Susan Riley | January 2014

EdCloset Best of 2013: Design in the Classroom

This week, the EdCloset staff will be taking time off to enjoy their families and friends during the holidays.  We’ll be using this space to share with you the most popular posts from 2013.  This is a great time to catch up on pieces you may have missed, or to refresh your toolkit as we prepare for the New Year!

Design is all the rage these days. 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 has 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 arrangement, team learning stations, etc. – can make a big difference in student engagement.

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.

How do you design learning experiences for your students?  Do you have certain elements that are unique to your classroom?  What ideas have been successes for you?

Editor’s Note: this article originally appeared on on November 1st by team author Rob Levit.

About the Author

Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, STEAM, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and STEAM education. Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter. Email Susan