In this blog, I share a few tips on decluttering your teaching. My thinking about the topic of clutter in teaching has been inspired by recent movements to let go of our possessions in order to be happier and freer—becoming a minimalist. The principles behind the movements, in my opinion, have some application to teaching as well. As you can declutter your houses for better lives, you can declutter parts of your practice for better teaching.
1. Declutter Your Teacher-Made Materials
I have observed that many teacher-made materials are visually cluttered and/or have an excessive number of visual elements. (If you wish to see for yourself, put the term “ESL/EFL worksheets” into a search engine and check the results.) There might be very good intentions behind such designs. For example, the authors may want to save paper or make the materials motivating for their learners. Unfortunately, sometimes good intentions have less than ideal outcomes.
Effective visual design of teacher-made materials structures, navigates, scaffolds, directs, motivates, and successfully communicates their contents (Kleckova & Svejda, 2019, p. 18). Every element of the design “contribute[s] to the composition or meaning” of the material (Samara, 2014, p. 13). Everything, including white space, has its clear purpose and function—everything has value. Certain features and elements are rejected for others if they better serve the needed purpose and better support student learning.
If the issue of cluttered teacher-made materials resonates with you, review your materials for unnecessary clutter by asking yourself these questions:
- Do all the visual elements in my material relate to its message and purpose?
- Do they serve a purpose? Are they all necessary?
- Have I kept things simple?
- What will happen if I remove some of the elements?
If you identify an unnecessary element—there is always at least one, trust me—delete it or transform it into an element with a clear function. Here is an example of a document before and after being decluttered:
2. Declutter Your Lesson Plans
I see a parallel between filled up worksheets and some of my lessons. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with the number of ideas, activities, resources, and tools we as educators in the more privileged parts of the world have available. I see unlimited learning possibilities for my students, yet I am cornered by time constrains and curriculum demands. As a result, I sometimes overplan my students’ learning. I “inflate” the lesson time with activities and tasks. I try to use my time with students as much as I can. (Isn’t this similar to cramming a white sheet of paper with text and graphics?) I want them to have as much experience with the subject matter as possible—the more the better.
Just as teachers have good intentions when using rich visual language in their materials, I have very good intentions when planning my lessons. But are there always good learning outcomes for my students? If you relate to my experiences, review your lesson plan for unnecessary clutter by answering these questions:
- Does the activity (or task within an activity) truly serve my teaching objective and student language learning needs?
- Does it have a true learning value for my students or is it just a time filler or my teaching habit? How will it exactly contribute to their learning?
- Is it necessary?
- What will happen if I leave it out?
If you identify an unnecessary activity or task, get rid of it and free up space for more thorough work in other activities or for reflection. You can also transform it into an activity that will have a bigger value for student language learning. As a result, your lessons will be less rushed and more focused. The overall pace of your lessons will be different and you will allow students to process and reflect on the subject more. This is something some of my students noted in their final reflections last spring, after I’d worked to declutter my lessons.
3. Declutter Your Classroom
A cluttered classroom can overwhelm and overstimulate students and thus affect their learning. In fact, there is a growing body of research exploring the impact of the learning environment on students’ performance. For example, a study on classroom design in the United Kingdom suggests that a moderate level of stimulation effectively impact students’ progress unlike under- or overstimulation of the classroom environment (Barrett, Davies, Zhang, & Barrett 2015).
If the problem of the overdecorated classroom applies to you, use these questions to tidy it up:
- Does each item serve a clear purpose and have a clear function? Does it enhance my lesson or student language learning?
- Does the item have a true learning value for my students, or is it just a wall/space filler? Is it relevant to what my students are learning? Does it have a positive effect?
- Is it necessary?
- What will happen if I remove the item?
If you realize that you have some unnecessary items there, pack them in a box and give them away like you would do with household items that don’t serve you anymore. They may bring a lot of joy to your colleagues and their students.
Decluttering results in more freedom, space, time, and energy—fundamentals teachers often lack. You can gain them by thoughtfully considering the value of your doings and eliminating anything that does not support student language learning.
I am not advocating here for universal minimalism, but I do think that aspiring for less with more value in our teaching might be a good move. It may allow those things that are important to our student learning to stand out and impact students’ learning outcomes. What do you think?
Barrett, P. S., Davies, F., Zhang, Y., & Barrett, L. (2015). The impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning: final results of a holistic, multi-level analysis, Building and Environment, 89, 118–133.
Kleckova, G. & Svejda, P. (2019). Creating visually effective materials for English learners. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.
Samara, T. (2014). Design elements: Understanding the rules and knowing when to break them (2nd ed.). Beverly, MA: Rockport.