Guest Post via @bradmurphy132: Design Thinking and Learning spaces: Theory, Pedagogy, and Practice

Below are some of my initial thoughts of what the core capacities of a design Thinker are before I will apply this to the designing of learning spaces.

Design thinking is a process that allows for novel solutions to wicked problems, that is, problems that don’t have definite solutions. In fact the design thinking process can unearth problems that are not even recognised. Tim Brown, from IDEO, outlines 5 important characteristics of Designers:

Empathy:  Imagining the world from multiple perspectives with a ‘people first’ approach. In the educational context this might involve imagining the experiences of students, teachers, support staff, parents, and visitors.

Integrative thinking: the ability to see the salient aspects of confounding problems and create novel solutions. This can involve considering contradictions as possible solutions to problems are explored.

Optimism: the belief that a possible solution, no matter how challenging the constraints are, is better than existing alternatives.

Experimentalism: Constraints are explored in creative ways through posing questions resulting in new directions being taken.

Collaboration: Enthusiastic interdisciplinary collaborations are undertaken to get as broad a take on a given service, product, experience etc, as possible.

(Brown, T. 2008)

In order for the design thinker to use the attributes outlined above it is important that they realise that the process is not linear, though a linear representation as shown below is helpful:


The image above shows various aspects of the design thinking process but in reality the process involves a team jumping back and forth between these aspects. The diagram below usefully shows this with fluid lines drawn between the different aspects of the process. Also the ‘Empathise’ aspect shown above is broken into two parts, ‘understand’ and ‘observe’ in the process depicted below. Also the ‘point of view’ aspect shown below encompasses the ‘define’ aspect above. Questions of “How might we…” take the design thinker from the ‘define’ or ‘point of view’ (POV) to the ‘ideate’ stage of the process (‘An introduction to design thinking’ – dschool).

design thinking process

To function as a design thinker the above process must be understood and carried out.

Here are now more thoughts on Design Thinking and its role when considering learning spaces as a follow on from my previous post on “Core Capacities of Design Thinkers”.

Often when schools implement a new innovation they will use pilot testing as a way to do it. However an alternative to this, part of the design thinking process, is prototyping.

The concept of prototyping has a number of purposes which include:

  1. Fast cycling of ideas – prototypes are basic and quick to ‘assemble’, whether it be a physical object or process. This means feedback and ideation is efficient leading to many generations of new iterations in a relatively short period of time.
  2. Physical action – ideas are not just talked about but they are put into action by either making a physical prototype or doing a physical action such as role playing or going through the process to see what it’s like for a customer/client/user.

A major benefit of prototyping over pilot testing is that it is much faster and cheaper allowing for ideas to be refined before implementing a major process change or infrastructure into an institution. Undertaking such a process minimises the risk of wasting large amounts of capital and time on projects that end up not working out and being abandoned or sticking with a project because of the physical and emotional investment even though it is not right to do so.

In terms of designing spaces it is beneficial to first prototype it before constructing a permanent building that is difficult to change. A brilliant example of this is the prototyping of Christchurch, New Zealand, with its billion dollar health infrastructure rebuild after the devastating earthquake. Setting up a warehouse to test out the design of the future hospitals physical layout and processes means that once built it will be less likely to need costly adjusting and retro fitting and it will work much better.

Canterbury Health District Board from nbbjdesign on Vimeo.

Schools can learn much from this example and it is also important that once a design is decided upon that it is built in such a way as to allow for flexible space change. Over designing schools can lock teaching and learning into predetermined spaces (Harrison & Hutton, 2014). This is the benefit of designing more open, flexible spaces that can easily be adapted and changed as teaching methodologies evolve. It is also important to understand that as children get older their learning needs, hence space requirements, change. For example, following a Piagetian concept of child development progression through ‘pre-operational’ (2-7 years), ‘concrete operational’ (7-12 years) and ‘formal operational’ (12 years & over) the level of flexibility and openness of a space must increase with age. An example of this includes having moveable walls and zones that suit different learning styles (Harrison & Hutton, 2014).

Considering the design of learning spaces is important as research by the Design council in the UK in 2005 low quality standardised classrooms: reduce the range of teaching and learning styles; hinder creativity; are inefficient wasting time.

There is no perfect classroom design as every group is different however here are some general strategies of creating flexible learning spaces include:

  • Adjustable and moveable school chairs & desks so they can change height and easily be moved between lecture mode, group mode, and individual work mode.
  • ‘Break out’ spaces for students to work in small separated groups: An L-shaped rather than rectangular space my assist with this.
  • 3 or more ‘points of focus’ to reduce the predominance of lecture style teaching
  • Ability to accommodate up to 3 teachers with more than the standard 30 students for team teaching, project based scenarios.


It must be remembered that spatial innovation on its own is not enough but needs to be paired with pedagogical innovation (Harrison & Hutton, 2014) however pedagogical innovation can be hampered by poor spatial design.

This leads to another very important consideration in order to implement both spatial and pedagogical innovation – a common vocabulary. One of the biggest roadblocks to innovation is a lack of a common design vocabulary in an organisation (Nair & Fielding 2005).

I teach in a Pre-K to year 12 School and in order for innovation to be collaborative then all stakeholders must speak a common language. To be able to do this they need to be exposed to what the language is and structures that support this. The only way for the stakeholders to truly own and understand the common language is to work with them to develop it.

Finally, it must be remembered that innovations are usually found in solving the present mundane problems that no one else has solved (McIntosh, 2014) or even recognised yet.

This is where the design thinking process comes in as outlined in the previous post “Core Capacities of Design Thinkers”. As summarised in the diagram below.

design thinking process

To know what ‘mundane’ solution to solve we must first understand. To understand we must observe and find out the points of view of various stakeholders. This then allows us to come up with ideas which feed back into further observations and understandings. Prototyping then allows us to get feedback for further ideas and points of view to test and reiterate. This process is not linear at all and is one that relies heavily on ethnographic research, empathy, and collaboration. This, done correctly, can be a very powerful method of creating the learning spaces, be it physical, pedagogical, or virtual, that we need to for innovative and quality learning.

What this process allows us to do is to look at the big picture in order to focus on an appropriate detail. Vijay Kumar in his book, ‘101 Design Methods : A structured approach for driving innovation in your organization’, outlines how Nike gained a competitive advantage over their rivals by looking at the big picture about how people use exercise shoes by not just looking at shoe design but the whole experience of exercising. This led them to focus on embedding sensors in the shoe to link to apps that users could upload their activity to.

Next we decide to make a change for the better in our school, let’s first ask the stakeholders what it is that they would like to make learning better tomorrow than it is today.

Brown, T. (2008). Design thinking, Harvard Business Review, 86(6), 84-92. Retrieved from:

Carroll, M., Goldman, S., Britos, L., Koh, J., Royalty, A., & Hornstein, M. (2010). Destination, Imagination and the Fires Within: Design Thinking in a Middle School Classroom. International Journal of Art & Design Education, 37-53.

Kumar, V. (2012). 101 Design Methods: A structured approach for driving innovation in your organization.

Harrison, A., & Hutton, L. (2014). Design for the changing educational landscape: Space, place and the future of learning. New York: Routledge.

McIntosh, E. (2014). How to come up with great ideas – and actually make them happen. Edinburgh: NoTosh Publishing

Nair, P., & Fielding, R. (2005). The language of school design: Design patterns for 21st century schools. Minneapolis, Minn.: DesignShare.