Moffitt Library, University of California, Berkeley
Moffitt Library, University of California, Berkeley

Designing for All Learners: 5 Myths Debunked

This article is part of our series on Stories of Belonging – engaging diverse users through an inclusive process in order to design for equitable outcomes.

When it comes to designing for education, it’s time to flip the model. The “average learner” is a myth. Our forthcoming Education Experience Index research has shown that if we are to design for all learners, we must design to the edges. By engaging over 100 undergraduate students from 35 different institutions throughout the U.S. through surveys and ethnographic shadowing interviews, it became evident that each student has a jagged profile that uniquely describes how he/she best engages with learning. Instead of designing to the mythical “average learner” and adapting to accommodate outliers, it’s time we design to the edges. By designing to the edges, to the extreme users, we design for everyone in between.

The biggest danger of the notion of the “average learner” is that it kills curiosity in the designer. The notion of average learners fosters the illusion that, as designers and facilitators of learning, we know what “most students” need to collaborate, to focus, and to engage. Our research reveals five myths of what many of us “think we know,” but in fact doesn’t hold true when we seek to engage and design for all learners.

The Christine E. Lynn University Center, Boca Raton, Florida

Myth 1 | Focus spaces are distraction-free spaces

Though focus work is typically a solo activity that does not involve direct interaction with others, many learners seek high-energy, noisy spaces like coffee shops, open coworking spaces, and studio or workshop environments to be able to focus best. These spaces, filled with other productive workers, provide some students the motivation to engage in their work, while also providing distractions and amenities when they need a break.

Myth 2 | Collaboration spaces are open, high-energy spaces
When learners seek a space to collaborate with a project team, many express the need for enclosed, calm spaces where the group can come together and feel ownership of the space. Teams often prefer distraction-less spaces where they can be loud or quiet, have access to technology if needed, and have the freedom to arrange the space to meet their needs.

Lamar University Science & Technology Building, Beaumont, Texas. © Gensler/Ryan Gobuty.
Myth 3 | Introverts like to see, extroverts like to be seen
Across the range of students who self-identified as introverts, extroverts, and everything in between, the theme of seeing and being seen was recurrent in shaping their optimal environment for focus or collaboration. Some prefer the ability to observe others without being seen, while others prefer the opportunity to see everyone, everything, and be seen by others. Every combination of seeing/not seeing others and being seen/not being seen by others was expressed, with no correlation to extroversion. No matter the preference, however, the importance of providing choice to allow for a full spectrum of experiences was a consensus.

Myth 4 | Grouping learners by similarities aids in the design process
Embrace complexity. Grouping learners based on a set of similarities (age, extroversion, cultural background, etc.) doesn’t mean they engage and learn in the same way. By focusing on the extreme traits we can more adequately provide choice, variety, and flexibility in the built environment to engage all learners.

Myth 5 | Designing to the average is inclusive of more people than designing to the outliers
As Harvard researcher Todd Rose puts it, “It is not that the average is never useful. Averages have their place. But the moment you need to make a decision about any individual — the average is useless. Worse than useless, it creates the illusion of knowledge, when in fact the average disguises what is most important about an individual.” If we are to design the optimal learning experience for each individual, we must ensure the voices shaping the design are as diverse as possible and include individuals who have a lived experience of the “extreme users.”

The Christine E. Lynn University Center, Boca Raton, Florida

Ultimately, it is not about designing one optimal learning experience for all people, but designing multiple, diverse pathways so that every learner can engage. “The higher the engagement a student has with their learning, the higher their success rate is going to be,” states Dr. Brian Ralph, William Peace University. As we design the next generation of learning spaces, fostering deep engagement in each learner is critical to our practice.

By designing to the edges, we provide the space for each learner to take ownership over their learning, igniting innovation and invention. “A group that includes diverse perspectives, especially perspectives from the margins, trumps a group of the ‘best and brightest,’ in decision-making, accurate prediction and innovation,” affirms researcher Scott Page, University of Michigan. By designing to the edges, we design the future of healthier, wealthier, and wiser societies.

Patricia Nobre
Patricia is a senior design strategist who believes in the power of design to engage all learners. She brings over a decade of experience in designing innovative learning environments throughout Latin America, the Middle East, and the United States. Her academic background in architecture and education give her the tools to affect substantive and effective change in how we learn. Contact her at .
Erin Cubbison
As a strategy director based in Gensler's Oakland office, Erin has a wealth of experience in design performance and focuses on social, economic, and environmental factors. She has worked with a variety of organizations — including businesses, public agencies, community groups, and educational organizations — to engage with users and develop strategies for maximizing design impact. Erin's expertise includes ethnographic research, real estate analysis, and environmental performance frameworks. Contact her at
Allison Bulgart
Allie is a design strategist within Gensler’s Consulting practice, collaborating with clients around the world to affect real, substantive, and effective change within learning and work environments. Allie works closely with educational leaders and interdisciplinary teams to employ collaborative and creative processes that explore the physical, social, and cultural aspects of the built environment. Contact her at