An Institute of
Champions Of Design Thinking

The Centre of Excellence for Design and Innovation at Commonwealth Secondary School (CSS) is a trailblazer for rethinking learning spaces. Its advocates, Mr Nah Hong Leong and Ms Chang Tian Ju, share valuable insights on how to make design thinking work in a school environment.

How did CSS go into design thinking?
Hong Leong (HOD for Research, Innovation and Design): The journey started back in 2013 when we set out to redesign the Digital and Technology Laboratory with the guidance of Singapore Polytechnic. We have been experimenting with design thinking ever since to re-conceptualise learning spaces from the perspectives of our students and teachers. As the Head of Research, Innovation and Design, I chair the Design Thinking Committee which now drives the initiative to redesign learning spaces in CSS.
Tian Ju (HOD for English Language and Literature): As a member of the Design Thinking Committee, I share the team’s belief that we can utilise every facility and common area in the school, including the canteen and surrounding landscape, to facilitate learning in students. The focus on design thinking has already yielded positive learning outcomes among our students.
How do you go about reimagining learning spaces?
Hong Leong: You have to keep an open mind and focus on how the space can help to support the learning experience and outcome for the students. As a Biology teacher, I like to conduct my lessons in the library where students can choose from its variety of space options for collaboration or presentation. They have found this flexibility invigorating as it empowers them to take charge of their own learning.
Tian Ju: There is a fair amount of trial and error in the process. The library Hong Leong has mentioned is a good example. During the renovation, we were unable to fill up the library fully with tables and chairs due to budget constraint. Instead, we decided to create some booths by setting some couches against the walls. It turned out that the students loved these open alcoves and used them extensively for reading and reflection. This experience gave us the license to rethink the traditional library space and functions. Today, the CSS library offers a variety of learning spaces from reading nooks and group discussion rooms to chill-out zones, and even a mini-amphitheatre.
How about the classrooms? How do you juice them up?
Tian Ju: We noticed that while the world is fast evolving around us, our classrooms, which are designed for passive learning, have remained relatively unchanged. So, we try to recreate the classrooms as spaces that can nudge positive learning behaviours, encourage student participation, and make lessons less didactic. For instance, multiple writing surfaces are provided to encourage student contribution, and students can rearrange the chairs and tables anytime for individual learning or group work. We discovered, among other things, that students desire to learn from their peers rather than from their teachers alone, and even quiet students want to have their voices heard. This has inspired us to optimise the classrooms to create opportunities for more interaction among students.
What is a major challenge you’ve faced during implementation?
Hong Leong: I would say the biggest hurdle is deep-seated mindset. It is very tempting for teachers to fall back on familiar ways of the conventional classroom with the constraints of hectic school timetables, instead of focusing on enhancing the students’ learning experiences, which require efforts to plan ahead and manage a seemingly disorderly classroom setting. To help teachers overcome such mindsets, we’re conducting workshops for teachers to learn and share on how they and their students can get the most out of these new collaborative learning spaces.
Should design thinking be on every principal’s to-do checklist?
Tian Ju: As a teacher, I find it extremely rewarding to find my students actively using the writing surfaces to share their thoughts and defend their opinions. The redesigned spaces have clearly empowered and energised them, making them more open and receptive to learning. It’s important for teachers to look beyond conventional passive learning environments, and learn to create enabling space where our students can truly engage and immerse themselves into the learning experience.
Hong Leong: The school environment, including its facilities, is an integral part of the students’ total learning experience. Design thinking should not be on every principal’s checklist, it should be an integral part of every educator’s skillset and mindset. However, there is no design cook book to follow as the learning needs can vary under different systems. Schools can learn through their own pilots and experiments or from other schools that have applied design thinking.