Designing Spaces for Learning

My school is quite new, us being in our third year open. It’s a purpose built “modern learning environment” with open plan, flexible spaces and a variety of furniture which can be formed and reformed in various configurations.

While it’s a wonderful space, we’ve found in some respects it’s almost too open. Maybe more accurately, it does not perhaps, provide an adequate amount of spaces and places students can “breakout” from the general melee of hub life to concentrate in a quiet spot. We are a large group of multi-level students, with four teachers, who at any time could be in workshops, independent tasks, or any numbers of things. It’s a bustling, busy, buzzy space – one which, when you put yourself in the shoes of the students, may be somewhat distracting. I don’t think it would work for me as a student, and it frequently doesn’t for me as an adult when I need to get work done.

 Our spaces might benefit from some thinking on its design because there are things we could do to the spaces which may impact student learning. I can see a need not being met and through the design thinking process may be able to provide some solutions.

Having a process to work through is important because it makes sure we are “seeing things through” and moving from hunches and gut feelings (heuristic thoughts) to something more concrete and replicable. It ensures something comes out of that gut space instead of languishing in the mind, half-baked. And as Bennett, in his Ted Talk says, even small changes can have a big impact.

To begin thinking like a designer, one must have certain core competencies. I’m still learning what it takes to do this, but I can already see (and from what I’ve read) you need to be very open – open in terms of putting yourself in a mental space to ideate, open to others’ points of view (to empathise) and open to trying things out, getting feedback, and not being so precious about ideas that you wouldn’t think of changing them (Razzouk).

So I had a tricky design problem as stated above. I defined the problem in my own mind, thought back over some of the issues we’ve had over the years with distractions and incomplete work, took some time to observe the students, and came up with a few ideas.

I broke it down into:

– New things I could add

– Existing things I could remix

– Things I could help others do

 This helped me to come up with a few ideas which I then put into practise:


I introduced two small dome tents into the hub. These wouldn’t cut out much sound, but they would lessen the amount of visual stimulus. I thought about a student in there and realised that you’d probably have other students poking in to see if it was in use or not, so I made up a sign saying “In Use” that students using it could hang up on outside. These were so popular that we had to have a sign up system on the back of the “In Use” sign!


I ran a session with a group of about 25 students about the places and spaces they could use for different purposes. This was originally to explain what I was doing with the tents, but it snowballed into how we could use the existing furniture to signal we were in “flow” and didn’t want to be disturbed. We talked about how our positions (ie body language) could tell people we were “in” our learning (how we could face the wall or window, for example) and about different spaces around the school we could go to do our work they may not have thought of.


After that session I did two further things. I repurposed some cafe table numbers to use as visual signals that people could use if they didn’t want to be disturbed (in case they couldn’t read the body language or positioning). And, with the help of my co-teachers, we made up a “where are you” board which students update through the day. We thought if kids are going to be finding little cracks and crevices around the school during the day, we needed to know where they were in case they were needed.


So that was my first foray into design thinking. I found it tough at the start, but once I put myself in the kids’ shoes, I was able to see what they might require from our spaces, and the ideas flowed from there (albeit slowly at the start).

Blogs I commented on:

Jerry at Thinkspace

Margo’s Reflective Journal

Leading Learning