Conceiving Spaces for Learning

A Literature Critique

This discourse explores the six publications listed below in an attempt to give voice to the challenges facing learning institutes in conceiving spaces for learning that are, in the end, likely to meet the ever-evolving needs of learners well into the future.

Brown, T. (2009). Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. HarperCollins e-books.

Dovey, K., & Fisher, K. (2014). Designing for adaptation: the school as socio-spatial assemblage, The Journal of Architecture, 19:1, 43-63

Hatchuel, A., & Weil, B. (2003). A new approach of innovative design: An introduction to C-K theory. Retrieved from

Kuratko, D., Goldsworthy, M., & Hornsby, G. (2012). The design-thinking process in innovation acceleration : transforming organizational thinking. (pp.103-123). Boston : Pearson

Razzouk, R., & Shute, V. (2012). What is design thinking and why is it important? Review of Educational Research, September, 82 (3), 330–348

Seidel, V., & Fixson, S. (2013). Adopting design thinking in novice multidisciplinary teams: The application and limits of design methods and reflexive practices. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 30, 19–33.


The design of learning environments is undergoing major upheaval driven by changes in pedagogy (Dovey & Fisher, 2014). Students now interact and learn in physical and virtual spaces where new cultures of learning are being explored (AITSLEDUAU, 2012). Thought leaders such as John Seely Brown discuss a need to completely rethink the learning scape and invent new types of institutional forms (DMLResearchHub, 2012). Seely Brown poses a design question by asking what our education institutes will look like five or ten years from now? To perceive these future learning spaces, that will meet the ever evolving needs of learners, may be perceived as a wicked design problem.  These are design problems that are ill formed, the information is confusing, there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing (Buchanan, 1992). What we do know is that learning spaces often reflect the people and learning approach of the times, so spaces designed in the past are not likely to fit perfectly with students in present or future education (Oblinger, 2006). In fact, a classroom design that does not correspond to the teaching method used primarily creates considerable strain for learners and teachers (Arndt, 2012). To look for ways forward, learning Institutes are grappling with how future classrooms should be designed and architects are questioning how they should respond in their practices to changing pedagogy (Dovey & Fisher, 2014).


Educators reflecting on the interplay between theories of learning and theories of design will most likely ponder if they can be active participants in the design process of new new learning spaces. Indeed, if architects are asking how they should respond to changes in pedagogy then stakeholders in learning institutes should be asking how they can contribute their deep understanding of teaching and learning to the design process. Design has been perceived as being the purvey of designers (McIntosh, 2014) and yet thought leaders in design are now declaring that “design has become too important to be left to designers” (Brown & Katz, 2011, p. 381) and that we can all be designers. Architects are also calling for high levels of collaboration (Fisher, 2007). Yet the novice designer may be left struggling to develop a working understanding of design, especially when also trying to develop an understanding of design thinking. An exploration of the literature shows that there is no obvious consistency in the definition of design itself and that this leads to confusion for the reader when trying to develop a coherent understanding of design and design thinking. Indeed one learns that there is a need to unpack concepts of design before exploring the concept of design thinking.

A theoretical exploration of design theory is initially confusing for the reader unfamiliar with the process of design, due to the difficulty in relating the language (semantics) and mode of reasoning used to real world problems. A reading of Kuratko, Goldsworthy and Hornsby (2012) provides a definition of design that is palatable for the novice designer. These authors state very purposefully that design is a “process that converts ideas into form, whether that is a plan of action or a physical thing” (p. 103). These authors state that the artefact that is produced can be a product, service, process or business model. This idea is supported by a description of design as being a highly synthetic process beginning with a brief and ending with a product (Razzouk & Shute, 2012, p. 330). Thus the reader can easily perceive that design is about making things via a process.

However, tension does appear in the literature when transitioning to a more theoretical perspective of design. For instance, according to C-K Theory (Hatchuel & Weil, 2003) design is a form of reasoning where the designer explores a space of concepts and a space of knowledge. According to this theory, design is also a process that results in the generation of new concepts and new knowledge. This publication also describes design as a process by which a concept generates other concepts or is transformed into knowledge.

This publication grapples with many abstract ideas but it does attempt to offer a definitive definition of design by stating that it is a process by which unknowns can intentionally emerge from knowns. The authors state that the creation of new knowledge is a necessity of any design process or “Design is the process by which K→ C disjunctions are generated, then expanded by partition or inclusion into C→ K conjunctions.” (p. 8). Hatchuel & Weil, 2003 p. An understanding of these concepts assists with developing an understanding of other explorations of design and the design process. For example, Dovey & Fisher (2014) ask what type of architecture shows a capacity to adapt to change and remain open to new pedagogies, designing what these authors describe as resilient schools.

The tension in these descriptions of design is perhaps best perceived as a dualism between thinking and doing in design (Kimbell, 2012). The tension that exists in literature lies in the struggle to view design as something that the designer does or the way they think.  For key stakeholders from learning institutes this dualism may be confusing and lead to the perception of design as a fuzzy concept, whereas it is predicted that in ten years the world’s leading companies will have entrepreneurial designers in their employ (Kuratko et al, 2012).

Design Thinking:

The challenge facing learning institutes in conceiving learning spaces for the future lies in the ability of key stakeholders in education to become involved in the design process. One can argue that these key stakeholders need to not simply know what is meant by design but also be empowered by the design process. They need to become what in literature is described as Design Thinkers. However, what is meant by this term is not always clear.

What is Design Thinking? The designer David Kelley described his workplace culture by saying “we moved from thinking of ourselves as designers to thinking of ourselves as design thinkers. We have a methodology that enables us to come up with a solution that nobody has before.” (Tischler, 2009). These words imply that design thinking is a way of thinking as well as methodology. Once again a dualism exists as to how to describe the process of design and in this particular instance design thinking.

The terminology suggests that design thinking is a way of thinking. However, this understanding is often contradicted by describing design thinking as step wise process. For instance design thinking may be described as a process that involves paraphrasing the problem, divergent thinking, information gathering, customer interaction and prototyping (Kuratko et al, 2012). It is also viewed as an analytical creative process that provides opportunities to experiment, create prototypes, gather feedback and redesign (Razzouk & Shute, 2011). Or, the use of design methods by multidisciplinary teams to solve a broad range of challenges, including stages of needfinding, brainstorming and prototyping (Seidel & Fixson, 2013). With such an approach design thinking is distilled down to a process, a way of doing. Again the dualism of design as doing or thinking reappears.

When exploring design thinking some authors also attempt to describe the characteristics of the designer. For example Razzouk and Shute (2012) state that a designer is able to visualise, is multifunctional and amongst other characteristics has an affinity for teamwork. Kuratko et al (2012) also provide a description of designerly characteristics – humility, focus and flexibility.  Brown explores design thinking in depth and states that it is deeply human and the phrase is “a way of describing a set of principles that can be applied by a diverse people to a wide range of problems” (Brown, 2009, loc 123). Or, design thinking is a thought process and there are benefits to learning how to think like a designer (Brown & Katz, 2011).

The discord apparent in literature appears to stem from the struggle of how to describe how designers think. An apparent approach is to describe the observable behaviour exhibited by designers and the processes that they might follow, depending on the context of their work. Underlying this desire to describe the steps involved in design thinking may be a desire to formulate the design method; to ‘scientise’ design (Cross, 2000) and perhaps design thinking.

No matter how one might choose to understand design and design thinking, the design process supported by design thinking has the potential to solve wicked and real-world problems (Leifer, Plattner & Meinel, 2013).  Design is the mixing of what currently exists with a possible future to be built (Kuratko et al, 2012) which, in the context of this discourse, includes possible undiscovered learning spaces.

With regard to designing learning spaces our knowledge base of 21st century pedagogy must also inform the design process.

Design, Design Thinking and Pedagogy:

Spaces are themselves agents for change. Changed spaces will change practise. (Oblinger, 2006).

Theories of design and theories of learning intersect at a space that might be described as Built Pedagogy. This concept has been defined as the architectural manifestation of educational philosophies (Monohan, 2000 & 2002) or the ability of space to define how one teaches (Oblinger, 2006). It sits at the intersection of spatial practice and learning theories (Rook, 2013). This concept is a surprise to be encountered in literature and provides a meaningful space in which to reflect on the tension and surprises that exist at the intersection between design and pedagogy.

One of the challenges facing 21st century educators, architects and designers is to reform their worldview of classroom design that was most likely to have been formed in classrooms that were more suited to pedagogy based on behaviourist theories.  Educational objectives have changed from a teacher-centred 20th century factory model and therefore learning spaces must address the educational needs of learners in the 21st century (Blackmore, 2010). What is required now are learning spaces that acknowledge the knowledge economy where new approaches to teaching and learning are required (Cornell, 2002). Certainly, many educators continue to teach in classrooms that are better suited to a pedagogy that delivers to a passive audience.

Traditionally, learning spaces have been designed by architects and designers that replicate contemporary architecture but not explorations of pedagogy. Such a design process that ignores pedagogy often leads to the reproduction of the industrial model of classrooms (Blackmore et al, 2010). This is a concern as it is clear that student-centred pedagogies are constrained by traditional classrooms (Dovey & Fisher, 2014). Thus it will take an innovative approach to rethink both pedagogy and classroom design for what some are calling the knowledge era or conceptual era of education. Kenn Fisher in the essay titled Pedagogy and Architecture (Fisher, 2007) states directly that via collaboration, consultation and an inclusive design process “where architects learn more about pedagogy and teachers more about design” (p. 57) that a common ‘spatial literacy’ may emerge to inform the design of future learning spaces. This idea is a real world example of the call for both the design team and client to practise design thinking (Brown, 2011) and collaborate on the design process.

Where should educators start in this process of conceiving learning spaces of the future?  As illustrated in the blog post titled Problem Spaces (Keily, 2014) they should start small. As this post shows, small changes in learning spaces can lead to insightful observations. Even the student comment recorded in this post “That is not what classrooms look like.” opens a window to worldviews about classroom design and how perhaps redesign can change behaviour.  Design thinking is about immersion and empathy and gaining such insights is the start of the design thinking journey.

“The mission of design thinking is to translate observations into insights, and insights into the products and services that will improve lives.” (Brown, 2011, p. 382)

As recommended by Brown (2009) to move design thinking out of the studio, workers should experiment frequently as well as observe, prototype and brainstorm. Thus key stakeholders in education may overcome some of the challenges of re-conceiving spaces for future learners and learn to engage confidently in this shared responsibility of design.


AITSLEDUAU. (2012, May 7). 21st Century Education [Video file]. Retrieved from

Arndt, P. A. (2012). Design of Learning Spaces: Emotional and Cognitive Effects of Learning Environments in Relation to Child Development. Mind, Brain and Education (6) 1

Blackmore, J., Bateman, D., Loughlin, J., O’Mara, J., & Aranda, G. (2010). The connection between learning spaces and student learning outcomes: a literature review. Melbourne: Department for Education and Early Childhood Development.

Brown, T., & Katz, B. (2011). Change by design. Journal of product innovation management, 28(3), 381-383.

Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking. Design Issues, 8(2), 5–21.

DMLResearchHub. (2012, Sept 18). The global one schoolhouse: John Seely Brown [Video file]. Retrieved from

Fisher, K. (2007). Pedagogy and architecture: Kenn Fisher introduces emerging international trends in school planning and design, and the range of structures being explored across Australia. Architecture Australia, Sept-Oct, 2007, 96(5), p.55-57

Keily, S. (2014). Problem Spaces [Blog Post]. Retrieved from

Kimbell, L. (2012). Rethinking design thinking: Part II. Design and Culture, 4(2), 129-148.

Leifer, L., Plattner, H., Meinel, C. (2013). Design thinking research: Building innovation eco-systems. Springer, London

Leonard, R. (2007). Spaces for learning: Richard Leonard urges architects to embrace the new education pedagogies and to “use the physical environment as a major reform element”. Architecture Australia, 96(5), 59-66.

McIntosh E. (2014). Module 1: Design theory within education contexts. Retrieved from Charles Sturt University website:

Oblinger, G. (Ed.) (2006). Space as a change agent. In G. Oblinger (ed.), Learning Spaces. Ch. 1. Retrieved from

Rook, M. (2013). The Intersection of spatial practices and learning theories. Retrieved from

Monahan, T. (2000). Built Pedagogies & technology practices: Designing for participatory learning. PDC 2000 Proceedings of the Participatory Design Conference. Retrieved from

Monahan, T. (2002). Flexible space & built pedagogy: Emerging IT embodiments. Inventio 4(1).

 Tischler, L (2009). IDEO’s David Kelley on design thinking. Retrieved from

TedTalks (2009). Tim Brown urges designers to think big. Retrieved from

Zeiler, W. (2010). Thinking outside the box: Integral design and C-K concept creation. First International Conference on Design Creativity, ICDC 2010 29 November – 1 December 2010, Kobe, Japan. Retrieved from

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