Want Your Students to Thrive? Put These 6 Design Principles to Work in the Classroom
Every gathering is an opportunity for transformation. But when gatherings are intentionally designed to deepen belonging, powerful growth is possible.
To create a classroom experience that is not just about passing knowledge, but about transforming students in significant ways, we must see ourselves as more than curriculum designers or even facilitators—we must see ourselves as experience designers.
My story as an experience designer starts with growing up in a family that placed a high value on the art of gathering and celebration—dinner parties, family reunions or birthday celebrations. As I grew older, I found that my most significant growth came from experiences of participating in or designing meaningful gatherings that centered a deep sense of belonging: A student diversity conference, working as a counselor at a mindfulness and design thinking summer school, retreats with my college dance company, hosting a purpose retreat for women of color. I left each of these experiences feeling like I had just been sprinkled with magic dust.
I’ve since sought to bring that feeling to all gatherings I design and host, whether they are workshops, retreats, parties or dance classes. My love for experience design led me to join Project Wayfinder as the Director of Education Design where I design the experience of our purpose learning curricula and curate content for teachers and students.
My goal is to bring out a quality of transformation in every experience of the curriculum. I always have four goals in mind:
- Engage students cognitively, socially and emotionally.
- Shift (even slightly) their perspective of themselves, others, and/or the world
- Cultivate a sense of possibility and wonder
- Inspire students to take action and apply new knowledge into their lives
When I design classroom experiences and educator training, the following five principles guide my process.
Set the Container
We know that deepening a sense of belonging is one of the best levers for increasing students’ perseverance and improving their academic behaviors. Intrinsic motivation increases when students feel cared for and connected to others. Setting a container means creating an environment where students feel supported and valued. There are a number of ways to do this:
- Rearrange the physical space. The very first step to setting the container is to pay attention to how the physical space of your classroom signals behavior. Arranging all the chairs into rows signals different behavior than arranging chairs in a circle. Think: How can the set-up of my classroom support the type of engagement I’m hoping for in this class? Perhaps you might dim the lights. Or you might turn on some music and move desks and chairs out of the way for a more experiential lesson.
- Start with an opening ritual. We encourage teachers to co-create an opening and closing ritual with their students. This ritual invites students to step into a new cognitive and emotional space that creates openness and comfort in diving into lesson content. Some ideas we offer are having a student lead short round of ‘Weather Report’ individual emotional check-ins using the metaphor of weather (e.g. feeling partly cloudy, sunny with a chance of rain), taking three breaths as a group or one minute of silence, or naming a Community Agreement that they would like to remember to practice during the lesson.
- Make space for transition. Students may be just arriving to school transitioning from tense family life, affected by what they heard on national/international media, or recovering from news of a bad test grade in their previous class. Conversely, students may be eager to share good news, or transitioning from finishing a big project they were proud of. Giving students an opportunity to check-in before diving into lesson content allows students to arrive fully and be present.
Whether your lesson or advisory session is 20 minutes or 2 hours, setting the container is crucial.
Involve the Body
When designing lessons, it may be easier to find ways to bring in visual and auditory learning modalities, but the kinesthetic is often overlooked. Involving the body not only keeps students more alert and engaged, but also supports students’ memory and learning.
- Leading with experience: We use experiential methods like games, role-plays, puzzles and group challenges to allow students to gain embodied knowledge instead of simply hearing or reading about a topic. For example, in a lesson about working with fear, we start with an experience called Awkward Handshakes where students are invited to silently find a partner, shake hands and make direct eye contact until a bell is rung by the facilitator. Then, we invite them to do it again after a one-minute meditation practice and discuss how the first and second rounds felt different.
- Move at least once an hour. Whether designing for an educator training or for a ninth grade classroom, I make sure that within every hour of classroom content there is at least one opportunity for learners to move—whether it’s simply moving to a different table for a group discussion or a more substantial kinesthetic activity. Brain research shows that movement boosts memory and retrieval as well as motivation and morale. The mind-body link is strong; The part of our brain that processes movement is the same part of the brain that processes learning.
For example, when educators facilitate our Community Agreement activity, we suggest that they write up the agreements onto sheets of poster paper on the walls. Then, we encourage them to invite students to move about the room to ‘star’ the agreements that they feel are most important for them to feel willing to share and feel a sense of belonging within the classroom. While they could easily do this activity without standing up, it allows students an opportunity to move their bodies.
Being more alert and present in our bodies allows us to connect to each other more deeply.
Make the ‘Why’ Clear
For students to achieve deeper learning, they must understand the value of lesson content and be able to connect it to their own lives, their future educational pursuits/careers, or their current interests. Furthermore, we know that students are much more engaged when they know why they are learning something.
- Start with your why. Creating a culture of asking “why” starts with connecting to your personal purpose as an educator. Why do you teach? What impact do you want to have on your students? Sharing your reflections on these questions not only helps us build more meaningful relationships with students, but also helps prevent burnout. Reconnecting with the impact we want to make in the lives of our students allows us to teach with more purpose and inspire students to think about their own “why.”
- Share the why of the lesson. Reflect on why teaching this subject or this lesson is important to you and share your conclusions with your students. This modeling will help prompt their own reflections about the lesson’s relevance in their lives. Research shows that students need a personal connection to information to encode it to memory. Even if students don’t explicitly articulate their desire to know the ‘why’ of the topic at hand, you'll increase engagement and the lesson’s relevance to students if you spend time discussing it.
Offer many ways to participate
An engaging lesson offers many different modalities for reflecting, sharing, and participating. This not only gives students many different approaches to understanding a topic, but also allows students opportunities to connect to each other in ways that are more comfortable (perhaps a pair share instead of a whole-class discussion) or more in their stretch zone (perhaps a whole group share out).
- Introduce new ways to process. Offer a variety of ways for students to share and process information during a lesson. For example, some of our lessons are completely experiential. One lesson called “Myths of Success” invites students to build the best paper tower and then spend the rest of the lesson discussing what ‘best’ means to them. In more discussion-based lessons, we invite students to share using a deep listening structure where one student speaks uninterrupted for five minutes, and then they switch. Another student favorite is an activity where students are invited to ask questions about themselves of someone they’re close to. In our whole group discussions, we sometimes suggest that students first populate the whiteboard with responses before sharing out, or have a moment of silence after a question is posed before inviting students to raise their hands in response.
Depending on their background, students will have different levels of comfort and familiarity with modes of sharing. Offering a variety of approaches to processing information can improve engagement and allow you to learn which approaches help your students best connect with each other.
Creating a transformational experience in the classroom starts with having meaningful and authentic relationships with your students. This means that you can connect to your students in a human way. Students report deeper learning experiences and greater understanding when they perceive their teachers as authentic.
- Storytelling. We can practice vulnerability through telling stories. Our brains love storytelling; evidence shows that when we resonate with a story, we release a neurochemical that increases empathy and connection. In each lesson, we provide teachers with a guiding prompt or question to inspire them to think of a relevant story to share. For example, in a lesson about generating ideas for purposeful projects, we invite educators to share a personal and meaningful project outside of their work. Or in the lesson about joy, we ask teachers to share something that brings them joy that their students may not know about.
- Being real. Authentic teachers share personal stories, admit mistakes, and share their personalities with students. We humanize ourselves when we share our imperfections. We don’t need to share in a way that compromises our leadership, but revealing that we’re fallible allows students to see we are just like them. I remember starting one of the first classes I taught with a short meditation. I admitted that the reason I wanted to start class that way was because I was feeling anxious about teaching my first class. Afterward, my students thanked me for my vulnerability and confided in me about their own anxieties.
A transformative classroom experience comes alive through prioritizing student experience: Do they feel like they belong? Are they able to move their bodies? Can they connect to the ‘why’ of the lesson? Do they have ample opportunities to share and process? Do they feel connected to you, the teacher? When we intentionally design the experience of a lesson, and not just content, we amplify the impact of our teaching and create a classroom atmosphere built on a foundation of safety and belonging where transformation can happen.