Problem Spaces

I am intrigued by the paradox of innovation without change that I have discussed elsewhere. I am going to say quite provocatively that I face this paradox every day in the classroom. My students BYOD their devices and have knowledge at their fingertips and yet their engagement levels are low, in fact they are extremely low and I would argue that digital innovation has done very little to increase these students levels of interest in classroom based education.  Perhaps the shiny BYOD devices that appear in these classrooms are a mere result of what Tim Brown (TedTalks, 2009) calls small design. Design as a tool of consumerism.  Maybe significant changes in education are yet to come via the learning and application of design thinking whereby “something unknown can intentionally emerge from what is already known” (Hatchuel, 2004). As I will hint at below, in education, to an extent we are stuck between the old and the new. Perhaps the missing link is pedagogy and learning spaces revitalised by Design Thinking regardless of the tools that are used.

I teach a middle school class (Level 8, as per the Australian Curriculum) in a traditional DEECD supplied relocatable classroom that is basically a square room with the whiteboard at the front of the class. The layout of this classroom is as depicted below (not to scale).

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 9.14.32 am

These Government supplied classrooms can be problematic learning spaces, designed to perhaps sit students at desks, facing the front of the classroom, with the whiteboard being the main feature of the learning space. The physical layout of these rooms tend to encourage a very teacher-centred pedagogy. I would like to suggest they also encourage students to expect a very teacher-centred teaching and learning experience. I have been long intrigued about the call for student-centred learning and how these traditional classrooms we often teach in, in no way facilitate this. There exists a tension between traditional classrooms design and emerging pedagogies. As mentioned in the blog post “Design Thinking: A Human-Centred Approach” without realising it, there exists many biases in education towards the needs of the system. The traditional classroom design presented above might be one of these biases that indirectly dictates the way things happen in education, in this instance in the learning space being discussed.

It is also important to note that my own work desk was situated in an office (labelled in red) adjoining this classroom.

Therefore this learning space would benefit from some thinking on its use with the aim of rendering it into a far more engaging learning space that promotes a student-centred culture of learning. I had an interesting interaction with a student recently during an activity that called for them to re-design the Year 8 Learning Area. Students researched 21st century learning spaces. On viewing the resulting search results one particular student stated  – “That is not what classrooms look like.”

As explored by Tim Brown in the TED Talk referred to above, there is a need for a human centred approach to how people use products of design: in this context we might view the above classroom as a product of design. Karatko (2012) states that everything around us is an outcome of design. Tim Brown declares that the focus of design should be on humans and not institutions and starts with what people need or might need to make life more enjoyable or easier. He states that “It’s often about understanding culture and context before we even know where to start to have ideas”. Thus the spaces I currently teach in should ideally reflect local learning cultures and contexts. One important factor in this specific context is the ubiquitous use of technology within these spaces. The heavy use of technology could be considered as one way that challenges in space design in education has changed over recent decades. This is a big design question to ask: How should educators react to wide use of technology and indeed how should learning spaces be designed to facilitate the emersion of 21st Century Pedagogies; keeping in mind that as reported by Siemens (2008) “Current developments with technology and social software are significantly altering: (a) how learners access information and knowledge, and (b) how learners dialogue with the instructor and each other.”  I am wondering if the presence of some BYOD devices is more symptomatic of small design ideas as apposed to the Big Ideas that Brown asks us to explore.

The above classroom in question provides some physical constraint to modifying pedagogy. However, as mentioned by Kuratko (2012) the best designers use constraints as a source of inspiration and the best design is often carried out with quite severe constraints. Thus the space discussed should be explored with the mind set of a designer which are described by Kuratko as being: inspiration, proactivity, humility, flexibility and focus. Thinking about the above learning space the designer should observe, research and interact with the customer (student?) to see what they like and respond to positively (Kuratko, 2012).

Tim Brown asks us to Think Big and exploit opposing ideas and opposing constraints to create new solutions. Importantly, he asks us to move towards the design of participatory systems. This is an important issue to reflect on in education as emerging pedagogies demand a participatory experience. The learning space that I teach in harks from a design era that viewed education as a passive activity where knowledge was given to student, as evidenced by the presence of the whiteboard. On that note, I wonder how teaching and student expectations would change if the whiteboard were taken out of this space? As also mentioned by Brown, in times of change we need new alternatives, new ideas, especially in the context of growing participatory experiences in education as facilitated by emerging technologies and ubiquitous use of social media.

I am questioning if the presence of BYOD devices is more symptomatic of small design ideas as apposed to the Big Ideas that Brown asks us to explore. With the above ideas in mind I have been thinking about a small change I made to my classroom earlier this year. All I did was move my office desk into the classroom to the location indicated on the above diagram.

I did this with a number of intentions.
A) The primary intention was to build a sense of community of locating my personal working space in the classroom.
B) The secondary reason was to create a working space in a ‘dead’ part of the classroom.
C) I intended to also create space in the office as a ‘breakout’ area where I could send students to work independently.

The observed human responses to this small change in the physical layout of the classroom was:
1) Students choosing to use my desk as a learning space.
2) Students sitting under the desk to work independently.
3) Students sitting in pairs in the safe space between the desk and the wall.
4) Students clamouring to work in the office area away from the rest of the class.

Management also asked why my desk was in the classroom and I had to have a conversation to pacify their fear of me sitting at the desk during teaching time.

So, this one small change initiated a string of emotional and behavioural changes and is perhaps a simple reminder that design thinking depends upon observing how people actually use products of the design process, including contemporary learning spaces.

Instead of starting with technology perhaps we should start with people and culture (TedTalks, 2009).


Hatchuel, A., Le Masson, P., & Weil, B. (2004). CK theory in practice: lessons from industrial applications. In DS 32: Proceedings of DESIGN 2004, the 8th International Design Conference, Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Kuratko, D., Goldsworthy, M., & Hornsby, G. (2012). Effective innovation plans in Innovation acceleration : transforming organizational thinking. (pp. 265-273). Boston: Pearson.

Siemens, G., (2008) Learning and Knowing in Networks: Changing roles for Educators and Designers

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

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  1. Hey Simon, love the image of the kids working under your desk or between it and the wall, that it makes them feel safe!
    It’s fantastic that you are able to provide your students with a private work space in the former office – it all sounds very workable to me so long as you are the only person who teaches in this room; it could get awkward if you have a spare while someone else teaches your class in your room, but hey I guess there are cafes in Manor Lakes!

  2. Hi Simon,

    This is a thought-provoking post. The space does dictate the teaching style, so we do have to get creative with what we are given. I just attended an interesting EdWeb webinar on Re-Designing Learning Spaces for the 21st Century. Here is a link to the archived version:

    In that webinar, the school spent about $60K to completely redesign the learning space with a focus on multimedia with multiple screens, whiteboard wall paint, and multiple, moveable spaces. These ideas are wonderful to consider, and may be feasible in a larger, shared area like a school library, but are hardly something that can be implemented in every classroom. One of the main points of the webinar, though, was that there was no teacher desk at all, nor student desks, just mobile tables, and that the whiteboard area was everywhere, not nowhere, so that students could feel comfortable using the whole room as their own learning and design space. There just should be no “front” of the classroom. Don’t know if you could paint the walls, or add more whiteboards, just to decentralise the class…?

    One of the interesting issues in these discussions of learning spaces is the disconnect between theory and practice. There was quite a bit of pushback from the teachers in the webinar. I don’t think they were being closed-minded, perhaps just healthily sceptical, particularly in terms of cost and feasibility. They also questioned whether teachers would have time to create multimedia content, etc. The point of these new spaces, though, is to hand over the creation of content to students, to some extent…

    It would be great to see examples of teaching that is being done in these new spaces. Do they, coupled with 21st-Century teaching methods, help to engage the disconnected kids? As you point out, it’s not the technology alone, but what you do with it that has the potential to engage students. In practice, this is much more difficult than it sounds… The other question that was left unanswered… how can these ideas be implemented with little or no budget or in small steps?


  3. Sorry, I’ve blathered on enough, but just wanted to add that your last point is spot on–what is important is observing what the students actually do in the spaces we design. That’s why I’m loving this subject at the moment–watching people make small changes and seeing how the students react. Your experiment is telling–sometimes the students’ response is unpredictable! This is how we can learn what we actually need to provide in these spaces. It’s certainly not just going to be whiz-bang equipment. I want to see how students actually use the new spaces…

  4. This is a great post Simon. I struggle with technology and engagement as well. My school doesn’t have BYOD but school issued lap tops. I find with students who are not internally motivated, their laptop is a tool for them to escape the class and one which is hard to monitor as the teacher.
    It is funny that you mention removing the whiteboard – I freak out at the thought of it – and yet, I shouldn’t because it highlights how much our classrooms are still designed for teacher-led learning.
    Thanks for continuing the self questioning journey.

  5. Lovely simple idea. Quite startling results from what you describe. I do wonder about the wisdom of the teacher’s office in the first place – dead space for learning as you put it. But what you’ve created is fascinating. I’d love to hear what the original architects think of it.

    One question – what do other colleagues actually use that office for?

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