This article comes with resources: you can find tips and questions for each step in the Codesigning with Students Workbook
Codesigning is the process of collaboration with all stakeholders—students, educators, and everyone in-between—to design something, whether that be an event, project, planning session, proposal, or something else entirely. (Note: we will use these words interchangeably throughout this article.) As an educator, you might think it’s easier to go about your day and plan things on your own, but we know you are all looking to make experiences better for students. And you probably already know the answer, but who is going to have the best ideas for how to actually make things better? The students themselves! To make meaningful improvements for students, you must make these changes and decisions in collaboration with students.
We’re confident about telling you this because, though we are now in college, during our seven years as High Tech High students—and eventually, student leaders in the Student Ambassador program—we worked alongside our teachers and school leaders to plan and make decisions both in and out of the classroom.
In the spring of our senior year, the Improvement for Equity by Design (IExD) team at the High Tech High GSE asked the two of us to facilitate the Empathy Interview portion of their Continuous Improvement 101 workshop. If you’ve never heard of an empathy interview before, it’s a one-on-one interview in which the interviewer tries to gain insights into the interviewee’s perspective by asking open-ended questions and listening without judgment. From there, our role as Student Consultants was born. Since then, we have continued to share empathy-based strategies with educators and created our own workshops on student-voice and codesign.
Our codesign work with the GSE has spanned over the course of two years. In the spring of 2021, we met with a team of students from several High Tech High schools, ranging across all grade levels. As a group, we shared our personal experiences with codesign in order to compile some suggestions for people who were looking to get started with the process. We reflected on times when codesign went well and when it went poorly, and shared our stories in order to find some common themes. Based on our experiences, we’ve identified five steps that frequently show up in the codesign process.
While the steps and tips provided in the guide may feel like a review or basic introduction for some educators with codesigning experience, there are plenty of opportunities to level up your current plans. Roger Hart’s Ladder of Children’s Participation provides a helpful visual showing how student voice is integrated into the education space and community — our hope is that by the end of this article, you’ll leave with some ideas in mind of how to move up this ladder.
It’s important to note that the steps we’ll be discussing aren’t rigid and are simply a guide to support you through codesigning projects with students. As we dive into each of the steps, remember to take what will be most helpful for you in the process. Each codesign experience is unique and does not fit into a rigid mold.
This guide is for teachers who want to bring students into the process of designing what happens in the classroom. Because we went to a project-based school, most of our experience is in codesigning projects with teachers. Most of the content discussed in this article will be geared towards the project design process. However, you could also use the steps in this guide to design anything from college application support to the layout of your classroom!
To begin the codesign process, ask yourself two questions: Why are you choosing to codesign with students? What will student codesign bring to your project?
Effective codesign with students is likely a mindshift from what you experienced as a student. From an adult perspective, there are probably very few times in your history as a student when your voice was activated and engaged throughout the learning process. To combat your understandable tendency to replicate what was done to you, it’s helpful to pause and reflect on why you are choosing the codesign process, and what areas you might need support in making this shift of practice. For example, ask yourself if you have made any of these common mistakes:
This type of engagement practice is common and misguided. If you can reflect on what ways you have worked with or have been worked with in the past that feel both positive and negative, you are better positioned to act upon your values, design moments of belonging and inclusivity, and understand the difference between student presence and student voice.
As a senior in high school, I (Eliana) was a part of the Student Leadership Council (SLC), a group started by school administrators to bring together students from all four grade levels. The goal of SLC was to implement student voice into choices that were being made about the online schedule due to the pandemic, as well as reopening plans.
Students in SLC felt empowered to share their perspectives honestly because the school administrators embodied the first norm of the “preparation of adults” step: listen to understand. It’s not enough to have students share — adults need to make an effort to understand and be open to hearing all student perspectives. Acknowledge what the student is saying and talk about how it could be considered moving forward. Even if their input can’t be implemented, let the student know they are understood and heard. School administrators in SLC took the initiative and time to listen to students and work alongside them to integrate their ideas.
The second norm is to respect students as equal partners. Respond to students like you would to an adult. Students should be heard as a person with thoughts… because they are! Do not respond to the student like a novelty, like, “Oh how cute, she’s having grown-up thoughts.”
It’s also important to make sure you’re engaging in conversations that are relevant to the student’s knowledge and understanding of the material or topic. Students are experts in their own experience and perspective, which is a key ingredient for your work as an educator that you don’t have on your own. Students may not be experts (yet) in molecular biology or American history or educational theory, so avoid framing your feedback questions with subject matter expertise as a prerequisite. Instead, seek to understand how students experience the design of a project. You might ask questions like:
Which students should be at the table? How will you invite them to join you in the design process?
Keep in mind, students are not interchangeable! As a rising senior, I (Eliana) was asked to give feedback on a 7th grade project. While I had a lot of feedback that I could share, the demands and experiences of a rising senior are quite different from that of a middle school student, so I think the value of my feedback was limited.
You may want to invite students who have experience with the issue you want to tackle. For instance, if you’re a 12th-grade teacher designing a college essay writing workshop for your students, you may want to invite graduates who have recently gone through the process and can share what they wish they had known about the process, college essay advice, and general encouragement to rising juniors.
If you are designing a project for your class, your actual students will be the best codesigners. It can be very easy to engage with students who are more vocal, participate often, etc., but some of the most valuable information can come from students who may not fit this mold. The codesign process will be much richer if you invite and include students who:
If you’re looking for ways to expand your student group and understand the impact it’ll have on your work, we recommend watching Susan Cain’s TED Talk “The Power of Introverts” and reading Jennifer Gonzalez’s blog post “Four Ways Teachers Can Support Students of Color.”
Do a little work to cultivate interest in the design process itself. Let students know that their contributions would be very valuable to you, the entire classroom, and/or school community. The best way to do this is to integrate their feedback early and often. But be careful—the opposite is also true! If students see that you are not integrating their input, they may become less willing to engage.
When engaging in codesign, it can be tempting to jump straight into the design process; however, it’s important to think about the dynamic between your students as well. If students are not comfortable with each other, they may feel less inclined to speak up and share their ideas. Consider inviting students with similar experiences or interests so that they feel comfortable enough to share their thoughts or make a plan for how you will create a safe space for sharing across status differences. One idea we have that’s worked for us in the past is setting and creating norms with students. When I (Shreena) was in middle school, my class would do personal group discussions. Everyone would set and review the student-created norms before every conversation. This allowed everyone to feel more comfortable when sharing.
We hope that your biggest takeaway from this section is to make the process fit the students, don’t fit the students to the process. Let the students drive the work!
Now that you have your team, how can you ensure students are as prepared as possible to codesign with you?
Let students know what you expect from them and give them time to prepare. For example:
There was this one time I (Shreena) felt woefully unprepared for my Empathy Interview. I was set and ready to interview a few students at a Continuous Improvement workshop, but the students never arrived. At the last minute, I had to prepare questions to interview my former principal, who happened to be in the Zoom room, about a whole new topic. This was a stressful experience for me, but it serves as a great learning lesson that can be applied to the codesign process! If students do not have ample time to prepare for their roles, they might feel unprepared for what you are asking them to do during the event/meeting.
Our second tip for this step is to create a space for students to get to know each other. For many students, one of the most dreaded experiences is being introduced to someone new over email — it is incredibly awkward! As an 8th grader, I (Eliana) participated in a youth summit for climate activism. A few weeks before the summit, we were asked to introduce ourselves to each other through email. (Imagine dozens of middle school and high school students from around the world trying to establish connections through email! Hint: pure chaos!) While the intention of having students build connections prior to the conference was well-meant, not all of us had the skills to introduce ourselves, follow up through email, and manage an email thread.
Another form of communication, such as a more casual group chat where students can easily reply to one another, could have been more effective in that situation. There are numerous creative ways you can allow students to connect with one another. You can pick out some fun icebreakers that students can do with each other in person, or over Zoom, that can serve as a good point of connection rather than an awkward email introduction.
There’s no clear-cut way to design your event. We wish we could say that there’s some sort of magic formula for event design that will work every time, but it will vary depending on your discipline and the stage of planning that you need feedback on. However, we do have some tips to make this process easier.
Our first tip for this step is to organize your time well so that there is equitable airtime. Take space to speak, but also give others the space to speak, and actively make students feel that they are part of the meeting. Don’t assume that equitable participation will happen naturally. It’s not awesome when one student is given more airtime than the rest, or when the time is unorganized and airtime ends up being unequal. Some strategies we’ve seen work well in the past include using a “talking object” to symbolize whose turn it is to speak. Students have the option to skip their turn, but this method allows everyone an equal opportunity to share. If you’re facilitating the event, you may find it helpful to take note of who is taking up space and noticing if you need to help create space (usually through gentle reminders, or promptings) for all students to have the chance to share.
The second tip is to be clear about students’ roles in the session. Are students acting as facilitators? Decision-makers? Feedback-givers? Make sure that both adult and student participants are clear about their roles. In addition, be clear about what students’ ownership is over the project and that more ownership often means more involvement in the planning. For example, if a student is involved throughout the entire codesign process, they are going to have more ownership over the project, but they will also be putting much more thought, energy, and time into the codesign process. On the other hand, a single codesign event in which a student is only giving feedback after the project planning has taken place will require less time and commitment from students, but perhaps also mean they have less ownership over the project.
The last tip is to make sure everyone has the opportunity to contribute in a way they feel comfortable with. For example, if your event is on Zoom, you could open up the chat for contributions, make breakout rooms, or let people prepare their contributions in advance. Don’t expect everyone to feel comfortable just jumping into a conversation with a new group.
There are a few more considerations as you plan for your event:
Keep these questions in mind as you begin planning for your event.
When I (Eliana) was a 7th grader, one of my humanities teachers invited several students from our class to provide feedback on a humanities project that had already been developed. It was made clear to us that it was not mandatory that we participate, but that she would love our input if we were interested and comfortable. She was also intentional about stating what our role would be in the codesign process (in that instance, it was providing feedback). I decided to accept! During the event, my teacher pitched the project to us, then asked if it was one we would be interested in, and if not, what could be improved about the project. The project was generally well-received by all of us, and ended up being implemented the next semester. Overall, my teacher did a great job with the codesign process. She prepared us ahead of time by making expectations clear and created room for student voice. If she had wanted to improve her codesign process and make room for more robust feedback, it may have been helpful for her to offer multiple mediums for us to submit feedback, such as a written format.
How will student ideas be incorporated into the project design? How will you acknowledge student participation in the codesign process?
It’s easy to forget about this step, but it’s important to thank everyone involved in the codesign process and keep them updated. After wrapping up a Continuous Improvement workshop, I (Shreena) am always thanked for taking the time to engage with the participants, which makes me feel appreciated for taking time out of my day to work alongside stakeholders. After the workshop is over, I receive an email from the IExD team, thanking me for my work and outlining the next steps of the project. These emails let me know what will happen next in the process, leaving room for open communication even after the event. The emails also often share the impact of the event, shoutouts, feedback, and more. All in all, it’s important to inform students about the next steps of the project and take time to reflect with students about the process thus far. This step helps ensure that educators are taking students’ ideas into account and actively trying to find ways to incorporate them.
That was a lot of information! From all of this, we really want you to take away that in order for the codesigning process to be meaningful and fruitful, genuine participation and authenticity on the educators’ part are necessary for students to put in that same effort. Students want to thrive in school, and by giving them opportunities to be creative and collaborate on what they want to see and do in their school, educators and students can make school a better learning environment for everyone. Codesigning can allow you to better understand students’ needs, discover what is relevant and important to students, and can also support you in creating projects and curricula that are more engaging to students.