Designing Spaces for Learning – Case Report

This is my case report assignment as part of INF536 Designing Spaces for Learning with Ewan McIntosh.


The case study report explores the conception, management and impact of how a change in a physical space was done to influence student learning. The report will describe and critically analyse the parameters of ‘choice of process’, ‘the nature of work groups and teams’ and ‘exterior pressures and design constraints’; using literature and examples to inform the process of designing spaces for learning. Recommendations will be made from the analysis to inform the design practice and how learning space design can be improved in future scenarios.


Case Development

This case study analyses the process that took place at a K-12 school in Maryborough, Queensland, Australia during 2012 to 2013. Over the past several years the school had undergone rapid growth and expansion, with enrolments increasing by more than 20% per year. In late 2012 the decision was made to move the library from its existing space into a new building that had been commissioned for 2013. The old library space was created when the school was still a relatively small school of less than 200 students. By 2013 the school had over 600 students enrolled, and with future predictions of over 800 students by 2016. This meant that the old library space no longer would be able to serve the school cohort and there was no space for senior students especially to have study time, nor space for junior school students to explore, such as makerspaces. The new building block that was proposed would include two science laboratories and a performing arts area on the top floor, and the bottom floor would serve as the new library space; with two general classrooms on the side. The new space was envisioned to be a hub for learning, with more study space for senior students and greater access to an open space for junior students for reading and storytelling activities. The funding came about through increased expenditure by the Australian government through the Building Education Revolution funding.


The decision to add new buildings, and the management of them at the school, is done with a team involving the architects, school building project manager, construction foreman and the school principal, as well as some input from the school board members. There was some consultation with the librarian, but she had decided to return to classroom and would not be part of this new space. No other teachers or students were consulted in the design and conceptualisation process. The management and leadership of the space design involved regular meetings between the project manager, the architect and the builder. They met and discussed the school space requirements, considered the legislation and building code aspects, and decided upon the layout of the building. The project team made all decisions regarding furniture, fittings and decor. This management and design of the space is an interesting element to explore as it looks at who actually controls the space design, in particular with regards to the design being done ‘at’ the users rather than ‘with’ them (Kimbell, 2011).


Furthermore the issue that arises from this, is that the power controlled by a few in designing spaces for learning leaves the actual users with no voice in the process. The choices that the design team makes can, and is, heavily influenced by financial constraints; but also the nature of the work group designing it. The biggest concern with non-teachers and non-students designing the spaces is that the pedagogical input is absent. The following critical analysis will look at how this new space was conceived, managed and led to impact learning in the new library.


The Critical Analysis

Choice of Process

The space is a core part of developing a creative culture at a school (McIntosh, 2015c), with every new space creating an unique possibility to impact learning. Teaching and pedagogy change over time and buildings need to be able to respond with and to it (Blyth, 2013, p. 264). The actual way of going about it is key to the successful creation, management and implementation of a change of space. The design starts as a cloudy idea about how it should look or how it should work (Razzouk & Shute, 2012, p. 335), and then eventually progresses into new innovations to meet the needs and wants of a growing school. According to the JISC report, “Effective dialogues are needed to establish what will be required from the learning spaces” (Joint Information Services Committee, 2006, p. 10). Flynn also agrees that doing research is crucial, but at the start it is imperative to define the vision for the change (Flynn, 2008, p. 24).


The establishment of the pedagogical aims at the onset is crucial before any design process can begin (Joint Information Services Committee, 2006, p. 6). As Andrew Blyth points out, “To create a well-designed school you need to invest in the whole design process, which is all about enabling the architect to get a good understanding of the educational needs of the school client,…”(Blyth, 2013, p. 265). In the case study however, this does not take place. The design is purely focused on the creation of a large space to house the library. There is no consideration of the pedagogical vision for the space, nor is there research conducted to gather insight on how modern library spaces are being utilised.


There are some common elements of how to go about the management of the whole change process in various literatures. Seidel and Fixson (2013, p. 20) describe this process as ‘Need-finding’, where the focus is gaining insight through observation, empathy and immersion into the user’s context. Brown and Katz (2011, p. 382) agree that the process needs to start with intense observation and immersion to gain insight in how space can be used and to develop empathy for the users. Tim Brown (2009, p. 1) also points out, “Design is human-centred”, and as such the people using it always need to be considered in the process of changing a space. Kuratko, Goldsworthy and Hornsby (2012) further explain that the gathering of information from a variety of sources is needed to help with decision-making (p. 114). The case study appears to have not followed what the literature proposes, as there was no immersion or observation by the individuals tasked to manage the change. The case study observed turned out to be a very designer-centric approach that did not allow for understanding of pedagogical aims, but rather purely on building design.


The nature of work groups and teams

Each space is unique, and requires a shared responsibility and ownership by all stakeholders for successful change (du Toit, 2015).There is multiple different literatures that share similar views on how important the design team is for the successful creation of new spaces. Design involves all members of the team or groups to have a shared responsibility in the design process (McIntosh, 2015a). As Flynn points out, building a stakeholder team that has representation of potential users and nonusers of a space, includes a diversity of individuals in the planning team (Flynn, 2008, p. 24). This team needs to have a combination of pragmatics and creative people, all of whom are open and willing to listen to different viewpoints (Flynn, 2008, p. 24).


These teams could be a formal ‘space management team’ (Joint Information Services Committee, 2006, p. 13), an ‘interdisciplinary team’ for complex problem-solving (Brown & Katz, 2011, p. 381), or a ‘multidisciplinary team’ (Seidel & Fixson, 2013, p. 19). The best designers don’t work alone, their designing and redesigning requires collaboration between teams of people with different disciplines, and insights are gained where they interconnect (Gardiner, 2013, p.5). The multidisciplinary teams that Seidel and Fixson refer to able to attempt a broader range of challenges and they allow creative ideas to flourish (Seidel & Fixson, 2013, p. 19). Blyth mentions that for teams to function to their highest capacity the designers and educators need to speak the same language (2013, p. 267). The design in education needs to be more ‘us-with-them’ (Brown & Katz, 2011, p.32), and focus on all relevant stakeholders. This means that effective change cannot occur without the input from teachers and students. It is therefore essential that learners also need to be involved in the design process of learning spaces (Joint Information Services Committee, 2006, p. 4). The continuous input of students is an essential ingredient in an effective design process to create learning spaces (Souter, Riddle, Sellers, & Keppell, 2011, p. 14).


The case study does not match with these findings at all. The case study shows that the group or team designing the spaces is a very narrow, confined composition. All the literature points to having a diverse group; including teachers and students, but also allowing all groups to have input in the design process. Without the end-users involved in the team it makes it very difficult for teachers, or students, to feel any ownership of the space. The team in the case study has also been involved in many other projects, and this could lead to them being more skilled in decision-making, but at the same time the assumptions, motivations and conservatism of the group never allows creativity or experimentation to take place.


Exterior pressures and design constraints

New facilities are long-term investments that require significant capital outlay and a number of different constraints need to be considered (Joint Information Services Committee, 2006, p. 3). When considering the different pressures or constraints, the design team always needs to return to what type of learning they want to see take place there. To do this, there needs to be a deep understanding of the pedagogy involved for the space (McIntosh, 2015b), and this links back to the composition of a design team needed to include all stakeholders to give that diverse perspectives that teachers and students could provide. Tim Brown explains it very well that dealing with design, the desirability, viability and feasibility drives any new project (Brown, 2009, p. 3). There are many diverse requirements to consider, from construction materials, government funding specifications, building code legislation, state and local council legislation, and a host of other areas to consider, based on where the project takes place.


The design brief needs to offer flexibility, but at the same time it is crucial to be very specific in dealing with the conflicting constraints. School systems are motivated to improve spaces, but external pressures and uncertainty about the future often hamper them. Kuratko et al. (2012) says that these constraints need to be accepted and embraced; and that competing constraints are the foundation of design thinking (p.110). According to Alastair Blyth, one of the biggest constraints that school have to deal with is money and they have to work within this (Blyth, 2013, p. 264). Buildings are expensive, and there is an acceptance that new buildings need to be future orientated and allow for flexibility to adapt.


The case study that has been examined does appear to match several of the points that deal with external pressures. There is ample consideration taken of legislative and financial constraints when designing the space. This is managed well with utilising government funding and having an expert on the different legal requirements as part of the planning team. The area that is absent however is the focus on the learning, the pedagogy, for the space and how the different constraints impact this. There is also minimal use of creativity to consider alternative design elements, and as such the case study fails in developing innovative new strategies.



The physical learning environment plays a central role in reforming the operational culture of a school (Kuuskorpi & González, 2011, p. 2) Unfortunately the new library space design suffers from a range of untapped resources and possibilities. With the project team being very designer-centric, it meant that there was little room for creativity, user input or pedagogical considerations. Therefore the lack of diverse input through teachers, students, community and others means that there is a lack of ownership felt by the users. Furthermore, the space ended up being inflexible and constraining; and as Kuratko et al. (2012, p. 104) states, “ A well-designed artefact is embraced by the target audience, whereas bad design leaves the user confused and/or uninterested in the artefact.” Many issues could have been avoided and the following recommendations are to be considered to improve the process in the future.




  • The design team needs to be able to embrace the first stage of developing new ideas. This means being able to immerse themselves in observing how spaces are used. Quite often architects do not fully appreciate the nuances in education (Blyth, 2013, p. 267), and by having architects meet with teachers and do first-hand observation, it will offer them greater perspective.
  • Similarly, educators are not always able to read architectural plans and drawings, and careful consideration needs to be addressed with how communication takes place (Blyth, 2013, p. 267). By working on the means of communication it will enable misinterpretation to be avoided.
  • Part of observation involves developing the opportunity to grow empathy for the actual users of the spaces. Design planning needs to be able to utilise this and become much more user-centric, rather than design-centric. As Brown and Katz (2011) point out, design needs to put people first (p. 382).
  • When developing new designs it also important to consider developing prototypes that will allow users to critique and provide feedback. Feedback is extremely powerful in adjusting designs early on in the process. Designers need to be able to step back from their ideas and let others critique them, and this will allow real and rapid impact (Gardiner, 2013, p. 7).
  • The changes proposed to a learning space needs to involve teachers and students. No change will be successful if it does not involve them (Kuuskorpi & González, 2011, p. 6) . The space alone won’t greatly impact the learning, but when the school community is involved with the process, the impact increases significantly (McIntosh, 2015d).
  • A major flaw in the design of the space in the case study is the composition of the project team. To enable more creative, collaborative and pedagogical input it is crucial that the group consist of a greater mix of relevant individuals.
  • Consideration of changing the process from being ‘top-down’ to a more ‘bottom-up’ approach through reflective practice (Woolner, McCarter, Wall & Higgins, 2012, p. 46). This would mean involving students, allowing them the opportunity to have their voices heard. This could be through surveys, focus groups, brainstorming activities, informal discussions or focused ideation. Thinking about, and how, the students are impacted needs to be at the forefront of all considerations.
  • Tom Kelly suggests that there is a need to create an environment where creativity can happen through haphazard insights, chance encounters and productive mistakes (Kelley, 2014). In a school setting it could involve setting up a model, or board that showcases possible designs. Students, parents and teachers could access this and provide comments and suggestions. This will allow new insights to come about to assist the architects and planners.
  • Good teamwork, collaboration and communication is crucial for groups. The participants need to be open, flexible and willing to engage in the process to determine the best outcomes for the problem identified. This can be enhanced when the team is a multidisciplinary group (Seidel & Fixson, 2013, p. 19). By building the relationships within the team it will allow for positive interactions to flourish.
  • The creation of a ‘war room’ where the design team can come together, immersed in the problem with diagrams, notes and images (Knapp, 2014). Here they will be able to gain a better understanding of the constraints and allow ideas to develop. The physical nature of the ‘war room’ artefacts allows the team to find potential links between ideas and previously disparate ideas (Kolko, 2012).
  • Final recommendation involves the point that even if the change in space is completed, “there needs to be a behavioural change in relation to planning and producing spatial solutions”, to better serve future dynamic physical learning environments (Kuuskorpi & González, 2011, p. 6)
  • It needs to become an ongoing process that uses the power of feedback to improve and evolve. As Ron Berger mentions in ‘Austin’s Butterfly (Expeditionary Learning, 2013), “kind, specific and useful feedback” allows for improvement over time, and this is what all designs need to aim for.



Blyth, A. (2012). Design of Education, Pan European Networks: Government 04, 264-267. Retrieved from


Brown, T. (2009) Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. Summary by Get Abstract. Retrieved from:


Brown, T., & Katz, B. (2011). Change by Design. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 28(3), 381–383. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5885.2011.00806.x


du Toit, J. (2015, September 7). Literature critique INF536. [Blog post]. Retrieved from


Expeditionary Learning. (2013, October 9). Austin’s Butterfly: Building Excellence in Student Work – Models, Critique, and Descriptive Feedback [Video File]. Retrieved from


Flynn, W. (2008). Built to Last. Community College Journal, 79(2), 22-28. Retrieved from


Gardiner, E. (2013). Changing behaviour by design: Combining behavioural science with design-thinking to help organisations tackle big social issues. Design Council & Warwick Business School. Retrieved from:


Joint Information Services Committee. (2006). Designing Spaces for Effective Learning. Retrieved from


Kelley, T., (2014, January 10). Invite serendipity to your cafe and expect innovation. Wired UK. Retrieved from

Kimbell, L. (2011). Rethinking design thinking: Part I. Design and Culture, 3(3), 285-306. Retrieved from


Knapp, J. (2014). Google ventures: Your design team needs a war room. Here’s how to set one up, Fast Company. Retrieved from:


Kolko, J. (2010). Abductive thinking and sensemaking: The drivers of design synthesis. Retrieved from


Kuratko, D., Goldsworthy, M., & Hornsby, G. (2012). The design-thinking process in innovation acceleration : Transforming organizational thinking, 103-123. Retrieved from


Kuuskorpi, M. & González, N. C., (2011), The Future of the Physical Learning Environment: School Facilities that Support the User, CELE Exchange, Centre for Effective Learning Environments, 2011(11), DOI:


McIntosh, E. (2015a). Designing with Intent [INF536 Module 3.1]. Retrieved August 19, 2015, from


McIntosh, E. (2015b). Design strong spaces: design strong learning [INF536 Module 4.2]. Retrieved August 21, 2015, from


McIntosh, E. (2015c). Creative Culture [INF536 Module 5]. Retrieved September 17, 2015, from


McIntosh, E. (2015d). From failing school, to flying colours: technology, space, community and perseverance [INF536 Module 7.3]. Retrieved September 28, 2015, from


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


Seidel, V. P., & Fixson, S. K. (2013). Adopting design thinking in novice multidisciplinary teams: the application and limits of design methods and reflexive practices: adopting design thinking in novice teams. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 30, 19–33. doi:10.1111/jpim.12061


Souter, K., Riddle, M., Sellers, W., & Keppell, M. (2011). Spaces for knowledge generation. Final report. Australian Teaching & Learning Council. Retrieved from


Woolner, P., McCarter, S., Wall, K., & Higgins, S. (2012). Changed learning through changed space: When can a participatory approach to the learning environment challenge preconceptions and alter practice? Improving Schools, 15(1), 45-60, Retrieved from

Online Reflective Journal Blog Task 1

The problem space is located in a room in the library that has been made into a teaching classroom for small senior classes, due to the school growing rapidly and not enough other rooms being available. The room is very generic, with dimensions of only 6m x 5m, 7 tables, 14 chairs. The room has access to a data projector, a whiteboard, one power outlet and two walls that can be used. The third wall has large windows that have a strong glare from sunlight that has no blinds or curtains. The room is shared between three teachers across six different subjects; as well as an IT support room during 1st break. The challenge then is to come up with a space that will be flexible, and at the same time meet the needs of the users (the students and teachers).

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Design is the link between creativity and innovation (Temple, 2010) and this allows ideas to become reality. With design being the process that converts ideas into something tangible (Kuratko, D., Goldsworthy, M., & Hornsby, G., 2012, p. 103), it becomes crucial to understand the why and how to do design thinking. At the heart of design thinking is the user and this is reflected in many readings. Brown (2009) states that the insight into how people actually use things is central to design thinking, by observing what people actually do, noting what they don’t do, and understanding what they don’t or can’t explain about what they do. Brown (2009) also contends that designers need empathy to consider how consumers (students) actually experience things. Kuratko et al (2012) supports this when they state that design needs to keep the user in mind and include them in the design process to allow immediate feedback. Brown also further adds that ‘We need to learn to put people first’ (2009, p.39).

To discover a new solution using design thinking, it will require that there is a ‘collective ownership of ideas with sharing of responsibility’ (Brown, 2009). With this in mind, I need to involve both myclasses, and my colleagues and their classes, in the discussion/process. This will allow students to also be able to “deal with difficult situations and to solve complex problems in school, in their careers, and in life in general”. (Razzouk, R. & Shute, V., 2012, p.14). Design thinking requires acceptance of constraints and it can actually invigorate designers to come up with solutions (Kuratko et al, 2012). By embracing and recognising the constraints it allows you to explore what is technically feasible and commercially viable (Brown, 2009). At the same time, I need to remember some of the key attributes designers need like flexibility, focus, inspiration, proactive and humility (Kuratko et al, 2012). As design thinking is frequently cited as involving three parts (Seidel & Fixson, 2013) that develop with the constraints of feasibility, viability, desirability (Brown, 2009): Need-finding, Ideation, Prototyping.

To start the change, I will involve the different groups in brainstorming and observing how each class interacts with the space. Then we can proceed to trial a few changes to enhance the learning environment. The great beauty of design thinking is that, as Razzouk & Shute (2012) describe it, it is “an analytic and creative process that engages a person in opportunities to experiment, create and prototype models, gather feedback, and redesign.” The changes will be quickly implemented, and be adjusted as I gather feedback and iterate more.


Brown, T. (2009). Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. HarperBusiness. p.37.
Kuratko, D., Goldsworthy, M., & Hornsby, G. (2012). The design-thinking process in innovation acceleration : Transforming organizational thinking. (pp.103-123). Boston : Pearson. /ereserve/pdf/kuratko-d1.pdf
Razzouk, R., & Shute, V. (2012). What is design thinking and why is it important? Review of Educational Research, September, 82 (3), 330–348. /82/4/483.full.pdf+html
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.
Temple, M. (2010). The design council: A review. Department for Business, Industry and Skills (UK). Retrieved from: council-review.pdf
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