching of a unit of study. The Maintenance Wall is usually that opposite the windows. This wall is of secondary importance and should display information which students should remember into the future either for task completion or for summative assessment. Finally, the back wall (in a Direct Instruction classroom) becomes a Dynamic Wall, one that changes regularly to reflect the social interactions and successes of the students. This wall is the social hub of the room.

I would recommend using Creekmore’s model with some minor but important alterations. Firstly, to complement Creekmore’s room layout, teachers should use the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Visible Thinking routines to turn the classroom into a thinking-rich space. Too often, walls of classrooms are full with posters and blocks of texts about various units of work and projects that students have undertaken. These are invariably end products. At best, these serve to remind students of key information for future assessment. At worst, they are simply aesthetic things. Even in the case of the former, these simply act as oversized flash-cards for test preparation and are of no higher-order cognitive value.

For example, it is not enough for the Mathematics teacher to place Pythagoras’s Theorem on the Acquisition Wall and leave it there until the final unit exam. Instead, by using a Compass Points thinking routine, students are asked to interact with the Theorem. In this routine, students are asked to think about Pythagoras’s Theorem using the letters of the compass. N = “Need to Know”, S = “Stance or Suggestion for moving Forward” E = “Excited” and W = “Worrisome”. By asking students to make their feelings and thoughts about the Theorem visible on the Acquisition Wall at the beginning of the Unit, the teacher hooks their interest by making it personal and, importantly, provides a place for them to return and reflect upon their experience throughout the Unit.

A second alteration I would suggest to Creekmore’s model is to rename the Maintenance Wall and instead call it a Process Wall. Maintenance indicates that learning has been done and is simply waiting about to be tested. A Process Wall is dynamic. Also, as I strongly support the idea of Project-Based Learning, this wall should reflect the various stages of thinking, reflection and experimentation that students encounter along the way to producing their final Artefacts. Committing to a Process Board is committing to the process of learning and not simply the outcome. Again, Visible Thinking routines are the ideal way to structure and display student thinking at every stage of their learning process. For example, when you introduce a new topic, take an interesting image to hook student interest and use a See/Think/Wonder Routine. Essentially you ask your students to write down everything they see in the image, then ask what it makes them think and wonder about. The routine asks students to think more deeply about a topic. It encourages them to be more observant, think critically and make wider connections. However, once they have finished the routine, it can be moved to the Process Wall, marking the beginning of their learning process. The rest of the board should be similarly filled with routines that tell the story of student thinking throughout the process. The last piece of work placed on the Process Wall should be a reflection, the “I used to think…Now I think” routine being particularly suitable.

As the Acquisition Wall and the Process Wall begin to fill with ideas, so too does the classroom become a thinking-rich environment. And when all of the thinking is finished, the students will, in accordance with the PBL philosophy, have an artefact for presenting to the wider community. It is absolutely reminiscent of the architect or the engineer’s office, a hive of ideas and thinking before the final product is unveiled.

Another benefit of arranging the Process Wall in this manner is that students are never overwhelmed with large blocks of text that are uninspiring and impenetrable, or poster work that is simply cleverly disguised note-taking. By using the Visible Thinking routines, everything placed on the board is deliberate and has a deliberate purpose. Further, not only will students be prepared for formative and summative assessments, they will have a greater understanding of how they think and how they learn. Because Visible Thinking Routines are simple after the first Unit of Study, students can be largely self-guided on breaking down their own thinking and deepening their own understanding thereafter.

By using this method to organise your classroom walls, you ensure that your students have a room that helps to deepen their understanding, that makes them more self-sufficient learners, that is aesthetically pleasing and, importantly, one that they feel ownership over. However, this method not only creates a thinking-rich environment for your students but also challenges any parent, colleague or principal that enters your room to stop and think.

At the University of Augsburg, one of the highlights of our seminar on Internationally-Minded Education (IME) is when students take two class periods to create engaging wall-displays. They are asked to teach their fellow students the fundamentals of IME by using the walls creatively through Visible Thinking routines. What we have learned is that in order to catch the attention of potential learners outside of the classroom some basic rules are important:

A.    The choice of backboard colour is significant and influences engagement.

B.    There should be three levels of headings –

  1. An overarching heading that quickly draws the eye of the visitor standing in the doorway and pulls him in (written as a Headline routine).
  2. Subsections that break up the Process Wall into thematic sections.
  3. Smaller subsections that clearly point to essential information.

C.    Graphic organisers such as mind maps and spider graphs force learners to break down chunks of text, identify key points and allow visitors to quickly and logically understand a topic, thus heightening the chance that they will retain that information.

D.    Interactive elements such as the “See/Think/Wonder”, questions with room to write answers, and flip-up cards over answers etc. hold visitors’ attention and demand that they think about a problem instead of simply consuming information.

Please scroll through the photographs below for samples of our students’ work and click here for links to more Visible Thinking routines.


[1] Creekmore, W.N. (1987) Effective use of classroom walls. Academic Therapy, 22, 341-348

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Eoin Lenihan and published with kind permission. This article was published in 2015, and updated in 2019 by UKEd Editorial in accordance with website updates and policy changes. 

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