This is the second half of a design thinking process I’ve been grappling with recently.

The TL;DR of Phase 1 is: I noticed our students were struggling to find places and spaces with which to get some peace and quiet for focused independent work. I introduced “Flow Signs” and “Quiet Tents” into our learning spaces.

See the post on Phase 1 for more details.

So, the tents were up and the signs were out. It was show time!

The first day was all go – we had students sitting around outside the tents waiting for their turn, chatting, not getting much work done, disturbing those within. We had clashes and arguments as students ran to secure a flow sign. We had flow signs mysteriously go walk-about if someone dared to let it out of their sight. It was all on!

Gradually though as the shininess of the new toys wore off, the students began to use them more appropriately.

During the first few weeks, anecdotally, we noticed some small changes. Perhaps the most stand-out effect was that certain students – a few of those students who would normally be surrounded by their peers, were choosing to use the signs. This was interesting – these students were beginning to make better decisions for their learning, instead of just reverting to a style which didn’t always suit the task.

Perhaps it’s important at this stage to note that I’m not saying that group work / collaborative work is less desired than independent work. What is important (I think) is that students can choose where, who with, and when they do their work flexibly – that they have the mindset to be able to tell themselves “Righto – I wonder what strategy my friend is using for this maths problem” V “Righto – I just need a bit of quiet time to finish off this email.” It’s my position (and I’ll attempt to back it up via some research in my next blog) that there are tasks that are better suited to independent work and tasks that are better suited to collaborative work. There will be many grey areas, sure, but I think a case could be made for this. We’ll see!

Anyway – the signs and tents were popular. They were in use throughout the day. A range of students were using them, although to be fair, probably more from Year 3 – 5 than Year 6. Whether or not it was related, the hub started feeling calmer than it had been. Teachers reported a downturn in off-task behaviour, resulting in more time available for 1:1 conferencing. Some students who were regularly missing deadlines began to hand in their work more often.

There were some unexpected uses of the signs too. Pairs or small groups of students were using one sign for their group (begging the question, can groups of people be “in flow”) and pairs, not individuals, were using the tents as quiet discussion areas.

As a side note here, this led me to consider the nature of Thornburg’s “Cave” space. A cave is a secluded, isolated place that enables deep, reflective learning to occur. What seemed to be happening was that students were making their own caves, without any actual cave. It was more a ‘cave mindset’ they were pulling into being. I wonder then, if a cave can be something more than an actual space, but more a state of mind one puts themselves into to enable cave-type thinking and learning.

In addition, the Flow Signs were being used not only to signal others that they were not to be distracted, but as prompts for the users themselves that it was time to get down to some serious work. A student would make a conscious decision to pick up and use a Flow Sign, therefore choosing to do work. This then put themselves in the right frame of mind to focus, recall information and instructions, and produce new work.

As a hub, we had a couple of conversations about how to use the signs and the tents – what they were for, and when to use them. We pitched the signs as “bubbles” around you, your own little cave where you can focus and get some work done. We talked about flow and what it feels like to be in that state. We had 1:1 conversations with students about how they were finding the signs and tents, and they popped up quite frequently in the students’ weekly reflections. This communication, we felt, was needed in order to help guide the students to get the maximum potential out of the signs and tents, and in order for the ones that were not particularly interested in them to understand it was important to respect those for whom they were important.

From a teachers perspective, they seemed to be doing the trick, or at least contributing towards doing the trick.

It was at this stage I progressed the project in two further ways. I started gathering hard data using a hub-wide survey and interviews, and I began iterating on my first prototype of the signs.

I’ll start with the data gathering. It was an attempt to move from my anecdotal, gut feelings – the heuristics of the situation – into a more algorithmic approach to gauging the impact. You can only go so far on anecdote and personal observations – at some stage you need objective, honest feedback in order to move forward.

Here are some of the results:

Some statements:

  • Approximately 80% of the hub were using the tents and signs in an average week
  • 60% though still reported being interrupted by others when using them
  • 18% reported getting “HEAPS more” work completed when using the sings and tents
  • 85% reported getting more work done in general
  • 69% reported there were now an “OK amount of places” with which to find some peace and quiet
  • 23% said there were still not enough focus zones

In addition, the written feedback portion of the survey produced some illuminating statements:

What is one thing about the Flow Signs or Quiet Tents that is good for your learning?

“One thing I like about the signs and tents is that you can move away and get into your own space if needed.I get more work done this way with hardly any distractions.”

“One good thing for my learning is the flow signs because you can go and get one when you need it and don’t have to go and ask a teacher every single time.”

“They show the person on the outside that they need to give you your space.”

“It will get people to not ask you anything because you’re in the flow, and we get more work finished than normal so you are 2x as fast as you normally work.”

“So why I like this is because you get quick sometimes and you don’t really get distracted so you just look at your computer so you don’t really care about anything when you go into the tent or the magical bubble that’s invisible.”

“One thing is that it creates a bubble around you and nobody can pop it.”

Are people using them properly? How could we make them better?

“I think people are using them properly. Maybe we could have more?”

“You could make them better by having a couple of pillows in the tent because the ground is quite hard especially on the lino.”

“I think people are using them properly.But a lot of people go in corners because they still think someone is going to bother them.”

“People talk while using them and I think there is no point of having sitting next to a buddy and talking because you ain’t actually using it probably”

“Yes. We can make them better by saying “please give me some time.”

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about the Flow Signs, Quiet Tents or finding quiet places to work?

“The flow signs don’t create bubbles because people ignore it and just talk OR They don’t see the signs because they are on the ground so they just talk.”

“The tents people keep asking you what are you doing whose in there and that’s annoying.”

“Some people just lean on the tent or hit the tent and tents are LOUD when that happens.”

“When I try to concentrate my friends start to talk then I forget all about everything.”

Some excellent student feedback for making the signs and tents even better! Here are some summary next steps / thoughts:

*It seems that while the signs and tents are being used, there are still substantial issues with other students not respecting the fact that others want some “alone time”.

*Perhaps increasing the amount of tents (there are only two) would provide just those few more spaces which students are requesting

*Pillows / blankets in the tents is a great idea, and would lead to them becoming more inviting and comfortable

*Ongoing education / chats are needed to so students are clear they can’t disturb others using the signs / tents

*Continued thinking / observation around groups using the signs and tents


At the same time as I gathered the above feedback, I made some small changes to the signs.

1) I realised the back of the signs – the side facing the students – were blank. A missed opportunity for further communication! I added a blue side to the back saying “It’s up to you now! Focus, think, problem solve” and changed the wording of the front a little bit for clarification. I also moved up the text a few centimetres as the metal of the cafe number holder obscured the view of the words at the bottom.

Prototype 2

2) I added some posters around the hub showing a student using a sign, with a bubble drawn around them, stating that when you see someone with a sign, don’t pop their bubble.

3) Another teacher in the hub came up with some further ideas to extend the quiet zones into other areas. We stipulated the staffroom and board room, in particular, as places where you could go for quiet work. Because it’s not in the direct 24/7 observation path of teachers, we needed to rely on students using these spaces properly and independently. To help with this, we laminated up cards to place on the wall in these spaces – the cards acting like the yellow and red cards a football referee has. If a student was to start chatting with friends in one of these spaces, another student could show them the card (as a first warning) and then show it again if the talking continues, at which point they would go back into the main hub. The cards have only been used a few times in three weeks so far!

So that is where the project currently stands. My next steps are more rounds of feedback and iterations to improve the system, and some more professional research and reading to answer some of the questions which have been raised as a result of going through this process.

Further critical questions I’ll look into:

Does “quietness” necessarily mean good learning? Does a “learning hum” necessarily mean there is collaboration happening?

Is the level of noise or distraction the big influence at play here, or rather the ability to filter that noise or distraction? Is the space or the mindset?

What effect does the routine of using a sign or a tent have on the learning one can accomplish? Does just the simple act of stepping into a tent or putting up a sign trigger some kind of creative / focused state of mind?

Are there certain tasks that are done “better” when alone or “better” together?

How much guidance do children need when introducing something like this? Is it a case of set-and-forget?


Link to Flow Sign printable