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

12 thoughts on “Designing Spaces for Learning

  1. Hi Matt,
    On first glance I thought ‘tent’ as well! It took me back to the days of building tents by throwing a bedspread over the dining room table, or perhaps two chairs strategically placed. I think we called it a ‘fort’.
    I bet the kids love it

    1. Wasn’t it fun making forts? Your own little space in the world, hidden away. I’m going to bust out some sheets tomorrow and drape them over some tables. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Hi Matt,
    Really intersting post. I have a few questions as this was a great concept:
    1) I am very interested with how well the students are still using the ‘where are you’ board have you found any glitches in this new system?
    2) Is there anything you are considering changing that may not have work well?
    3) Are you getting feedback from the students regarding the new approach?
    Great concept with how the break up a big space so that there are those private quiet zones that everyone needs every so often.

    1. Thanks for the awesome questions, Yvette. I’ll give them a go.

      1) Any glitches? It’s still early days, but it seems to be working pretty well. Some kids forget to use it, but most are updating their whereabouts during the day. I guess one glitch might be with 80 kids photos it’s time consuming to look on the board and find the one you want. Perhaps the next step is a digital ‘Where Are You’ board?

      2) Yes there are a few things! We’re going to need to run a few little reminder sessions next week about what “flow” means. Some think it means just being by yourself. Others are misusing it by putting up the sign and sitting with others, like group flow, which I don’t think is a thing! So more education around how to use these new places and spaces and signs probably.

      3) I’m not getting any hub-wide quantitative data, just kids comments during the day and in their reflections. It’s all positive so far!

  3. Hi Matt, it’s interesting that your problem is almost the inverse of mine. I am interested in your comment about spaces that are not distracting. Our school has just opened a new building for Years 6 -8 (11 -14 age range) and this has been an aspect that has been of concern to some of us.
    We have been thinking about using the glass we currently have to write on (liquid chalk on order) and while our windows are quite old fashioned it will still give a flat collaborative space.
    A colleague and I who have all our teaching time in the same classroom are also playing with some of these ideas – and we both teach senior students! Will blog about that on my page as we test it out.

    1. We use window pens all the time. Any space can be one to record thinking and brainstorming or anything really. We’ve also had a lot of our walls painted with whiteboard paint, so kids can write on those too.

      I think it is a concern though – the distracting nature of wide open spaces – yes. There need to be all kinds of spaces available that kids can choose to work in depending on the task. Finding fun and exciting ways to ‘design-in’ these options has been fun!

      Cheers for the comment.

  4. Hi Matt,
    I think your ideas for redefining your space are fantastic. I am reminded of Emily Pilloton’s TED talk, considering learning and play. Whilst your students are not using the tents for traditional play, you have designed with a concept that children love – the reinventing of a space, making a cubby, treehouse etc as a thinking/dreaming/imagining/working space of their own. It is no wonder they are in demand.

    1. Thanks Lisa! There is also something about the “room-within-a-room” feel of using the tents, which is pretty special. I love your idea of a treehouse though (with wifi!).

      Thanks for the comment 😀

  5. Hi Matt,
    I really enjoyed reading your post! I can really relate to your challenge with creating some breakout and quite spaces in open areas and think your solution is great. One thing that I think we are really lacking is areas for when you just need some time alone. Often the small breakout areas are just occupied by one person which, given the demand on space, is really inefficient.
    I am also thinking through how we can provide visual cues for when people are are ‘interruptible’ or not – I like your thoughts here.


  6. Great thoughts, Matt. I particularly like the process for ideating – New things I could add; Existing things I could remix; and Things I could help others do.

    I have borrowed your reference to ‘flow’…those signs are a great idea, and reinforce that we need spaces where students can collaborate, share, focus and be social. This will certainly be a challenge in a large open space.

    Have you considered those curved movable screens to create separate spaces?

  7. Hi Matt,

    Great post- your school looks lovely. I am in a new school too, we are in our fourth year of operation. We often get visitors who just love the ‘newness’ and ‘openness’ of the school. I forget what it is like to teach in a closed classroom! 

    I absolutely love your tent idea. What a neat way for students to work quietly together or have an independent working space. Have you read any of David Thornburg’s work? He uses the terms campfires, waterholes and caves as metaphors for learning spaces. This theory is something we have tried to adopt at my school…though could still do with some work. Basically a campfire is a place where a whole class or larger group can come together, a waterhole is a space for smaller groups to come together, share ideas and work collaboratively and a campfire provides spaces for students to work independently (Thornburg, n.d). 

    In the past, I have explained these metaphors to students and given them the opportunity to design the spaces themselves. It is great to see what they come up with. 

    Looking forward to following your journey this semester,


    Thornburg, D. (n.d). Campfires in Cyberspace: Primordial Metaphors for Learning in the 21st Century. Retrieved

  8. A fabulous experiment, and obviously producing some positive results. In an effort to move from heuristics (comments during the day) into algorithms, I’d love you to gather some harder data on student changes in behaviour – quantity of work done, smiles, number of people using quiet zones, interviews… It might form a great basis for Assignment 6.

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