In all my years of as an educational architect I have visited literally hundreds of schools globally, yet I am often dismayed at lack of real innovation and sideways thinking in learning space design.

But what I have noticed is that the truly successful contemporary learning spaces are not the just the ones you see winning awards. In fact, they are often far from it.

The spaces that end up being successful are all beautifully designed, not by the architect, but by the end users. The way the students and teachers are in the space is what makes it sing.

So what I’m about to share with you is how to take a completely fresh approach to creating the flexible genius hubs of learning we all dream of. Just to caveat that claim, I will confess, whist this insight is brilliant, its not original, yes I openly admit I pinched it, and here’s how…

Back to the beginning

My story begins last week, when I was privileged to participate in a 6 day Systems Thinking Boot Camp at Stanford University’s

For those of you who know the Stanford University Campus, it’s a weird and wonderful place. Originally built in 1885, it is fondly know as The Ranch, harking back to the days when horses roamed the campus. Today its pure Ivy League, renowned for its business and engineering schools.

Originally conceived to be part of the mechanical engineering faculty is recognised globally as THE centre for Human Centred Design. Its ambitious mission is to create systems-level change in the world using a combination of strategy and creativity. But more of that in blogs to come….

Right now I want to talk about The as space,

bout how the architecture has been crafted to unleash creativity, and to also share with you how I learnt what a truly innovative learning looks like.

In fact I’ll share with you one technique you can implement in your classroom FOR NOTHING from that is so simple it make me kick myself HARD that I hadn’t thought of it first!

But first, black to the learning….

Busting the Design Thinking Myth

So, the first thing I learnt at The was Design Thinking is not about design! Or at least not design as many architects and creatives know it.

It is not dependant on a person’s creativity, and it is NOT commonly used by architects or anyone in the field of design to assist in the design of a product, or thing.

Design Thinking is…. a tool (or more specifically a set of tools) that anyone (creative or NOT) can use to design and implement change, problem solve and drive innovation.

So how does the space at The support Innovation?

When we (JDH Architects) design for learning we consider not only task and outcome aspects of learning, but also the social and emotional aspects of learning that can be enhanced and even created by space and by design.

The need for explicit, modelled, independent learning, and critical feedback still hold strong when it comes to teaching and learning, but teachers can showcase innovation in teaching by thinking differently about pedagogyand its implementation.

At The this innovative use of traditional pedagogies is supported by the physical space itself. Where the learning tasks, and social interaction are seamlessly interwoven to support the cognitive nature of learning.

Let me introduce the various spaces and their purposes below

The Make space is a double height explicit instruction space with viewing mezzanine. It holds over 400 people, but is frequently divided using mobile white boards for explicit instruction for smaller group of 50. Connected to eating, recreational space, smaller creation labs and areas for Fellowship study.


Group studio large enough for 100 people, this space is simply furnished with light stackable chairs, mobile white boards and AV for modelled teaching. Used for group discussion, presentation, and critical feedback and performance is a great space to tell a story….

Idea Lab

This, the beating heart of The is defined and divided using timber post and whiteboards to create individual pods for a variety of group sizes from 4 to 12 students. Also containing mentor planning space and open area for quick fire group instruction. Groups work independently assisted by 1 mentor per 12 students. Also contains all resources easily accessible to both teachers and students, and of course a Maker Space!






And last but by no means least  –

STUDIO 3. Where I kicked myself REALLY HARD!!!

Yep that’s right, not typo involved!

When you walk into Studio 3 it is always arranged as an impossible space in which to teach and learn.

The room is an empty shell, in which all furniture, resources, writing and display surfaces are stacked to sides, bunched up in the centre, but with ubiquitous technology located all around the perimeter of the room.

The golden rule of the space is that it is always returned to default NOT learning setting by the departing class.

Thus the mentors and students entering the space are forced to configure it. Everything in the space glides upon the beautifully polished concrete floor on industrial sized castors. As people engage with the space and the objects within it morph to suit the activities and occupants in a unique and memorable way, unique to that one specific moment in time.

This means that the configuration of the space is absolutely unique every single it is used.

This simple hack provides for profound and meaningful learning in the space, which has been purposely crafted by the people within it.

This NOT learning is space is truly learner centred, uniquely FLEXIBLE, and inspires collaboration and creativity from the get go.

It’s a space to ideate, and experiment

A space where fast thinking and even faster prototyping applauds failure and iteration.

To see this fluid space in actions click HERE

So here’s the hack…

Turn your classroom into a NOT learning space. Yep, that’s right! Think low-fi, light, cheap and cheerful moveable furniture. Arrange it in the NOT learning position. Document this layout either by drawing a plan, or taking photos of the re-set configuration.

Let teachers and students create their own unique and flexible learning space every time they go into the room. At the end of each day re-set the space back to the default NOT learning layout.

See how upon entering the space the user forced to go immediately into collaboration mode. Watch how the NOT learning space sparks the imagination of your teachers and students.

By engaging with the space you will see how your learners occupy not only the physical creative and innovative space, but the mentally creative and innovative space that is required to think differently about todays  (and tomorrows) learning.

In summary, my time at The was to teach me the principles of design thinking, but the gold for me was in the way the teachers and learners integrated with the very nature of the learning spaces provided, to create, innovate and solve wicked problems even further.  Where learning in the NOT learning space surprised and surpassed the learning in the more formally creatively and architecturally designed spaces. And as an architect, this is humbling. So how else can we apply this principle of ‘NOT’ to deliver more?