Proposed Learning Space Design

Return to Core Issues to be Addressed in an Ideal Learning Space


Design Thinking emphasises a human-centred approach to design which involves users as active participants in the design process to ensure that changes to learning spaces are based on real, rather than imagined, learner needs (Casanova et al., 2018Gibbons, 2016).  Surveys and interviews were conducted with users of Area 3 of a school library as part of the Empathy and Define phases of Design Thinking.  Analysis of the data and creation of an empathy map revealed that there are a number of issues within the social, pedagogical and physical space, especially inflexibility of layout and movement as well as poor visibility across the room.  Contemporary library spaces focus on the library as a learning commons whereby flexible zones, connected physical and virtual spaces, accessibility and innovative pedagogy are deemed essential, there is scope to enhance the design of Area 3 (Holland, 2015Loertscher & Koechlin, 2014; World Architects and Engineers, 2019).  The problem statement created as part of the Define phase will be used as a guide to action iterative innovation efforts throughout the Ideate, Prototype and Test phases (Federation University, 2020).  Furthermore, issues of sustainability, inclusivity, risk, indigenous perspectives and management of various constraints will also be considered as part of the design process.

Learning Space Design Proposal

In response to the issues identified in the Empathy and Define phases, the following problem statement was created:

PROBLEM STATEMENT: Teachers and students who use Library Area 3 need greater visibility and layout options because users want to be able to move about and see throughout the space and use it in flexible ways so that a variety of formal and informal learning activities can occur (individual, group and whole class).

Institutional Vision

Underpinning the design process is acknowledgment and consideration of the institution’s values about what makes successful teaching and learning (Johnson & Lomas, 2005; Wilson & Randall, 2012).  Any proposed learning space design must align with and contribute to the overarching institutional plans, strategies, vision and support structures (Brown, 2015; Mahmoud-Jouini et al., 2016).  The school’s mission statement emphasises that engaging, inquisitive and passionate learning within a challenging, collaborative learning environment are crucial [reference withheld, 2018b]. The school’s stated aim for teachers is to provide a positive teaching and learning environment based on mutual respect and open communication (reference withheld, 2018a).  With these institutional values in mind, it was important to preface the Ideation brainstorming with the question:

What does the design of Area 3 need in order to support engaging, active, collaborative learning and teaching (Johnson & Lomas, 2005)?

The institutional vision also incorporates the school’s Reconciliation Action Plan which was launched in August 2020.  As a result of the consultation that occurred in the formation of the Plan, the school’s vision is to develop strong and respectful race relations by encouraging and supporting consultation with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, Elders, and Traditional Custodians when designing the physical environment within the school (QCAA, 2020).  This includes “incorporation of meaningful, relevant and culturally appropriate art, artefacts and symbolism” to reinforce the school’s work toward reconciliation (Narragunnawali, n.d.).  The design for Library Area 3 includes a proposed artwork on the side wall of the room (see Figure 6).  As teachers at the school are aware of the 8 Ways of Learning framework in terms of pedagogy, it may be beneficial, in consultation with the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, to incorporate aspects of the eight interconnected pedagogies into the design (Costello, 2020).  The 8 Ways of Learning framework encourages learning through culture rather than just learning about culture (Costello, 2020). The concept of a yarning (or dialogue) circle also forms part of this holistic approach to embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives into the curriculum and learning space design.  Used by indigenous peoples from around the world for centuries, the principles of communicating with and learning from a collective group and building respectful relationships aligns well with the data from users which stated that better communication and collaboration with their classmates was desirable within Area 3.  The social, relational design components of the space and pedagogical framework provides learning opportunities for all students (CAST, 2010).


The third phase of Design Thinking is Ideate which focuses on brainstorming ideas that address the unmet user needs identified in the Define phase (Gibbons, 2016).  To begin this process and launch brainstorming, a series of ‘How might we’ questions were created in order to break the problem statement into smaller, actionable pieces and provide the seeds for ideation (Stanford University, n.d.).

  • How might we enhance visibility and provide greater flexibility of layout within Area 3 (mind map)?
    • Remove partition between the columns so that students can see across the space and natural light can penetrate the space?
    • Change the orientation of the room? Projector screen on another wall?
    • Change the type of furniture within the space – modular tables that can be separated or joined easily; varied types of furniture to give users greater options to suit their learning preferences?
    • Desks and/or chairs on wheels to make movement between activities more seamless?
    • Remove fixed shelving on the perimeter of the space?
    • Remove fixed desks on the perimeter of the space?
    • Change the size of the projector screen – larger (or add a second projector to a second wall within the space)?
  • How might we encourage users to engage with formal and informal learning activities within Area 3?
    • Flexible seating/furniture?
    • Comfortable seating?
    • Armchairs?
    • Breakout spaces on the periphery of the space – classroom space and more individual areas?
    • Add an element of colour/interest to make the space more appealing to users?
  • How might the library support pedagogical change to support the physical space changes?
    • Library PD for teachers – on flexible learning spaces?
    • Run the professional learning sessions for staff within that area so that staff can be within the space and see the potential of the space?
    • Instructional video on teaching options within the space?
    • Book teacher-librarian lessons within the space – use TL lesson to demonstrate the potential pedagogical options for the space?
    • Informal discussion with staff about the space?

The focus of the Ideate brainstorming could be summarised by two words from the problem statement: visibility and flexibility.  Ideas for the space were also brainstormed within a library meeting and shared within the Collaboration Space on the library OneNote page.  In order to further promote collaborative ideation, an ‘inspiration’ board of images based on the design of other library spaces was also created using Pinterest (Mahmoud-Jouini et al., 2016).  All library staff were invited to ‘pin’ images that demonstrated spaces with good visibility and flexible furniture.  The use of this online tool helped leverage the collective thinking of the group and encourage a “creative work culture with a curious, courageous and concentrated atmosphere” (Dam & Siang, 2019).

Brainstorming was also conducted through conversations with the Head of Library, Deputy Principal and Principal as well as other users of the space, with the aim of building on the ideas already presented to encourage new insights and perspectives (Dam & Siang, 2019).

Prototypes and Risk Management

Prototypes are vital design tools which help to identify and resolve problems that would otherwise affect the final product (Reeves, 2014).  They make abstract ideas tangible and give designers the opportunity for feedback so that changes can be made (Gibbons, 2016; Mahmoud-Jouini et al., 2016).  Prototypes help minimise the risk of bad design, massive failure or unpredictable outcomes by involving, empathising with and enabling stakeholders to share their knowledge, views and perceptions in a timely and appropriate manner (ISO, 2018; TF Chan & Wallpaper, 2019; Wheeler, 2016).  Involving stakeholders throughout this process also helps mitigate the risk that the space will go unused or have minimal impact on teaching and learning activities and builds consensus and support across stakeholder groups (Brown, 2015).

As a result of the Ideate brainstorming, a prototype design layout was created (see Figure 6).

Figure 6: Proposed Learning Space Design for Library Area 3 (hover over image or click to enlarge)

The proposed learning space design came about as a result of the key concerns raised by users in the Define and Empathy phases and in response to the problem statement.  The exploration phases are essential to mobilise stakeholders and explore ill-defined problems (Lockwood, 2009).  The Ideation phase generates ideas, concepts and potential solutions leading to the development of an initial prototype/s which can be evaluated concurrently within the Test phase (Mahmoud-Jouini et al., 2016).  The deep data gathered throughout these phases mitigates cognitive biases that impact the creative processes and leads to further analysis, synthesis, design and re-design in the iterative loop of Design Thinking (Dam & Siang, 2020; Mahmoud-Jouini et al., 2016; Tan et al., 2010).


Future Ready Design

In order to ensure the sustainability of the design, user expectations must be met and the built pedagogy must serve to promote, not hinder, active learning practices well beyond the initial completion of the space (Brown, 2015).  Future-ready design must consider the social-constructivist, learner centred paradigm of 21st century learning (Fox & Lam, 2012).  There is a growing emphasis on increasing various forms of learner-led, teacher-inspired, active learning (Oradini et al., 2019; Dugan in Gratnells, 2019).  Furthermore, designing spaces for learning must consider learner physiology – users want learning spaces which are welcoming, stimulating, comfortable, imaginative and fun (Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs [MCEETYA], 2008).  The desirability of flexible, adaptable, collaborative formal and informal spaces was evident in the feedback from users from the early phases of research and echo the sentiments of the school’s stated values about learning.

Flexible, adaptable learning spaces

One of the principles of Universal Design for Learning is Flexibility in Use (Principle 2).  Flexible learning spaces allow for multi-functionality or multiple uses concurrently and consecutively (Jamieson et al., 2000).  A key concern raised by users of Area 3 was the inflexibility of the space.  In order to address this concern, flexible, adaptable space design was given priority.  Fluid environments need to easily conform to the needs of individual students and empower students to form collaborative groups or easily transition to working by themselves (PBK Viz Lab, 2018).  The furniture presented for consideration as part of the prototype includes mobile, modular components which are easily configured and easily moved to suit a variety of teaching and learning needs.  Engaging, adaptable spaces energise students, teachers and the community and well-designed learning spaces inspire creative, productive, efficient learning (MCEETYA, 2008).  The Test phase of Design Thinking for the proposed design will include multiple prototypes and an exhibition of furniture, room layouts and technology options whereby comment and feedback gained will be collated and used to inform decisions (Mahmoud-Jouini et al., 2016; Oradini et al., 2019).

Collaborative formal and informal spaces

Learning is not fixed by time or place so students need places where they can re-configure furniture for multiple uses and work collaboratively in multiple settings both within formal classroom settings and non-traditional, informal learning environments (Fox & Lam, 2012; MCEETYA, 2008; PBK Viz Lab, 2018).  Given that Area 3 is located within the library, the potential for the design to achieve these aims is especially important.  Learning communities benefit from access to open, inviting, accessible, transparent physical environments that encourage groups to gather and operate in ways similar to the collaborative workplaces which students will encounter in their life beyond school (Bickford & Wright, 2006; Hassell, 2013).  In addition, the social nature of learning is enhanced in spaces that encourage both formal and informal learning.  The empathy map revealed that students felt ‘separated’ or ‘cut off’ from their classmates and teachers felt constrained by the inability to design different types of lessons because of the fixed furniture throughout the space.  In order to address these concerns, and therefore encourage greater collaboration, a whiteboard wall was incorporated into the design and active learning group breakout spaces on the periphery of the space offer a variety of seating configurations and types of furniture.  The heart of decisions about the design of the learning space was how to maximise student learning, especially because of the extensive research which has been done on the importance of social context and experiences for knowledge building (Heppell, 2019; MCEETYA, 2008).  The design for the space emphasises comfortable, adaptable, reusable, customisable seating to encourage lengthened group discussions in both formal and informal learning environments (Fox & Lam, 2012; Kodet Architectural Group, 2019).


Universal Design for Learning

Contemporary learning space design must consider how to minimise barriers and maximise learning opportunities for all students regardless of ability or disability (CAST, 2010).  Everyone benefits from spaces which are open and welcoming for everybody (Palzer in Kodet Architectural Group, 2019).  The key Universal Design for Learning principles needing attention to optimise teaching and learning for all users of Area 3 are Flexibility in Use (Principle 2), Low Physical Effort (Principle 6) and Size and Space for Approach and Use (Principle 7) (National Disability Authority, 2020).  The proposed learning space design involves removing the storage between the two columns at the back of the space (addressing Principles 2, 6 and 7).  Data from students indicated that they felt frustrated by the inability to interact with some students in their class so the new design enhances visibility across the space.  In order to maintain a sense of security and a classroom-like feel, the design uses wood panelling to allow light through while also maintaining visibility across the room and through to the breakout areas on the perimeter of the space (Kodet Architectural Group, 2019).  Re-consideration and re-design of the physical classroom space helps address mental and social priorities for users within the area as well (Tauferner in Kodet Architectural Group, 2019).  In making buildings – and therefore education – universally accessible, the opportunities for all learners to access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning activities can also be enhanced (CAST, 2018; Gibbons, 2016).


Pedagogical concerns are a double-edged sword in terms of constraints on the design.  On the one hand, innovation in teaching is hampered, if not eliminated, without significant change to physical infrastructure (Oradini et al., 2019).  Spaces can shape and change practice for the better and for the worse (MCEETYA, 2008).  This is evident in the teacher comments in the empathy map that the space is claustrophobic, limiting, inflexible, cramped and antagonistic.  On the other hand, in studies on other new learning spaces, many teachers have been found to be reluctant to exploit the spaces fully, despite seeing the potential, citing a lack of confidence and support as their main reasons (Oradini et al., 2019).  The challenge is to encourage teachers to re-consider the traditional, established patterns for classroom spaces which often inhibit collaboration and become more aware of the potential of new learning spaces to support teaching and learning (Fox & Lam, 2012; Jamieson et al., 2000).  Faculty discussions, communities of practice and short courses (through distance mode, blended or face-to-face) have been proposed as appropriate strategies to support awareness of pedagogical options (Hunley & Schaller, 2020; Oradini et al., 2019).  Regardless of the method, timely, ongoing pedagogical support for teachers supports creativity, experimentation, playfulness and optimal use of flexible spaces and encourages teachers to ‘re-imagine’ their teaching (Johnson & Lomas, 2005; Wilson & Randall, 2012).  The library staff at the school play an active role in supporting curriculum so it is likely that initial and ongoing face-to-face short courses, accompanied by faculty discussions would best support teachers to make effective use of the space.  As with all other aspects of the design, this would be determined in consultation with teaching staff.

Next: Critical Reflection on the Design Process