Sterile Learning Walls Inhibit Critical and Creative Thinking


The learning environment is rightly considered the ‘third teacher‘ in classrooms across the world. Whilst setting up our school-based research on Organic Learning, one of our provocations was ‘how might we make learning walls more reflective of an inquiry process in order to enhance critical and creative thinking?’ During our Explore Phase, we identified that classrooms contained a variety of teacher-generated wall displays, as well as a vast amount of space dedicated to showcasing colourful, finished student work.

There is certainly a place for teacher-generated displays that entice learner engagement, provide direction or are used by students as a tangible resource, and having finished work on display adds to the development of a positive learning environment, but that falls way short of what we believe learning walls can contribute to critical and creative thinking. It may be colourful, but it is sterile, at best. Wall space at the learner’s eye level is where teachers can make a real difference for their students.

We decided to place more emphasis on how we could use our available learning wall space at eye level, to capture and display students’ thinking and their journey of learning. This meant providing space for students to display their thoughts, questions and ideas, and toolsets for critiquing, collaborating and reflecting. We wrote about toolsets in Student Metacognition: Using a Competency Rubric to Assess Deep Learning.



If we can see what learners are thinking, then the thinking can be quickly assessed, critiqued and refined. This can lead to richer conversations around learning and encourage deeper individual and collective thinking as it allows each learner to compare their thinking to other learners’ and align their thinking to metacognitive rubrics (such as the Conscious Competence Rubric). It is not only the teacher who does the critiquing. Other learners are able to critique and question as well. This helps learners be accountable to each other during the learning cycle.



In the above classrooms, the learning walls have lots of examples displaying what the learners know and want to know, what they ‘see, hear and feel’ and what questions they have so far during the Explore Phase in the Organic Learning Cycle. When they begin to make connections, this can become a tangible learning experience as their thoughts and understandings can be touched, moved, clustered, tabbed or edited by others. Seeing a learning wall of thoughts creatively connected can uncover amazingly rich learning experiences.

See also Project Zero’s Visible Thinking site, which has some really useful Thinking Routines for teachers to use in class.

Within the context of Organic Learning, the alignment of learning principles is a critical driver for our school-based research. When we were exploring how to make student learning walls more tangible and critiqueable, we decided to do the same for teacher learning walls and assess the impact. For the most part, teacher learning walls do not reflect teaching as the creative process it really is. They are generally quite sterile and compliance focused. If you ever get to check out Google workspaces, it becomes quickly obvious that their focus is on creativity, not compliance. We started exploring ways to make teacher learning spaces more creativity-focused.

We have already written a number of posts about our Bunker Room and Hexagonal Curriculum Mapping. That was a good start for our research, but we are also determined to align more closely, teacher learning space with student learning space.


Our Bunker Room wall contains an entire year of curricula learning intentions for each stage of learning. Every teacher can see what everyone else is planning. The clusters of learning intentions are visible and critiqueable. Programs are not stuck inside a laptop or folder. Colleagues will frequently question, make suggestions, offer support and encourage each other randomly during the course of a week. By having the planning and learning visible in the Bunker Room helps to ‘keep the main thing the main thing’ (Stephen Covey, 1995, First Things First), which is learning. And because it is transparent, it keeps teachers accountable to their stage partners and to the rest of the staff.


We have found just from creating our Bunker Room there is an increase in what Albert Bandura calls Collective Agency. Our teachers are more able to take control of the school-wide learning agenda as they synergistically collaborate, support each other and enhance collective efficacy to deliver deep, rich learning.


The Bunker Room is not the only learning space for teachers. Like most schools, we also have a very detailed Data Wall showing levels of attainment for Reading, Comprehension and Numeracy for all students. The data is visible, tangible, transparent and critiqueable. We find teachers will regularly scan the data and question colleagues about their student’s levels, making comparisons to when they taught the same students. This often turns into rich discussions about the use of data-informed explicit teaching strategies.

A Bunker Room and Data Walls are only part of the Teacher Learning Space. Our student learning walls also contain reflections on their own learning and metacognition, whilst adhering to the same principles for learning spaces in that they (the reflections) are visible, tangible and critiqueable.

img_7434To bring our alignment between student learning spaces and teacher learning spaces closer, we established a learning wall for teacher professional learning, which we have called an Organic Learning Sprint. The intention of this space is to externalise every teacher’s professional learning plan. From a negative, closed mindset, this could be seen as incredibly intimidating or competitive. From a positive, growth mindset, it can create opportunities for critiquing each other’s learning that could lead to authentic collaboration, empathy and collective self-efficacy and agency. It can also turn top-down processes such as yearly performance review structures into flatter, transparent and a self-determined process that encourages teachers to be accountable to no-one but themselves.

After increasing alignment between student and teacher learning spaces, we began to explore how we could do the same for our leadership team. We already had a learning wall for scanning and planning in relation to managing the school and system processes, but we wanted to be able to externalise and tangiblise our thinking and tensions.


We set up a  Provocation Wall made out of magnetic glass as we wanted to be able to write on it as well as stick things on it in order to make elements tangible. Unfortunately, the magnetism behind the glass is not strong enough, so we just write. But the ideas, provocations and prototypes are visible and critiqueable. Many hours are spent in deep discussion around various provocations.

We can underestimate the importance of student, teacher and leadership visible learning spaces. As Jon Kolko (Drivers of Design Synthesis) describes, we are able to make sense of chaos through the process of spatialisation. By externalising and making sense of data we discover insights and generate solutions to problems.  Implicit and hidden meanings are uncovered.

Our next step is to establish a parent learning wall. This will complete the breadth of our alignment, although we will continue to work on its depth. To help make this alignment prevalent, we developed Learning Space Experience Tours for students, parents and teachers. An Experience Tour is like a ‘learning walk’ or an ‘Instructional Round’, but with an organic twist. The intent of these Experience Tours was to provide the various learners the opportunity to experience all the Learning Walls, record their observations, feelings and critique, and then synthesise and share what they thought. This exercise alone helped to foster greater collective appreciation and empathy across our community.

The overall impact of aligning our learning walls for students, teachers and leaders has been an undeniable growth in consistency of the language of learning, the depth of creative thinking, metacognition and capacity for critiquing and being critiqued, and an emerging shared growth mindset across the school. You can see it, you can hear it and you can feel it. Our learning walls were once sterile, but are now becoming more fertile.

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