How much does an organized environment matter to the brain?

We’ve all seen them – messy desks, cluttered classrooms with piles of stuff everywhere, and learning environments so disorganized that we wonder how anything is accomplished.  Common sense, along with a bunch of research, tells us that environments matter.  The way we organize the space, the traffic flow, the placement of visuals and work spaces, and the things like bulletin boards all matter.  But, how much does the clutter-factor matter?  Again, common sense might tell us that a cluttered, disorganized space impacts learning and focus, but how much?

Fortunately, research done by Grace Chae from Temple University and Juliet Zhu from the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, offers some insights.  In an interesting series of studies, they found that disorganized and cluttered environments lead to (among other things): more impulsive behavior, less focus and attention on work tasks, and less persistence at challenging tasks.  While these studies were done with adults in professional work settings, they can offer some insights into how we organize classrooms.

Study results were shared in a paper titled “Environmental Disorder Leads to Self-Regulatory Failure” published in 2014.  Among the interesting statements from the authors include the declaration that “clutter makes you a quitter” and that a disorganized environment quickly depletes mental resources necessary to be productive.

Their research highlights a host of interesting questions and issues for classroom teachers.  We often have to support and teach students who seem distractible, unable to focus, or who struggle to maintain persistence on a task.  Could it be that a cluttered environment is making it worse for them?  So, it may be time to do a room check.  Put yourself in the shoes of your students (or, more accurately, put yourself in their desks) and consider the visual clutter, the organization of the learning materials, and the overall environment.  While few would suggest that a sterile learning environment is best for kids, we might be to take an honest look at the clutter-factor in our classrooms.

Read more about their research at


Chae, Boyoun and Shu, Rui, “Environmental Disorder Leads to Self-Regulatory Failure”, Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 40, April 2014.



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