The key to a great idea is finding a great problem to solve in the first place, and the richest ones for innovation are often labelled ‘wicked problems’.   (McIntosh, 2014, p.78).


Wicked problems are complex, far-reaching, invite a multiplicity of solutions (Rittel & Weber, 1973, in Melles, 2010) and can appear overwhelming.  Breaking a great wicked problem into smaller components makes the possibility of achieving solutions more feasible.


The subject of this paper represents one of those smaller components: a case study of the impact of a changed physical learning space on student use of resources in a school library collection.   It is one aspect of a more complex wicked problem about how to foster a love of reading in all of the school community. This paper will describe how the change to a learning space (a local reading challenge hereto referred to as SPRC) originally designed by a teacher-librarian in a primary school (Quinlan, 2014A) was conceived, lead and managed; analyse the choice of processes used to re-design the space; consider how attitudes and assumptions can affect the design of a learning space; and explore how collaboration and communication strategies used by a design team impact on the re-design of a learning space. The paper will conclude by highlighting aspects of effective leadership management practice evident in the case study, and recommendations as to how change in learning spaces could be better lead or managed in the future at this organisation.


Blyth (2012, p.264) writes “…good design is about creating physical environments that support educational needs” and reading is arguably one of education’s most important needs. Teacher-librarians in primary schools have an important role to play in designing experiences to help foster a love of reading by pulling, rather than pushing people into wanting to read more, and more widely (Leadbeater & Wong, 2010).


In 2012, a new teacher-librarian noticed that although the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge (PRC) had been running at the school for a number of years, and while its aims were noble: “…to encourage a love of reading for leisure and pleasure in students, and to enable them to experience quality literature…” by reading more and more widely (NSW Department of Education and Communities, 2013), few children seemed interested in participating in it. She also felt that circulation statistics for the school library were not satisfactory and wondered if a reading challenge could be personalised and made more immediate and appealing to the students, and whether this would encourage students to read more, and more widely, by making better use of the school library collection.


The teacher-librarian conceived the idea of the SPRC during the 2012/2013 school holiday break.   A rough prototype was created by her and shared with staff on the first day of school in 2013 (Quinlan, 2014A).   Staff agreed to trialling the idea and children were introduced to the SPRC during lessons in the library in the first week of school.   By the end of 2013 circulation statistics had improved, and 141 students had participated in the SPRC, while only 12 students participated voluntarily in the PRC.


Teachers and students were happy to continue with the SPRC in 2014, but there were some “pains” (McIntosh, 2014, p.73) that needed addressing. The teacher-librarian’s interaction with literature and research about design thinking made her see the potential of viewing the SPRC as a small component of a larger vision, and the possibility of using design thinking processes to make the SPRC more user-centred, rather than focusing on it from simply an organisational perspective (Quinlan 2014B).   The existing SPRC was thus viewed as a prototype. Its shortcomings were observed and evaluated, so that it could be re-designed to meet a variety of users’ needs more effectively (Blyth, 2014).


Originally the SPRC was designed from a narrow perspective – to make it attractive to students and to encourage them to make more use of the school library collection (Kurti, Kurti & Fleming, 2014). Applying design thinking to the re-design of the SPRC in 2014, aided by the use of “How Might We..” questions (, 2012), broadened its scope – how might the re-design of the space and organisation of the SPRC impact on student reading, and how might the processes students used as they participated in the re-designed SPRC impact on their learning? (Oblinger, 2006, Veloso, 2014).  As the design of learning spaces can also be “…a physical representation of …visions and strategy for learning…” (JISC, 2006, p.4), the re-design of the SPRC also had implications for the wider school community. How might staff and parents be made aware of the contemporary pedagogy that underpinned the re-design of the SPRC (Daniel, 2010 in Gutherson & Mountford-Lees, 2011) – learning that is student-centred (Veloso, 2014), active, participatory and experiential (Oblinger, 2006), and where individual choice and ownership were respected (Kurti et al., 2014)?


As the SPRC increased in size and popularity, it had become more “painful” to use and manage. Different users had different kinds of problems that needed resolving (QUINLAN 2014A). It needed to be re-designed.


Kumar (2012, p.9) writes that making use of a participative, iterative design process generally leads to “…more successful innovations, although not if pursued…without discipline.”   To help provide “discipline” to the process of re-designing the SPRC, a choice was made to use McIntosh’s (2014, p.95) beachhead approach (thinking about ideas one group of users at a time), within a framework based on Brown’s (2009) notion of design thinking as a “non-linear, iterative process of inspiration, ideation and implementation” made up of four steps – building empathy for users through immersion, defining the problem, ideating solutions and prototyping them quickly and cheaply. McIntosh’s concept of “working out your beachhead” helped designers to enter the ideating phase of the design process thinking of problems for each group of users one at a time, rather than as one homogenous mass: “Different segments have different expectations and require different approaches, different versions of the same idea to appeal to them.” (McIntosh 2014, p. 96).


Design activity is social (Leifer, Plattner & Meinel, 2013) because innovation “…requires multiple people…to get behind an idea and undertake their own part in achieving it.” (McIntosh, 2014, p.96).   Because “co-creation practiced at the early front end of the design development process can have an impact with positive, long-range consequences” (Sanders & Stappers, 2008, p.9), it was vital that the process to re-design the SPRC was participatory. Involving a range of people in designing for innovation democratises the design process (Kuratko, Goldsworthy & Hornsby, 2012) and also makes use of different kinds and levels of expertise and perspective that people possess, which helps to make the design process “…thorough, inclusive and valuable.” (Kumar, 2012, p.6).


Challenges arose when considering who would participate in the design process, at what level of participation (Woolner, 2009), and at what steps in the design process. Participation by students, staff and parents in some aspects of the design process was invited and encouraged through meetings, brainstorming sessions, surveys, formal and informal conversations. A few unplanned serendipitous moments also contributed to the design process. Not all children felt comfortable questioning or critiquing an adult’s idea, or contributing in group forums, so other avenues were made available to them (eg. choice to post anonymously in feedback blog, even though this meant that designers were not able to follow up on the post). Applying design thinking to the re-design of the SPRC shifted focus beyond organisational requirements to the users’ needs. Because students were the end users of the SPRC, student voice was often given precedence over teacher voice during the prototype phase.


For co-creation to be at its most effective, all participants need to believe that they are creative themselves (Sanders & Stappers, 2008, p9; Robinson, 2011), and this was not always the case, particularly with adults who were sometimes heard to say that they were not creative. People make choices many times throughout the design process, and decisions made at different points throughout the process will give priority to certain values or beliefs over others, based on existing and latent attitudes and assumptions (Mashall, 2008 in Da Silva Vieira et al., 2010).  People make value judgements all the time, based on motivational, cognitive, affective and behavioural based decisions (Da Silva Vieira, Badke-Schaub, Fernandes & Fonseca, 2010). Keeping records of observations and evidence that were gathered to inform the re-design of the SPRC, and referring back to them, helped to ensure that decisions made throughout the design process were well-informed, and not based on assumptions or value judgements that may or may not have been valid.


A person’s mindset, whether it be a fixed (sticking to the status quo) or flexible/growth mindset (learning and relearning to “thrive and survive” (McIntosh, 2014, p. 131) impacts on decision-making.  Re-designing the SPRC benefited from designers with flexible mindsets, who were open to candor. (The creative people from the Pixar Braintrust (Catmull 2014) believe that candor is the key to collaborating effectively.)  A flexible mindset was especially vital to the prototyping phase of the design process where solutions were developed quickly and cheaply so they could be trialled. (Quinlan, 2014C).  The designers were encouraged to hold their ideas “lightly” – thinking of them as possible solutions (McIntosh, 2014) and to separate themselves from their ideas, so that constructive criticism of their solution could be viewed objectively. Kind, helpful and specific feedback (Bergers, 2003, p. 93) was sought from students and teachers, who appeared comfortable giving feedback on what they could see was an unfinished product. Higgins, Hall, Wall, Woolner & McCaughey (2005, p.37) write that the most successful design solutions tend to be the ones which are seen as interim solutions “…which have within them elements of flexibility and adaptability for new cohorts of learners and teachers, new curriculum demands and new challenges.”


Design teams need to be made up of people with different perspectives, experience, and attitudes because innovation does not respect departmental boundaries (McIntosh, 2014) and “…all of us are smarter than any of us” (Brown, 2009, p.3). The design team for the re-design of the SPRC was comprised of the teacher-librarian, a few staff and parents, some children across Kinder to Year 6 and some of the teacher-librarian’s distance-education study cohort. Collaboration and communication between a design team is an essential component of the design thinking process. Collaboration on a design project is not only about listening to people, but promoting interaction and learning from experiences, so the wider the range of participants, the more knowledge and experience designers have access to (Woolner, 2010, in Veloso 2014).   Communication is the key to this.


Leifer et. al. (2013) write about some interesting conclusions from research that indicate that team conflict is not necessarily unproductive, as conflict can “…instigate to invention…shock us out of sheeplike passivity…set us noting and contriving (Dewey, 1922, in Leifer et. al. 2013, p.33), and McIntosh (2014) writes that creative conflict is essential to the design process, as it helps the exploration of options that can make ideas better.   The feedback that the design team sought during the prototype phase is an example of nurturing creative conflict directed at the task.   Seidel & Fixson (2013) write that task conflict can affect performance positively, while relationship conflict always affects teams negatively.


One way of minimising relationship conflict is to establish open and honest communication through use of simple, common language throughout the design process, because “(j)argon is the bane of innovation.”   (McIntosh, 214, p.84). Communicating like this also helps to ensure the democratisation of the design process, meaning that participants can engage with the evidence and ideas generated in language that they understand. Till (2005, in Woolner, 2009, p.7) writes about the “…power and validity of ordinary conversation as a starting point for the participatory process.”


The participants in the design team for the SPRC relied on various modes of communication as they collaborated – face to face conversations, interviews, surveys, email, replies to blog posts, google docs, written post it notes – to cater for a range of preferences, and to gather as much anecdotal evidence as possible. Child and parent participants were more at ease in 1:1 or small group conversations, while communicating in virtual space was the preference for people who were not local, or time-poor. Most communication interactions related to the re-design of the SPRC, only occasionally zooming out to the big picture idea of fostering a love of reading in all of the school community. The nature of the design task meant that use of plain English in conversations was easy to maintain between team members, as there was little need to refer to “vague, policy-like language” (McIntosh, 2014, p.37).  Blyth (2012, p.267) writes that it is important that members of the design team “…speak a common language so they can communicate…” A common language did evolve throughout the design process as the team members communicated with each other. Terms unknown to everyone (many related to technology such as ‘QR codes’, or the library collection such as ‘non-fiction’) were clarified as needed, so that no-one was left out of the participative design process due to misunderstanding of particular terminology.



There were aspects of the case study that represented effective leadership and management of change, however there were also some elements that could be improved on.



Making use of the design thinking process as a framework to re-design the SPRC placed focus on the users of the space as well as the space itself:

  • Having a period of immersion that made use of various data-gathering strategies ensured that various perspectives could be drawn upon throughout the design process (McIntosh, 2014; Brown, 2009).
  • Making use of “How Might We…” questions (dschool, 2012) helped to broaden the scope of the design task, re-imagining the re-design of the SPRC as a smaller aspect of a larger problem that was worth solving. (McIntosh 2014, Melles, 2010)
  • Collaborating with a variety of people in real-time and in cyberspace via feedback on blogs and suggestions in forums (Quinlan 2014C) helped to generate a greater number of solutions to the problems presented by the organisation of the SPRC physical layout. But more importantly, by seeking input and feedback about that space from the users themselves, students learnt first-hand about how collaboration can democratise the design process (Kuratko, et. al., 2012).

Although originally conceived, lead and managed by the teacher-librarian, the participative nature of the re-design process has seen the SPRC evolve into an initiative that is now jointly owned and organised by a broader group of people (Quinlan 2014C):

  • Students like to control their environment, and spaces that accommodate different approaches for different users improves the odds of the effective use of that space (Lomas & Oblinger, 2006, p.5.8). Student participation in the SPRC has become more active, by building on elements of engagement and ownership (Higgins, et. al., 2005). Designing SPRC awards and creating “how-to” videos (Quinlan 2014C) are two examples of how students have shared the ownership of the SPRC by personalising it, and taking responsibility for implementing and maintaining it (Leifer et. al. 2013).
  • The iterative nature of the re-design process informed by feedback and suggestions from users to improve design features, helped the users to feel ownership of the space because they could see their ideas being incorporated into it.



Make the design thinking process more visual:

  • Adapt the ideas of a “bugs list” or “ideas wallet” (McIntosh, 2014) because space constraints do not allow for the creation of a “war room” (Knapp, 2014). Spatial memory is better than short term memory. Ideas are easier to manipulate physically than mentally. (Knapp, 2014)
  • Showing rather than telling ideas helps them to become more concrete and invites collaboration (McIntosh, 2014; Brown, 2009)

Participation can happen at any stage of the design process. “It seems important that it is not seen as an isolated instance, and a more iterative approach seems more likely to be effective.” (Woolner, 2009, p.7):

  • The process of user involvement must be continually refreshed and iterated to support ongoing change. (Higgins, Hall, Wall, Woolner & McCaughey, 2005 in Blackmore, Bateman, Loughlin, O’Mara & Aranda, 2011, p.37). Time and space must be organised to allow for participation by various people throughout the design process. Student participation was more “…about consultation rather than more active participation.” (Woolner, 2009, p.9)
  • Involving students and staff in the design process may present challenges in relation to differences in power and status, both real and perceived (Woolner, 2009, p.13). Students (and possibly parents) need to feel safe and valued and know that their voice will be heard throughout the design process.
  • Enlisting the support of users as co-design partners is both feasible and provides for highly interesting and useful outcomes recognising that space design is a process, not a product and must involve all interested parties (Oblinger, 2006 in Reushle, 2012, p.99). Involve users in ideating and prototyping, rather than just observing them during immersion, or getting their feedback on a prototype.

Design should not just be about ease of use, it should also be about satisfaction of an experience, and enhanced usage. (Edmonds & Hewett, 2010)

  • Make use of McIntosh’s (2014) beachhead approach to apply design thinking principles and processes to other aspects of the larger “wicked” problem, such as relevance of current library collection, types of resources, developing a love of reading in parents, the concept of “reading” digital mediums.
  • Quantitative data about the number of participants and circulation statistics has provided some evidence as to the success of the SPRC. There is a need to collect ongoing qualitative data from students, staff and parents to determine how they feel about the experience of the SPRC, and how it has impacted on their attitudes about reading.
  • Consideration will need to be given to how to engage students in the SPRC in the long term, so that it “…remain(s) hot (or at least warm enough) on repeated experiences.” (Edmonds & Hewett, 2010, p.144) It is worth thinking about the SPRC as a project constantly in beta, an ongoing project that has no end (McIntosh, 2014). It is a service, rather than a fixed structure, so it has the capacity to constantly evolve.


Learning spaces are the visualisation of an ethic and vision. (Berger, 2003). They “…can serve as effective teachers, but they may also obstruct the learning process if they are inadequate.” (Veloso, 2014, p. 6). It is important to get the re-design of the SPRC right. It is a great idea that has the potential to contribute to the achievement of the grander “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (McIntosh, 2014) of fostering a love of reading in all of the school community.





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