News, Uncategorized

Teaching Space as a Teaching Lab

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and programme director for Civil Engineering.

Today I continue my physical journey into the research of space as I embark on my third road trip of the year. I am back in Winchester, where I spent so many hours, ten years ago, when working on the Oxford Brookes project I discussed in my previous blog.

The reason for my visit is to revisit the architecture practice I was collaborating with to ask them their views on pedagogy informed design in higher education. Before I go any further I need to come clean, I am a huge fan of what they do. I really enjoyed working with them on Oxford Brookes and I have a great respect for their work more generally. And I am not the only one, they have been short listed three times in the last four years as Education Architect of the Year.

Photo provided by Design Engine Architects

I was expecting our conversation to be simple, straight forward and pedagogy-focussed. Instead it was wide-ranging, chaotic, with ideas flying everywhere. I tried to keep up typing away. But my notes are so wide-ranging it’s hard to know what exactly to say. So, I will do my best to summarise two different overlapping conversations.

The first is around pedagogy informed design, at some point about one and a half hours into our conversation I asked, “When you design a building do you bring a pedagogy or do you respond to the clients pedagogy?” to which Richard Jobson, one of the directors, replied, “it’s a bit of both and we look for common meeting ground. Our job is to challenge people. You can learn and talk to people and move your own thoughts on”.

This led to a much richer discussion about not just pedagogy but all the different competing stakeholders on a university project and how each one comes with an agenda, each one has set requirements and also a vision for the future. And each one is constrained by time, money, but also the needs of other stakeholders. And that the challenge to these ideas by the architect was robust, sometimes fierce and charged with emotion. We discussed how, in our collective experience, pedagogy can be discussed and agreed before a project starts (which the literature suggests is ideal), as a project starts, or some point further down the process, even sometimes after the physical building has started to be constructed.

This led to the discussion that unlike for other stakeholders like library services there is often not a dedicated group of people who are already engaged in conversations around pedagogy and space waiting for the next large building project, that these groups need to be assembled ad hoc (or even post hoc) to try and engage with the design process. As a result, it is hard to have pedagogy before a project and too often the pedagogy comes at some later point in the projects development.

Which of course leads to a bigger discussion, and one we will hopefully be able to respond to in time. Why don’t we have a group who are interested in pedagogy and space who are constantly active? Not waiting for the next project but creating their own. Who are trialling and developing teaching methods in different spaces not as a one-off event but as an ongoing discourse in pedagogy. Maybe the BILT fellowships in space are the start of this. But it strikes me this needs to be a long-term question. Buildings takes years (Oxford Brookes took 7) from idea to completion and we need conversations which understand this and develop with both the buildings and pedagogy.

John Ridgett, the project architect on Oxford Brookes, thought aloud “why not have a teaching lab? A space dedicated to trialling new teaching, both physical and digital. It could be a large warehouse with internal partitions which is designed to be constantly reconfigured”. This strikes me as a fantastic idea which I would like to explore further.

I headed out of Design Engine to walk along the road to their neighbour Winchester University. Here I can see Design Engines work in action. I am currently sitting and typing in one of their spaces. The campus is compact and vibrant with a multitude of lovely design touches. As I am shown round campus by Mat Jane of estates I am introduced to a number of people including Dave Mason who is literally in the middle of looking at furniture layouts. He describes how they, at a smaller scale, do what Design Engine were just suggesting. They trial room layouts, they play and see what works. They notice which rooms are popular and which are not, and they carry out surveys with both staff and students on which spaces they enjoy learning in. The teaching spaces became teaching laboratories.

Take the example below. One of the many observations of a teaching space is that the front rows are often empty. So they have provided different furniture at the front. Comfy seats and sofas, and suddenly the front third of the room is more heavily utilised. Of course, if this hadn’t had the desired outcome a different arrangement can be tried, and another, and another.

And so, as I reflect on my day, I am left asking myself “why haven’t I thought to do this before?”. It seems so simple, with hundreds of rooms, there is no reason why we also shouldn’t experiment, prototype and explore a wide variety of teaching spaces with a view to exploring what works and what doesn’t. Rather than wait and then refurbish large swathes of rooms with untested approaches we should play, learn, reflect and improve.

My sincere thanks go to Richard Jobson and John Ridgett of Design Engine ( for giving up two hours of their time to have such a wide-ranging conversation about the design of space and to Mat Jane who showed me around Winchester University with such enthusiasm and pride and also for all his insights on sustainability around the campus (including my free cup made from recycled chewing gum).

500 Words, News

Is There Any Link Between Design Thinking and Essays?

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Senior Teaching Fellow in Civil Engineering. 

It’s strange how a number of unconnected events can form an idea in your mind.

This weekend I stayed with my sister and we watched the film ‘Blood Diamond’, a harrowing film made in the early noughties about the illegal diamond trade. We started discussing the role of the press and, at a more meta level, the film industry, who were indirectly profiting from the same trade through film profits. It reminded me of a magazine I read a few years back called ‘Colors Magazine’. Each issue focused on a specific concept and the one that came to mind was Issue #86, which is all about making the news. In it there is a page on war photography, which included a harrowing photo seen in many newspapers. The magazine presented it by covering most of the photo and leaving just the part of the image widely presented in the press visible. Turn the page and you see the whole photo; it is a different story. Gathered around the incident are dozens of journalists and photographers capturing the moment. It is a shocking moment.

Fast forward a couple of days and I had the pleasure of meeting Ann Padley. Ann is a teaching fellow who works on the new innovation programmes and specialises in design thinking. As a designer of buildings and a teacher of people who design buildings, I would like to think I know a thing or two about design thinking. But it turns out there is a lot more for me to learn. Over a rushed lunch we discussed problem solving, problem definition and redefinition. We discussed narrative as well as more empirical ways to come to design decisions. We talked about the importance of active listening in problem definition. And we talked about something I have been struggling with, how do we differentiate between outcome and process? Is it possible for a student to successfully go through a design process but come up with a less successful solution and probably more commonly a successful solution without going through a successful design process (or at least unable to articulate the design process- something I have struggled with as an engineer across my professional career because it is actually really hard to do and requires a lot of practice)? Ann described the methods they use to set and assess design problems which don’t just focus on outcome but focus on the successful implementation of design processes.

Later that same day I spent a very enjoyable hour talking to Zoe Backhouse, one of the BILT student fellows. Our conversation was wide-ranging but covered different forms of assessment. We discussed the essays that she had written, and it started to occur to me that what is presented in an essay, much like the photos in the newspaper I mentioned at the beginning, is the story that we choose to tell. But what happened to all the other stories? How do we know that we have presented the right one?

These thoughts linked me back to my conversation with Ann. I realised that design thinking is not just important for designers but for anyone who is given a problem (or title) and then has to deconstruct the problem and find what the real problem is before deciding on the solution (when there are many possible solutions). Maybe not just engineers, but all of us would benefit both from learning to articulate not just the solution, but how we got there. The narrative around the solution. The options we considered and discarded. And maybe not only would we benefit from articulating this but also from discussing it with our friends and tutors. To receive feedback (or more precisely feedforward) not just on the output but on the processes through which we have gone to arrive at the solution (or essay).

Ann Padley is a Teaching Fellow in Design Thinking 3 days a week and is an independent consultant on design thinking for her other work days.

Zoe Backhouse is a final year student on the four year masters degree in Liberal Arts, she is a BILT student fellow and a fledgling zine maker. Zoe would welcome any musings, poems, doodles or cartoons from students & staff about your experiences of assessment at Bristol Uni. If you’re a student, you’ll get a £25 Amazon voucher for whatever you contribute! Email for more details.

Colors Magazine Issue #86 ‘Making the News’ published April 2013.      


Bristol Conversations in Education: Does School Design Matter? 16/1/2018

Professor Daniels presented an account of AHRC sponsored research that sought to address the need for learning environments to better respond to changing needs of curriculum and pedagogy.

I am a BILT Student Fellow working on the theme ReThinking Spaces and on the 16th January 2019 I attended a seminar by Professor Harry Daniels from the University of Oxford entitled ‘Does School Design Matter?’. I was particularly interested in the relationship between design and pedagogy and lessons that can be learned for the redesigning of spaces at the University.

Professor Daniels began by describing the impact that a building or physical space has on the way that we behave within it. He gave the example of starting a new job and using the built environment to help to determine the expectations for behaviour, communication and interaction. This is partly affected by physical features such as the furniture layout, lighting, and decoration, as well as the way that people interact with the space and with each other.

Professor Daniels’ journey into this area began around 2003 when, noticing the impact of wall displays in schools, he asked himself; ‘if a wall display can be powerful, what about the building itself?’ This has led him to research the perception and actions of students and teachers at four secondary schools in Kent, which were part of the Building Schools for Future (BSF) programme introduced in 2004 and were newly built or refurbished between 2010 and 2012.

Professor Daniels emphasised that the way that a space is used is not necessarily how it was designed to be used. The four schools in question were designed to promote the personalisation of learning, with teachers to be viewed as coaches or mentors. The County Council deemed that:

  • learning spaces should be versatile and flexible to cover all curriculum areas
  • there should be breakout areas and informal learning zones
  • students should have greater independence and agency over their learning
  • teachers should share many spaces with students and other staff
  • staff should teach in teams
  • there should be a high degree of visibility with the use of glass and an open plan design
  • community engagement should be promoted

The School Connectedness Questionnaire was distributed to children at the end of primary school, at the beginning of Year 7 and Year 8, and every time there was a change of headteacher. The research found that when teaching practice aligned with the design, the connectedness score was significantly higher than when the practice did not align with the intended design.

Whilst some schools found positive outcomes, with improved behaviour of students and better formative assessment practices by teachers, others struggled to use the space effectively. Two of the schools closed off open areas with glass panels or furniture, effectively attempting to reverse the radical changes that had been made. Professor Daniels explained that these differences in success can partly be accounted for by different approaches to school leadership and management. In places where high visibility was seen by management as allowing passive control and surveillance, teachers and students felt watched over, whereas in more relaxed settings where visibility was viewed as a way to promote a sense of community and belonging, staff and students enjoyed being able to collaborate and socialise more easily with others.

Where the redesign was successful, there was a strong vision from the start and an excellent programme of staff training in how to successfully work in the new spaces. Staff continue to collaborate to solve problems related to design issues and students are included in this dialogue. Staff report that students feel wanted, have improved confidence and aspirations. The open-plan environment mirrors the professional working environment and develops the skills that the commercial world is demanding. Professor Daniels highlights the importance of learning from other similar learning environments when redesigning educational spaces.

So, what does this teach us about the relationship between design and pedagogy, and what can we learn from it? This seminar highlighted to me that redesigning space does not necessarily transform pedagogy. This requires an ethos of trust where staff feel confident enough to be observed and to collaborate with others, and where staff are trained in teaching practice which aligns with the space design. In Higher Education, we need to learn from similar institutions which have redesigned their spaces to align with the shift towards more active, collaborative and inquiry-based learning. Yesterday, BILT visited the new Waterside Campus at the University of Northampton who are doing just that, and BILT are gaining staff and student perspectives on teaching spaces, as well as providing resources to staff, in the hope that our space will be fit for an imagined future.


Harry Daniels, Hau Ming Tse, Andrew Stables & Sarah Cox (2018) Design as a social practice: the experience of new-build schools, Cambridge Journal of Education, DOI: 10.1080/0305764X.2018.1503643