Literature Critique: Challenges Facing Learning Institutes In Conceiving Spaces For Learning

Brown, T., & Katz, B. (2011). Change by Design. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 28(3), 381–383. JOUR., J. (2011, April). No Innovator’s Dilemma Here: In Praise of Failure. Wired.

Jisc. (2006). Designing Spaces for Effective Learning. Retrieved from

Kuratko, D., Goldsworthy, M., & Hornsby, G. (2012). Innovation acceleration : transforming organizational thinking (pp. 103–123). MULTI, Boston: Pearson.

Seidel, V. P., & Fixson, S. K. (2013). Adopting design thinking in novice multidisciplinary teams: The application and limits of design methods and reflexive practices. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 30(SUPPL 1), 19–33.

Strong-Wilson, T., & Ellis, J. (2007). Children and Place: Reggio Emilia’s Environment As Third Teacher. Theory Into Practice, 46(November), 40–47.

The pedagogical shift towards technology-rich, active and collaborative learning impacts the roles of students and teachers and, inevitably, the learning spaces in which they learn (Garcia, Brown, & Elbeltagi, 2013; Jisc, 2006). Despite the swelling debate occurring at the intersection of the design of physical and online spaces, learning styles and teaching methodologies, there remains a shortage of empirical evidence on the impact of spaces on learning outcomes (Blackmore, Bateman, Loughlin, O’Mara, & Aranda, 2011; Brooks, 2011; Higgins, Hall, Wall, Woolner, & McCaughey, 2005). Using a range of scholarly and practitioner-based sources both educational and business, and real-life examples, this literature critique aims to establish the relationship between design, space and learning by drawing out the key challenges and exposing the discords from the central themes: design thinking and participatory design.

Jisc (2006) argues that the key for effective design of learning spaces is a participatory approach that includes the views of the learners and defines the pedagogic goals that underpin the strategies for teaching and learning. Design thinking offers a collaborative approach that blurs the boundaries between designers and the consumers (Brown & Katz, 2011, p. 382) and can be applied to create new artifacts such as services and processes within a number of domains (Brown & Katz, 2011; Kuratko, Goldsworthy, & Hornsby, 2012). With that said, can design thinking be applied to the design of learning spaces?

While the terminology may differ, there is common agreement that design thinking is generally considered to be an iterative, reflective process that requires both divergent thinking to generate ideas and convergent thinking to hone in on solutions; it uses prototyping as a visual format to communicate ideas (Brown & Katz, 2011; Kuratko et al., 2012; Seidel & Fixson, 2013).  Seidel & Fixson (2013) divide the design process in two phases (concept generation and concept selection) and employs three formal methods (need finding, prototyping and brainstorming). Brown & Katz (2011) propose “three spaces of innovation”(p. 382) namely: inspiration where problems or opportunities are identified through observation and research; ideation, the generation, development and testing of ideas; implementation where concepts are selected and evaluated. Kuratko et al. (2012) identify the iterative process as “the secret sauce” where designers move through a recursive cycle of  “play”, “display”, “watch the replay” (p. 116).

According to Brown & Katz (2011), empathy is the feature that distinguishes design thinking from academic research. Although both processes may involve observation, in design thinking, empathy translates the observations into insights by seeing the world from the perspectives of others resulting in “products and services that will improve lives” (p. 382). Indeed, observation and empathy leading to insight is a key feature of Reggio-Emilio inspired schools where the environment is identified as the third teacher alongside the teacher and the young student (Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007). Similar to the idea that the design thinking process brings “something into the world that may have not existed before” (Kuratko et al., 2012, p. 114) , the negotiated curriculum emerges through a recursive process of design, documentation, and discourse (Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007). At the design phase, similar to implementation, the teacher introduces provocations and surprises into the learning spaces, and then, through a process of observation and questioning, documents the resulting play, actions and conversations. In the discourse phase, the teaching team reflect on their findings and use these insights to build on children’s interest through planning the next investigation or challenge (Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007).

A common view in the literature advocates for non-designers as active participants, suggesting that managers of organisations take key roles as team leaders in the design process (Brown & Katz, 2011; Jisc, 2006; Kuratko et al., 2012); however, Kimbell (2011) stresses the importance of the skilled designer as the main agent, while acknowledging the shift in the role from “makers of forms” to the “glue” (p.287) in the multidisciplinary team. Brown & Katz (2011) recommend interdisciplinary teams of skilled thinkers for highly complex problems whereas Dyson (2011) looks for young people suggesting that “unburdened by experience, their minds aren’t clouded with preconceived ideas of what can or cannot work” (para 17). The benefits of a participatory culture, an “us-with-them” (Brown & Katz, 2011, p. 382) sentiment are also echoed throughout the literature although there is a blur in the line between the role of designers and those involved in the design process. Observation, empathy and human-centeredness is key in design thinking process for gaining insight into the users or consumers, (Brown & Katz, 2011); however, how much emphasis is placed on developing successful design teams, with little or no experience of design processes?

Team reflexivity, where the individuals collectively reflect upon their actions and processes, is associated with high levels of team innovation (Schippers, West, & Dawson, 2015). Seidel & Fixson (2013) note the benefits of team reflexivity with novice teams, especially in the concept generation phase, as they debate how to apply the formal methods such as brainstorming and prototyping. Team reflexivity is central to the Reggio-Emilio method as teachers come together to discuss and debate their findings (Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007).

Although the explicit relationship between design, space and learning is limited to two pieces of literature (Jisc, 2006; Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007), the participatory nature of design thinking implies the inclusion of educational experts and the learners as the consumers when creating spaces for learning. Jisc (2006) notes the motivational impact when learners participate in the design process suggesting “that they can have a measure of control over the learning environment and over their own learning” (p. 4). Moreover, the consideration of the consumers’ values and interests coupled with immediate feedback may lead to insights and uses not previously considered (Brown & Katz, 2011; Kuratko et al., 2012; Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007). Jisc (2006) advocates for “a space management team” (p. 13) comprising experts from across the institution although Higgins et al. (2005) caution that the degree of involvement must be considered, which may range from the manipulation of  “rubberstamp advisory committees”, limited information or consultation, or preferably, the genuine participation in the form of “partnership” and “citizen control” (Arnstein, 1969, pp. 217–218).

The intersection of learning and design is implicit within the literature; however, many commonalities between learning and design process that can be teased out. Both Kuratko et al. (2012) and Dyson (2011) describe the process as both a creative and a learning  experience. Moreover, Dyson (2011) promotes an environment that actively embraces failure seeing it as a learning opportunity when mistakes are made. In educational settings, both Hattie (2008) and Kapur (2014), like Dyson (2012), view the concept of failure as a learning opportunity. Productive Failure is where students are presented with complex problems that they will fail to solve initially allowing them to determine the instruction that they need to get closer to the solution (Kapur, 2014). Hattie (2008) also encourages an environment that favors failure in positive light, noting that feedback combined with instruction is one of the most powerful influences in the learning process.

The design of learning spaces, both physical and virtual, should be representative of the strategies for learning to accommodate new and emerging pedagogies (Jisc, 2006). For example, the link between class size and student achievement has been been a contentious debate in educational reform (Akerheilm, 1995); however, studies show that it is the quality of instruction provided coupled with reduction in class size that may have a positive impact on student achievement (Hattie, 2008; Hattie & Yates, 2013; Mueller, 2013). Mueller (2013) notes that “only senior teachers outperform rookies only in small classes” (p.44) whereas Hattie & Yates (2013) claim that the decrease in class size may result in the increased the length of time that the teacher talks resulting in poor engagement. Further, the student listening to peers is more likely to understand the learning than if the teacher says it or if the student reads it for themselves (Hattie & Yates, 2013). Consultation with teachers and students is therefore key in the design process to gain insight.

Design thinking practitioners suggest that, with the global shift in industry towards service and knowledge creation, companies must innovate in order to remain relevant (Brown & Katz, 2011; Dyson, 2011; Kuratko et al., 2012). This idea is reinforced by Pink (2011) who argues that creativity and critical thinking are essential core skills for future employment. Accordingly, is there a case for schools to incorporate design thinking practices to prepare students for the future? There are many examples of real life uses of the application of design processes, either as a whole or elements of, in schools including the aforementioned Reggio-Emilio inspired schools where play contributes to problem solving skills (Blackmore et al., 2011). Visible thinking routines provide frameworks for students to develop collaborative critical thinking skills (Ritchhart & Perkins, 2008) and the Understanding by Design (UbD) framework for curriculum planning guides teachers through a design process of analytical, convergent thinking process to determine outcomes or desired results of a learning activity before moving onto the creative divergent thinking stage of designing the learning experiences that would enable the students to realize the learning outcomes (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Additionally, design is recognized as a core subject by both the British National Curriculum and the International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years Program (MYP). However, to what extent are these design thinking skills leveraged in designing their learning spaces? Would students and teachers already familiar with these methodologies be valuable members of design teams of new learning spaces?

Many of the themes and discords drawn out from the literature can be found in a number of design projects undertaken at Western Academy of Beijing (WAB). The first example examines the redesign of a small space in the High School. The idea was to create a Makerspace that offer resources and tools to empower student creation and learning, promote self-directed learning and strengthen the culture of creation and innovation; however; the result was an under-utilized photo studio that only partially addressed the original aims of the project. A reflexive view of the design process of a space mirrors a number of cautions from the literature. Firstly, the process was organic and based on collective past experiences from creating spaces (both virtual and physical). Consultations were limited to the school administration and key educators for the go-ahead; however, the students, the target audience, were only consulted at the implementation stage (Brookes, 2016b). Secondly, the brief was based on assumptions but not confirmed or refined at any stage of the process (Brookes, 2016b) which is contrary to a design thinking process where the need finding is integral to the initial phase through immersion in the users’ context (Brown & Katz, 2011; Seidel & Fixson, 2013). Designers should use constraints as a source of inspiration (Brown & Katz, 2011; Kuratko et al., 2012); however, the constraints, such as time restrictions that caused a sense of urgency to complete the process, the limitations on the physical size of the space and the small budget served only to restrict the scope of the project.

A second example examines the initial stage of a large building project, the Middle School at WAB, by comparing the actual process with the theoretical models and recommendations offered in the literature. The formation of steering committee was drawn from the senior management team to work alongside the multidisciplinary design team comprising architects, engineers and interior designers which is in concert with the views of Brown & Katz (2011) and Jisc (2006). A brief was given to design and build a new Middle School that embodied the core values and mission of the school (Brookes, 2016a) which links to the view that the artefact must speak for itself (Kuratko et al., 2012). The process commenced with an intense period of research (need finding)with stakeholder groupings comprising parents, teachers and students. Brown & Katz (2011) note that research is difficult and complex projects require skilled designers. Two examples that demonstrate the skills and experience of the design team in the investigation are firstly, the use of images used in the brainstorming, which could be construed as prototyping device as these allowed the participants to express their ideas; and secondly, the how the design team leveraged the existing design culture by investing time in the MYP Design classes to discuss ways with both the students and teachers that the project could be integrated into the learning, therefore cultivating a culture of empowerment and ownership.

This literature critique identifies the participatory nature of design thinking as a dominant theme; however, how much of the commentary within the literature serves as an echo chamber, with each view reinforcing the merits of design thinking? With the high number of common characteristics such as brainstorming, prototyping, iteration and feedback, is it possible each of the design thinking processes utilized by the practitioners originate from a single source, albeit refined through a never-ending iterative process? Perhaps this writer’s selection of literature and real-life examples has presented a narrow perspective of the relationship between design, learning and spaces. Possibly other theories, such as the C-K Theory (Hatchuel, Le Masson, & Weil, 2004), the views from alternative critics of design thinking (e.g. Kimbell, 2011) and an examination of the links between spaces and learning may provide a broader outlook and wider discourse.

Jisc (2006) argues that because an educational building is an expensive long-term resource, the individual spaces needed to motivate learners and promote learning must be flexible,  future-proof, supportive, inclusive, and enterprising to accommodate current and emerging practice and support differ purposes (p. 3). However, learning, and the space in which learning occurs, is influenced by the constraints imposed upon the learning institution such as the curriculum, access to technology, beliefs about learning (Jisc, 2006) and government directives (Veloso, Marques, & Duarte, 2014). There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach to learning spaces and experts in these domains must also be part of the design process. Understanding how space impacts behavior is an important consideration for all involved in the process. For example, a collaborative learning environment may be supported by lower ceiling heights, which encourages cooperative behaviour with pre-schoolers, which in turn decreases potential acoustic problems (Woolner, Hall, Higgins, McCaughey, & Wall, 2007). Likewise, wireless connectivity in open-plan shared spaces may promote active engagement in online learning communities, beyond timetabled classes (Jisc, 2006), such as sharing ideas through commenting on peer blog posts (Garcia, Elbeltagi, Brown, & Dungay, 2015).

One surprise was the lack of emphasis in the literature regarding the next stage in the design process after the initial implementation. As illustrated in the Makerspace example, the relevance of the space should be constantly reviewed in light of new and emerging educational practices (Brookes, 2016b). An audit of the learning spaces in a school may highlight a number of physical and, most likely, online leaning spaces that no longer meet the requirements of the learner but are still are in use.

The challenge is for schools to take the lead in designing their own learning spaces. As space, design and learning are intrinsically intertwined, the design of spaces must be informed by the pedagogical practices and address the needs of the learner. An approach that clearly emerges is for schools to create a culture of a design thinking where the key stakeholders: the students, faculty and administration teams, are encouraged to think like designers, and as a result, think differently about the learning environment. As Jisc (2006) suggest “the investment in developing the skills of staff also needs to be matched by fostering their ownership of the proposed changes” (p.31). With that said, Nussbaum (2011), previously a key proponent of design thinking, declared that design thinking is a failed experiment; however, Walters (2011) reports that this perceived failure may be due to the lack of consensus of the definition of design thinking, who is responsible for it, how it is executed or implemented. If schools, like businesses, are to survive and remain relevant in this constantly changing world, they must continue to develop and innovative spaces, both physical and virtual, in order for the learners to develop the skills they will need for tomorrow. David Kelley suggests “we have to prototype our way into a new space; to continuously ideate, adapt and evolve our spaces after we move in; and to think of space primarily to change behavior” (Doorley & Whithoft, 2012, p 35).



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