Selected Literature:

  1. Blackmore, J., Bateman, D., Loughlin, J., O’Mara, J., & Aranda, G. (2011). Research into the connection between built learning spaces and student outcomes (Literature review No. 22). Melbourne, Australia: Victoria Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Retrieved from:
  2. Brown, T & Katz, B (2011). Change by design: how design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. HarperCollins e-books.
  3. Bryant Bradburn, F. (2013). Redesigning our role while redesigning our libraries. Knowledge Quest. (42, 1). 52-57.
  4. Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking. Design Issues. (8, 2). 5-21
  5. Hughes, H., Bland, D., Willis, J., Elliott Burns, R. (2015). A happy compromise: collaborative approaches to school library designing. The Australian Library Journal, DOI: 10.1080/00049670.2015.1033380
  6. Long, P.D. and Ehrmann, S.C. (July-Aug, 2005). Future of the learning space: breaking out of the box. Educause. Retrieved from:


Educational institutions are being challenged to conceive or reconceive learning spaces to meet the ever- evolving needs of learners and community.  Libraries are often at the forefront of this movement. The literature within this critique provide reflections of design in relation to theory, learning spaces including educational libraries, teacher practice and student learning. However, two main themes that will be explored within the selected literature are the concepts of flexibility and collaboration in design.

Key terms implicit within the design of library spaces are central to exploring the critiqued literature.  The space which ‘shapes’ social relations and practices (formal and informal social interactions) within a library space will change the nature, use and experience of the space (Blackmore, Bateman, Loughlin, O’Mara & George. 2011, p. 3). The built environment of the library space (Blackmore, Bateman, Loughlin, O’Mara & Aranda, 2011, p. iv) includes both external and internal spaces, shared community facilities and landscapes as well as associated technologies. Built pedagogy considers how the design of built spaces (embodying pedagogical philosophies of their designers) influence the behaviours and actions of individuals within those spaces (Monahan, 2002, p. 5; Long & Ehrmann, 2005, p. 48).


The theory of design continues to expand its meanings and connections thus revealing unexpected dimensions in practice and understanding (Buchanan, 1992, p. 5). Even the subject matter of design is potentially universal in scope, because design thinking may be applied to any area of human experience (Buchanan 1992, p. 16). In a linear definition, design is the process that converts ideas into form, in its varied constituencies, whether product, service, process, model (Kuratko, Goldsworth & Hornsby 2012, pp. 103-4). In practice, design is more than an agent of change, it is change (Doorley & Witthoft, 2012, p. 136).

Different conceptual design frameworks emerge from the critiqued literature. For Buchanan, the complexity of design is based in signs, things, actions and thoughts which are interconnected and merge ‘with surprising consequences for innovation’ (1992, p. 10).  These identify a changing set of ‘placements’ which provide boundaries and shape to constrain meaning, and give context or orientation to thinking.  Significantly, they provide for the ‘invention of possibilities’ – the generation of new perceptions and possibilities to be applied and tested to problems in concrete situations (Buchanan, 1992, p. 13).

Brown aligns with Buchanan’s view of exploring different possibilities. However, Change by Design is more practically oriented, looking at design thinking within organizations. This includes the non-linear, iterative ‘three spaces of innovation’ – inspiration, ideation and implementation. These spaces provide a framework for addressing real issues considering what is desirable from the user’s perspective, what is technically feasible and what is commercially viable for the organization (Brown, 2011; Bryant Bradburn, 2013, p. 53; Kimbell, 2011, p. 12). The design thinking approach encourages the creation of a ‘prototyping culture’ that encourages experimentation and risks.  This is a culture where students are challenged and supported to develop deep levels of thinking and application (State of Victoria, 2008, 18).

Buchanan declared there was no area of contemporary life where design is not a significant factor in shaping human experience (Buchanan, 1992, p. 8).  Brown consolidates this understanding, seeing design thinking as not only human-centred – but deeply human in and of itself (Brown, 2009, p. 4).   It is for this reason that Brown advocates that we return human beings to the centre of the story and put people first (Brown, 2009, p. 39). As such, we need to design with the user in mind, and include them in the design process to allow for immediate feedback (Kuratko, 2012, p. 110). To do so requires empathy and understanding the world through their experiences and emotions (Brown, 2009, p. 50). Watson (2014, p.112) when considering experience is adamant there is “a requirement for intimate knowledge of those who use our facilities, which translates into an understanding of how they experience, and how they feel about how they experience, our libraries and learning spaces”. This is also about bringing the power of the story into design.  As educators and librarians, our students are the centre of our story and our library spaces, or rather should be.  However, what the critiqued literature reveals is students are still on the fringes of designing spaces – passive onlookers rather than engaged participants.

 Design and flexibility

The concept of flexibility is complex.  Within the design thinking process, flexibility is a vital component due to its experimental nature. It allows for engaging with the realm of possibilities (McIntosh, 2014, p. 117). Flexibility also brings with it the connotation of change and adaptation. However, it can also bring ambiguity and a need for caution. McIntosh warns of the need to be aware of how ‘flexible spaces’ has entered the design jargon and become a loaded slogan (McIntosh, 2014, p. 84).

Within the school environment, physical flexibility refers to the adjustability of a space to the practice and behaviour of individuals (Moos & Sommers in Webb, Schaller & Hunley, 2008, p. 409). Monahan extends this to include the concept of ‘sociality’ as a flexible spatial practice which recognizes the relationship between individuals, spaces and practices (Monahan, 2002, p. 7). Brown affirms how social and spatial environments – physical and psychological spaces – of an organization work together to define the effectiveness of the people within it (Brown, 2009, p. 32).  As David Kelley remarks in the opening forward to Make Space, “Consciously or not, we feel and internalize what the space tells us about how to work” (Doorley & Witthoft, 2012, p.  5). Educational libraries indeed reveal how human spatial behaviours such as privacy, territoriality and personal space exhibit themselves on one hand; but also incorporate the collaborative, social aspect where people come together and feel they belong to a community of learners (Webb, Schaller & Hunley, 2008, p. 409).

Educational institutions have furthered their understanding of the connection between pedagogical approaches and spatial principles.  Thus “Good design places a strong emphasis on flexibility, with spaces capable of supporting different styles of learning” (State of Victoria, 2008, pp. 6, 9-10).

Flexibility may also refer to the ability of a built space to accommodate future changes in policy, demographics or community needs (Monahan, 2002, p. 1) allowing facilities to support quality improvements in teaching and learning activities and to adapt to changing needs and circumstances (Long & Erhmann, 2005, p. 56).

Design and Collaboration

Collaboration and team building are common components of the teaching and learning process (Forrest & Hinchcliffe, 2005). A wide variety of factors contribute to collaboration, including space. Collaboration is about tapping the collective intelligence and inventing ‘new and radical forms of collaboration that blurs the boundaries between creators and consumers’ (Brown, 2009, pp. 56-57). It is about the ‘user’ as an active participant in the process of creation, sharing responsibility for the collective ownership of ideas (Brown, 2009, pp. 27, 59) which adheres to a constructivist mode of learning. Within a design process, this includes listening to and working with children and teachers to transform both learning spaces and pedagogical approaches (Blackmore, Bateman, Loughlin, O’Mara & Aranda, 2011, pp. 10, 37). The Reimagining learning spaces study (Willis, Bland, Hughes, & Elliott Burns, 2013) referenced in the critiqued literature, A happy compromise: collaborative approaches to school library designing, considered community input into school library design, including the importance of student voices and their imaginings about what constitutes an ideal library (Hughes et al, 2015, p. 3).

An analysis: design and conceiving libraries as learning spaces

An analysis of the critiqued literature has revealed some key tensions, discord and contradictions when it comes to flexibility and collaboration in conceiving library/learning spaces.

The literature of Buchanan and Brown complement each other. While Brown may fail to reference wider theories or draw extensively on research (Kimbell, 2011, pp. 11-12) the strength in Change by Design is that it moves beyond the narrow confines of how designers see and think (Razzouk, R, 2012, p. 334) to real-world application, including design, implementation and evaluation of new school library spaces in relation to emerging roles of the librarian (Bryant Bradburn, 2013, p. 54).

Collaboration proves to be somewhat of a ‘wicked problem’ when participants from different areas with a shared mutual interest in a common theme come together with little understanding of each other (Buchanan, 1992, p. 14).  A ‘wicked problem’ is an area that is ambiguous and complex when every attempted solution may change the problem itself (McIntosh, 2014, p. 80).  Even working collaboratively within innovative spaces can prove to be problematic if the teaching and learning practices do not align to use them in effective ways.

Brown acknowledges that there are times when it makes more sense to go outside the organization and look for opportunities and source experts (Brown, 2009, p. 231). While this is a necessary step, it could create its own tension if the designer/s work individually to imagine likely future learning activities and then design the space. One school library scenario saw the librarian and architect experiencing difficulties in establishing a collaborative working relationship due to ‘differing visions of a library and the architect’s limited familiarity with the teacher librarian’s role’ (Hughes, Bland, Willis, & Elliott Burns, 2015, p. 7). The other side of the spectrum see designers collaborating with users to ask what kind of learning spaces are desirable and why, and then designing to bring those spaces into existence (Monahan, 2002, p. 6).

The organisational cultures and leadership that facilitate or impede innovative pedagogies in new or reconceived spaces is a key issue that needs further research (Blackmore et al., 2011, p. v.).  Difficulties arise in educational organizations as support from the leadership team is not forth coming when innovative ideas lie outside the range of the strategic five year plan (McIntosh, 2014, p. 14). For this reason, Brown argues for the need of the skills of design thinking to migrate outward into all parts of organizations and upward into the highest levels of leadership (Brown, 2009, p. 147).  However, the reality is that leadership remains a critical concern, indirectly influencing student learning and education change (Blackmore et al, 2011, p. 19).

Linda Hill noted ‘most innovations are the result of bottom-up, not top-down initiatives’ (Cook, 2014); yet in practice many discussions about potential innovation in schools take place in meetings where only certain people get invited, and rarely is the whole school involved nor groups empowered with ownership and credibility to come to decisions on issues that affect the whole school (McIntosh, 2014, p. 46). At the same time there is, as Linda Hill acknowledges, an “unavoidable paradox at the heart of innovation which is the need to unleash the talents of individuals and harness those talents in the form of a solution that is useful to the organization” (Cook, 2014). It is a tension not easily resolved.

Collaboration involves all participants working together to achieve a common purpose. The level of student/user voice and active participation in conceiving learning space/s is problematic and a source of discord within the critiqued literature. Research has raised questions about the absence of student voices as principal school library users with limited or overlooked opportunities for student participation in the design process (Hughes, Bland, Willis, & Elliott Burns, 2015, pp. 10-11). This is echoed in another of the critiqued literature with acknowledgement of  ‘the often unheard voices of students and teachers’ whose involvement are yet central to ensure designs for learning spaces meet expectations and requirements (State of Victoria, 2008, p. 15).  This in juxtaposition to the independent active, collaborative learning behaviours of students in classroom practice.

There are elements of tension even when participatory design processes appeared to be followed within the critiqued literature.  In one study, in eliciting user feedback the ‘teacher-librarian recommended the teacher and students to be interviewed’ (Willis, Bland, Hughes, & Elliott Burns, 2013, p. 3). The result perhaps confirmed what the researchers already knew (Brown, 2009, p. 42). A design thinking approach would have ‘looked at the edges’ and included ‘extreme users’ (Brown, 2011, p. 382) specifically those teachers and students who traditionally did not use the library or seek collaboration with the teacher librarian. Input from this group could have led to insight into smaller challenges and possible new strategies and visions (Brown, 2009, p. 231; McIntosh, 2014, p. 69). As Brown stated, watch what people don’t do, listen to what they don’t say’ (Brown, 2009, p. 42).

A dominant theme, within this critique, has been the requirement for learning spaces to be flexible, pedagogically and physically, in ways that reflect the different knowledge areas (Blackmore, Bateman, Loughlin, O’Mara & Aranda, 2011, p. 8).  All libraries are hybrid community spaces that must respond to varied needs of multiple users (Hughes, Bland, Willis, & Elliot Burns, 2015; Partnership for 21st century skills, p. 20).  The reality of how well libraries meet the varied needs is far ranging, with more research evidence required documenting how students and teachers engage with designs for learning spaces (Crook, 2012, p. 121). Initial observations of a shared upper elementary and middle school (secondary) library catering to 1121 students in an international school library revealed a tension with the current design and acoustics and the use of the space which was a barrier to productivity for multiple users (Barrett, 2015, July 23).

School libraries are seen as ‘as an extension of the classroom’ requiring space to ’embody new pedagogies, including collaborative and interactive modalities’ (Freeman, 2055 in Watson, 2011, p. 111).  Research reveals that users value the library as a place – to provide a flexible space that meets their shifting needs (Webster, 2010, p. 11) and librarians ‘have reawakened to the place-making role of the library building’ (Demas & Sherer in Elmborg, 2011, p. 340).

Yet, school facilities, especially library spaces, may be used in ways different from the original intention. School library spaces are often used for multi-purposes such as exam centres, staff professional development, marketing purposes or whole school events which may positively or negatively affect teaching and learning within the library  environment. This provides a sense of discord if these purposes were not originally envisaged with the design of the library space.

However, this is counter-balanced when students themselves adapt and use spaces within the library environment to best fit their different needs (Monahan 2002, p. 7; Long & Ehrmann, 2005, p. 46; Webb, Schaller & Hunley. 2008, p. 419).  A lunchtime observation of an international library space exemplified this when students ‘moved in’ and settled in spaces whether it be on the floor or in hidden corners or at the tables to study, read or play games (Barrett, 2015, August 7).  The critiqued literature also echoed a similar scenario where while community stakeholders i.e. the students and librarian had no say in the design process of their new secondary library, students still had a sense of ownership and community about the library as they developed collaborative ways of using the library space for differing purposes, as a place for social interaction and learning (Hughes, Bland, Willis, & Elliott Burns, 2015, 5-6).

However, the creation of flexible spaces does not necessarily guarantee flexible practices (Monahan, 2002, 6). Teachers and students must know the intended uses and how the new or reconceived space/s can be best used to achieve desired outcomes (State of Victoria, 2008, 12).  Furthermore, “Lippincott (2009) found that while new – and newly renovated – classroom buildings, libraries and computing labs were highlights of campus tours for prospective students, the buildings themselves did not result in changes to pedagogical practices or to student learning unless teachers and students were involved in their design”  (Blackmore, Bateman, Loughlin, O’Mara & Aranda, 2011, p. 21).


To conclude, the research provides essential groundwork when conceiving and designing spaces for learning in physical domains. Overall, the literature reveals the importance in taking time to constantly reflect about learning spaces and how they might be made better (McIntosh, 2014, p. 44). They open doorways for consideration before we jump into the design process, even when they provide more questions than answers. Wicked problems in design thinking (1992) gives us the necessary background into the realm of possibilities.  Change by design (2009) provides us with a practical blueprint on how to approach design thinking within our organizations. Future of the learning space: breaking out of the box reminds us that the classroom (or library) of the future is shaped by changes in our own beliefs about learning spaces (2005, p. 56). A happy compromise: collaborative approaches to school library designing gives us insight into the variables, both positive and negative, involved in designing school library spaces. Redesigning our role while redesigning our libraries (2013) takes us on a reflective design thinking process, pondering questions that librarians need to make in the creation of library spaces. Research into the connection between built learning spaces and student outcomes (2011) challenges us to consider gaps in the literature and poses questions to consider…So where to next? Perhaps careful consideration of questions of flexibility and collaboration that evolve from the literature and translates to an educational library space in (re)conceiving spaces for learning. How might we…

How might teachers and students shape space for themselves pedagogically in the library?

How does the flexibility of space and mobility of technology and furniture impact on the use of space in the library and learning by our users?

How might we assist collaborative learning?

How might we create a better sense of connection and belonging? What are the emotional factors that will lead our students into our library spaces?

How might we improve the library experience to make more students and teachers use the library services?




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Blackmore, J., Bateman, D., Loughlin, J., O’Mara, J. & Aranda, G. (2011). Research into the connection between built learning spaces and student outcomes (Literature review No. 22). Melbourne: Victoria Department of Education and Early Childhood development. Retrieved from:

Brown, J.S. (2005). New Learning Environments for the 21st Century. Retrieved from:

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Cook, G. (2014, October). How to manage a creative organization: Harvard Business School’s Linda Hall explains how to unleash “collective genius”. Scientific American. Retrieved from:

Crook, C. & Mitchell, G. (2012, June). Ambience in social learning: student engagement with new designs for learning spaces, Cambridge Journal of Education, 42(2) 121-139.

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Elmborg, J. K. (2011, Summer). Libraries as the spaces between us: recognizing and valuing the third space. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 50(4).  Retrieved from:

Forrest, C. & Hinchcliffe, L.J. (2005, Summer). Beyond classroom construction and design: formulating a vision for learning spaces in libraries. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 44(4). pp. 296-300. Retrieved from:

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Webb, K.M., Schaller, M.A., & Hunley, S.A. (2008, October). Measuring library space use and preferences: charting a path toward increased engagement. Libraries and the Academy. 8(4). 407-422. Retrieved from: doi: 10.1353/pla.0.0014

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