Kristian Timothy Bautista

If there is one thing that Vice President and Secretary of the Department of Education (DepEd) Sara Duterte is notorious for, it is her dexterity in making questionable education bills and reforms that appear as band-aid solutions or unimportant.

Graphics by Iram Montano

From the implementation of the No-Uniform policy that could have been resolved if the government allocated its budget for the provision of school uniforms to the students, to the recently mandated DepEd Order No. 21 series of 2023, an order which required schools to clear school grounds and strip their classroom walls of ''unnecessary artwork, decorations, tarpaulin, and posters.''

So-called unnecessary decorations that need to be removed include but are not limited to visual aid materials like educational charts that help students pick up lessons they have learned throughout the year, and even the posters of the country leaders, which would include hers.

With her stressing that ''Filipino learners are not academically proficient'' and that the country ''must address appropriately and effectively,'' the education sector has formulated a solution: ordering classrooms sans clutter. The secretary claimed that the writings on the wall only served as a distraction to a learner’s focus.  

When asked to explain the primary drive for this directive, it is due to the emergence of research studies on the relationship between the appearance of a classroom and student learning.

These studies have claimed that less clutter tremendously helps in keeping students concentrated as clean-looking classrooms enable focused learning, something the secretary wishes. Excessive stimuli can only overwhelm a student and drive away their focus when they need time to concentrate on activities.

While the concept of a bare classroom might hold certain benefits, mandating such an approach through government orders should not have been the course of action, but rather, a mere suggestion. The studies backing their claims never implied completely stripping away every poster inside the classroom. Rather, they suggested decluttering unnecessary embellishments that barely impacted student learning.

Outdated source materials, decorations that are too visually stimulating, and dare I say, posters of every national leader out there (from mayors to barangay captains) — these are the clutter that the studies were referring to. Not the interactive reading nook, not the corner that displayed the best artworks of the students, and definitely not the daily updated ''word of the day'' — which were all expensed by the pockets of the classroom adviser.

If the education sector argues that these visual elements serve as a distraction to a student’s learning, then one can also argue that an overly bare classroom may come across as unwelcoming, especially to early learners. These learners have been proven to benefit from a more colorful and interactive environment. Student workload would appear tasking rather than rewarding while working in a plain environment with only a green board in front of them and plain walls surrounding them. Bare walls prohibit engagement in learning as an effectively decorated classroom helps to reinforce learning within the four walls, and possibly transcend these learnings outside in the real world. The idea of making students “focus on their activities and the blackboard” through plain walls does not exactly foster a nurturing learning environment.

Holistically, some of these ''unnecessary decorations'' represent centuries of history and culture the country has identified with. Whenever I watch Western films, their classrooms always have visual aids that do not necessarily resonate with me. For instance, the alphabet always had A for Apple and B for banana, and there were pictures of Western heroes that had no impact on my life whatsoever (it turns out, it was America’s Founding Fathers).

However, when I entered a Filipino classroom for the first time in my life, I found out that A could be atis, B could be bola, and our national hero Jose Rizal penned controversial books that sparked independence from our colonizers – and those were topics that we discussed further on as I progressed with my studies. Had I entered a bare classroom when I was young, I would never have known what Emilio Aguinaldo or Apolinario Mabini looked like as I learned about them in my Araling Panlipunan classes.

Those posters helped me remember notable people at the back of my head; the same goes for grasping concepts and general knowledge, like what the Philippines looks like on a map, or different learning resources translated into Filipino.

For students to become focused on their studies, which is the goal of the education sector, they need environments that the students themselves help to create so that there is a sense of ownership, and that it is functional and engaging.

While not all parts of the body need to be posted on the four walls, one wall could have recent artworks of students displayed to inspire them to craft better outputs in the future.

The fact that the secretary went stern with her decision and required immediate abidance to bare classrooms contradicts the moment she ''relied on experts'' to revise the curriculum and address a myriad of challenges that require immediate attention and resources.

If the government wants to improve focused learning, bare classrooms are not the solution, nor will they ever be part of the solution. While the intention behind a minimalist classroom may be to promote concentration and focus, these benefits can also be achieved through thoughtful teaching practices and pedagogical approaches. 

While the concept of a bare classroom might hold certain benefits, mandating such an approach through government orders should not have been the course of action, but rather, a mere suggestion. It does not have to sacrifice both the monetary and physical efforts of teachers and parents in building a joyful, learning environment for the youth — which should have been initiated by the government, in the first place.