Small Change, Big Impact? Design Thinking in Action, Phase 1

This is a write up of an experiment in Design Thinking I recently went through. The task was to make a small change to my learning environment with the aim of positively impacting learning. To jump to the end for a little bit, this process I’ve gone through has been a transformative one. It’s dawned on me, sitting here reflecting after it all, that even the smallest changes can have massive impacts. All it takes is an open mind, a juicy problem, and an eye to action. This is empowering and meaningful and impactful for teachers struggling with edicts from higher up and other challenges. I think it’s a way forward for us all – to make the changes we know are needed in education, to actually do the reforming ourselves rather than waiting for others to lead us.

I hope that in telling my story others can take heart – make a small change, and see where the rabbit hole leads.

So, here’s my story…

I’ve always embraced the messiness and noise and buzz of learning “happening”. It surrounded me as I sat back and observed my own learning environment one day, “looking, but not seeing”, watching how the spaces and systems were being experienced from the eyes of the students, empathy building. This particular learning hub consists of a group of 85 multi year-level students with four teachers, who at any time could be in workshops, following their personalised timetable, or any number of things. It’s a bustling, busy, buzzy space. 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.

As I was watching, a student sat alone on a beanbag, trying hard to focus on his independent task at hand. It seemed like he really wanted to get into it, but the hustle and bustle of hub life was distracting him. He kept looking up and around – there was a workshop going on nearby, a group working on their inquiry project, and some students just outside the window doing some fitness exercises. A constant flow of students wandered back and forth down the hall. Other students came and sat next to him, asking for his advice on a task. He was challenged on all sides by more than a few potential distractions.

The thing is, very few of these distractions were generated from off-task or silly behaviours. They were just students going about their learning, which is wonderful to see – a purposeful, properly busy learning environment ticking away. It dawned on me though, that while the hub provides an amazing space for collaboration, for group work and making and real life projects, there were, perhaps, not an adequate amount of places for quiet, focused, introspective, alone time.

A hustly-bustly learning space is a beautiful thing, but when I put myself in the shoes of that student, I could tell it might become distracting at times. To be honest, those kinds of places wouldn’t have worked for me all the time as a student and as an adult I have even less patience for hustle-bustle when I need to get proper things done. I could tell it probably wasn’t working for that particular student, and if it wasn’t working for him I bet it wasn’t working for others.

So, thanks to this period of observation and empathy building, a few key questions emerged:

Collaboration is of key importance, sure. Is good old independent work however, taking a back seat? How much are students being distracted by other students? What are the downsides of working in big open spaces? How might we create breakout spaces in a modern learning environment in order to allow students the time and space to get into flow?

It was with these questions in mind that I sat down, turned off the notifications on my phone, kissed my wife and son goodbye, and spent a good half an hour on idea generation. I wrote down everything, from the silly to the stupid, the realistic to the revelations. It all came out and it all went on paper. It’s a state I rarely put myself into, so it was tough at the start. But I kept at it, and the ideas did indeed begin to flow.

What was interesting was that the constraints of the problem (ideas generated needed to be pedagogically sound, easy to put into place, and understandable for younger students) seemed to fuel my creativity. The problems and constraints were not so open that it was difficult to know where to start, but they somehow enabled ideas to flow out to a greater extent.

From here I began to group ideas, synthesising them down as per the design thinking process.

I broke the ideas down into:
– New things I could add
– Existing things I could remix
– Things I could help others do

I eventually whittled the list down into some interesting, cheap, easily made ideas. At the top of this list were “Flow Signs” and “Quiet Tents”.

Here’s the action I took the very next day at school:

I introduced two small dome tents into the hub which the school owned for camps. 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” so that students using it could hang it up on the outside of the tent. I thought that to keep it as a place of quiet, individual work, we would limit it to one person in the tent at a time, for now.

A Quiet Tent.... shhhh!

I made up some bright red laminated signs saying: “Please don’t bother me, I’m in flow” which I then placed in some cafe table number holders. I made up six of these, and put them in a central place in the hub. The idea was, if people didn’t want to be disturbed, they would place the signs around themselves somewhere, communicating to others they wanted some alone time. Students do usually go off on their own around the place, but other students don’t often read their body language accurately or understand how the particular positioning of their furniture communicates they want some quiet time. So I printed, laminated, and set these up.

Please Don't Bother Me!

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 and signs, 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. We talked about what “flow” meant – that state of time just whizzing by, your interest and focus in your task heightened, and your ability to concentrate on anything other than the task diminished. We talked about respecting those students using the signs or tents – that it meant they had a bubble around them which you were not allowed to pop!

So we let them at it, and remarkably, after a few days, the hub started to subtly change…

From my non-scientific, anecdotal observations, I could see that students were indeed using the signs properly, and equally as important students not using the signs were respecting those that were. The hub seemed calmer. There was less franticness. It even seemed like there were less behaviour issues around. Some students really loved the tents and used them all the time. Some used the signs. Visitors to school commented on how calm the place seemed. It was all going wonderfully!

And that is where I will leave this part of the story.

So far, I’ve only been riding on a bit of observation, gut instinct and hunches. In a second follow-up blog, I will describe my efforts in gaining feedback and making iterations on my prototype, and gathering the hard data – the interviews and hub surveys on actual impact. Was it just me looking at things with rose-tinted glasses? Have these signs and tents had the actual effect I think they have had?


Stay tuned for the 2nd blog “Phase Two: Iterations and Data”. I’ll link to the hard data and share printables of the signs which you could use in your own classroom.


  1. Hi Matt,
    Thank you for publishing this blog. It was an interesting read and I found some parallels from your experiences within my own classroom. I would love to reorganize my class into spaces for collaborative work and study. Can you explain what Stations you have setup and provide me with a bit of insight on how you plan a school day?
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Justin, thanks for the comment! So we don’t have “stations” so to speak. Students and teachers move around the spaces and use whatever space is the most helpful for the task or workshop. Some of our day is split into things all kids do – such as sports or Mandarin, but for other parts of the day students are on what we call “iTime”. Students have a list of Must Do / Can Do tasks for the week. During iTime they go about completing those tasks. Some tasks might take 15 minutes, some might take an hour and a half – it depends on the student.

      To be honest it’s a little bit hard to explain it all in a comment! I’ll do a blog post at some stage for you :D

  2. A very timely post for me – thanks, Matt! We open in February and we have been talking about places and spaces as we plan furniture. One of my observations of the class that I have come from and visits to MLEs in Auckland has actually been that children appear to seek out those quiet spaces particularly in literacy sessions. I noticed the collaborative tables would have only one or two children at them while the caves and outer limits were most popular.

    We also will have four teachers working within a space with 70-90 children and your post has both affirmed and clarified my thinking. I love your use of design thinking to find a solution! This would be a useful for task for teachers as they begin their collaborative practice, me thinks! :)

    1. Thanks for the comment Claire!

      It is interesting indeed how students “take over” (in a good way) the kinds of spaces we think might be good for something. Case in point, your observations of kids using caves and watering holes and watering holes as caves! Flexibility is key, as well as allowing this organic use of space to occur.

      All the best for your opening next year, it’s one hell of a ride!

  3. I’m not in an open plan school but it’s an issue that I’ve worried about too. How do learners who need quiet space find this? I remember thinking that I’d have to wait till I got home to get work done.
    Well done for exploring this. You have made me think too.

    1. Thanks very much for your comment Annemarie :D

      Absolutely it’s something to consider – having quiet “breakout” spaces as well as collaborative spaces. We seem to be in a rush to open everything up, whereas people actually need to slow and see things from the eyes of the students. Quiet spaces are just as important as bubbly collaborative ones.


  4. Hi Matt, we had this very issue in our library, which caters to 1200+ boys. They were actively seeking quiet spaces to read or work and in creating 2 such spaces in the library, it has dramatically impacted on the tone overall. One quiet space is identified by comfortable reading chairs and a sign “Parking for book lovers only”; and the second space is a glassed in lab, that has become very popular for those seeking a place to focus.
    We all seem to be hearing our kids say that they also need places to escape the hubbub. :-)

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