Rob Levit | November 2013

Touchpoint Ideas for Effective Classroom Environments

Design is an integral part to any effective classroom. Creative principles used by product inventors, graphic designers, interior decorators and architects have now crossed over into mainstream business thanks to the ever-popular TED talks and “design evangelist” firms like IDEO who offer free resources to educators to use the principles effectively.

As a visual artist and musician, I have always had a keen eye for design. So when visiting schools, I can’t help but notice the layout and mood of the classrooms. After hundreds of classroom visits, I’ve observed a few key components of design that engage and encourage students in their own creativity.  Here are five tips to start the using design process as a lead-in to a better experience for you and your students:

1. Make your teaching style visible and personal.

If you are an elementary school teacher, your students will be spending all day with you. They will see and hear you more than any other adult figure for nearly ten months! You have an individual and excellent teaching style and it should be displayed in a way that is very visible to the students. Maybe it’s a spot near your desk with a map of the state you are from and pictures of your favorite figures from history and music. Perhaps you have your college banner hanging and a picture of a pet.

We need to demonstrate to our students that our classrooms are personal learning environments and that as educators we take pride in then and enjoy teaching there. Students want to know appropriate details about you and pictures of your influences and inspirations demonstrate that you are interesting and successful and that they can be too. Pride in the design of your classroom will not go unnoticed by students (and other teachers).

2. Display with intent – where you place things matters!

Recently I was in an elementary school classroom where the International Baccalaureate Learner Profile and the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice were printed on 8 1/2 x 11 paper and posted in a remote corner. These types of displays should be large and prominent in a very visible location so that students can practice using the language in an overt and explicit way. They need this language to establish deep connections between WHAT they are learning and WHY they are learning it. Out of sight, out of mind in the case of this classroom meant students have less of an opportunity to create connections. If it’s important and referenced frequently it needs to be visible and big.

3. Understand the touchpoints.

We are “big adults” but do consider how students, our precious “little people” view the classroom? Most students walk in the door and the only places they have access to are their own desks. In the restaurant business (where I have trained and worked with many staff),  we refer to touchpoints – that’s every place that the customer “touches” in a visit. Make a simple map of your classroom. Is each part of your classroom accessible to students? Are the most important resources the most visible? It’s remarkable how complex the map can be and how many small changes – placement of visuals, different desk arrangements, team learning stations, etc. – can make a big difference in student engagement. More on this idea in a minute.

4. Space to move around

Classrooms are tight, space is at a premium! However, that doesn’t change the fact that students, need to move around. Take inspiration from the positive “flash mobs” and gently guide your students to practice moving their desks back to create some room to move. When working with a second-grade class, I realized they were “squirmy” and had been sitting for several hours prior to my arrival. The teacher was excited when we had a dance party five-minute yoga stretch and to get the students reinvigorated after a long morning of sitting. This will never work if we are afraid of moving desks. But this can be a design game – practice, with intent, moving desks to create open space.

5. Balance neat with messy and messy with neat.

An art room with no student art displayed. A 5th-grade class that was messy but not intentionally so. For an effective classroom, we need to balance messy and neat. A cluttered workspace can translate into scattered learning with too many distractions. A workspace that is devoid of student work and messy areas can make for a clinical and antiseptic learning environment. Students need classrooms that teach creativity and therefore reflect the mess of creativity as well the neatness of good executive functioning. Messy or neat, student work should be visibly displayed and referred to. When student work is displayed, students feel valued. Don’t just let it hang there, keep referring to it and activate prior learning by asking HOW it relates to what they are learning now.


The Touchpoint Approach

Touchpoints were first used in restaurant training and customer experience design. Basically, to make a space more effective for users or customers, we examine all the key places that they visit. In a restaurant, it’s places like the host station, server, bar, table, restroom, etc. For a customer to gain the maximum positive experience, all of these touchpoints have been carefully examined and tended to by restaurant management. Think of the best restaurant you have ever been to. It wasn’t that way by accident! It was designed to be exceptional, thematic and fun.

See where I am going with this? Our classrooms need to be designed in much the same way a fine restaurant is – with intention. Our students, gulp, are our customers. They have to “buy-in” to the overall experience and the more we have considered the effective and positive flow of the classroom experience the more students will buy-in, enjoy learning and keep coming back for more. So, how do we do that?

I have identified four core touchpoint categories – physical, emotional, mental and creative – that can be used as a launching pad for the flowing and effective classroom space. Here are some easy strategies and classroom arrangement ideas within each of these categories to get you going. Experiment, choose one or two and see what happens:

  1. Is entering your classroom special? How do you greet students? When students “cross the threshold” into a new classroom setting it is a golden opportunity to capture their attention. I always greet students at the door while making eye contact and encourage them as they exit to “take the learning with you, use it and share it.”
  2. How do you signal that your class is different from the previous one as students enter?
  3. Is there a physical signal such as a  signature or theme song playing as they enter the room? How about the theme music to “Rocky” or “Chariots of Fire” signaling they are champion learners!
  4. Do the students have a special saying, motto, or greeting that they offer to you as they enter the classroom? Ask them to write one and say it as they enter. “It’s math class, we’re up to the task, we master what we’re asked” for example.
  5. Have you tried handing them index cards as the enter and asking them to write down what they remember from yesterday’s lesson as they enter and beginning the class with a group share?
  6. As you look around your classroom, are the key learning posters front, center and visible and referred to on a daily basis?
  7. Why do you have your room set up the way it is? What one small change might capture the students’ attention? Make it a small one, related to the lesson, and give them clues. Perhaps a new map of Asia is in a place where the European map used to be? Activate student learning by asking them to observe what’s changed in the space.
  8. Is there a way to easily move the desks to create some open space for movement? Get students in circles and pass ideas and concepts around the circle.
  9. Is there a system in place to have students work in collaborative teams? Create creative group names like The Innovators, The Explorers, The Designers, The Detectives, etc. and roll dice to get them in groups.
  10. What items in your room can students relate to on an emotional and visceral level?
  11. Can you introduce a lesson with images from their favorite sports, music or movie stars?
  12. Can you identify real-life connections with the lessons they are learning?
  13. What is in your room that’s created collaboratively? A plant project, group circle map, sentence strips strung across the room with key concepts they have identified?
  14. Always show a big challenge problem or ask a big question that frames the dialogue for the rest of the class. Make the lesson “life worthy” in Harvard Project Zero lingo. If your class is studying fractions and decimals? Then show a colorful picture of a mosaic on the smartboard. Better yet, hand them colored squares and have them, as a group, create a simple mosaic as class begins. If studying immigration, ask them to tell their stories.

There are infinite ways to harness the physical, emotional, mental and creative space in your classroom. Consider how design can be utilized in yours for an effective classroom experience for all learners.


About the Author

Rob Levit, an acclaimed musician and artist and 2013 Innovator of the Year from the Maryland Daily Record, has created award-winning innovative "Life-Skills Through The Arts" programs for adults with mental illness, the homeless, adults in drug and alcohol recovery, youth in domestic/sexual abuse counseling, foster children, hospital patients, veterans and many more. He is currently Executive Director of Creating Communities and was the first Artist-In-Residence at Hospice of the Chesapeake, where he created and infused healing activities for the well-being of staff, families and patients. Email Rob.