Elevating Youth Voice: the Power of Participatory Design

Every summer for the past 23 years, Project Zero has hosted an annual institute on teaching and learning known as the Project Zero Classroom at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The institute is a convening of educators, administrators, and professionals from the non-profit and technology sectors from around the world. Throughout the week, participants attend a series of plenaries, study groups, and interactive courses, or sessions geared at exploring and trying out Project Zero ideas as well as other innovative pedagogical practices shared by members of the Project Zero community.

Out of Eden Learn (OOEL) educator Natalie Belli has regularly co-facilitated the Out of Eden Learn interactive course at Project Zero Classroom with members of the OOEL team. Natalie teaches at a public elementary school in Marblehead, Massachusetts. For three years, Natalie’s students participated in the course by sharing their work and engaging in dialogue with institute participants. In an effort to make this collaboration between researchers, educators and students more participatory, we tried something different this year. Two of Natalie’s rising 6th-grade students, Tatum Amberik and Finn Bergquist, co-designed and co-facilitated the 2.5-hour interactive course, drawing from their experiences as participants in Out of Eden Learn. Tatum and Finn led the majority of the course, with support from OOEL research assistant Susie Blair, Natalie and me.

Facilitation team

The OOEL facilitation team in front of the Project Zero project wall (left to right): Susie Blair, Sarah Sheya, Finn Bergquist, Tatum Amberik, Natalie Belli. The OOEL interactive course was offered two times during the week of Project Zero Classroom.

The most common uses of the term “participatory design,” also known as co-design, stem from the fields of IT, product design, and urban planning, which focus on the idea of “customer co-creation” (Trischler et al., 2018). However, the concept of participatory design has become common vernacular in a number of arenas in which there is an interplay of power, positionality, decision-making, and the voices of various stakeholders. There have even been exploratory studies involving learners in co-designing instruction (Konings et al., 2010). Some readers may notice connections between participatory instructional design and Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), a method of research that has developed over the past 10-15 years and is centered specifically around empowering young people to lead research projects within their communities, alongside practitioners and researchers, often in order to investigate community issues and propose and enact solutions (Caraballo et al. 2017).

At Out of Eden Learn, we believe it makes complete sense to involve students in the design of instructional sessions that focus on exploring and unpacking their own learning as well as the pedagogical practices that were most meaningful for them. After all, students make the best teachers. Our approach resonates with the notion of participatory creativity, which emphasizes that creativity is a distributed and participatory process (Clapp, 2016). We entered into the co-design and co-facilitation process of this year’s interactive course in that distributed and participatory spirit. We were intentional in honoring youth participation and themes common to participatory practices, such as elevating youth voice, holding space for youth agency, and, perhaps most importantly, simply listening to the young people involved in the design.

Participatory instructional design also provides opportunities for young people to authentically demonstrate their understanding and inquiry. Student co-facilitator, Finn, says it best: “During the mini course, I was able to be the teacher and the teachers were the students so they could see both sides of the learning environment.” She continues, “I also noticed how the participants seemed surprised when they found out what amazing work students can produce if teachers just let them color outside the lines a little, or even create their own design.”

This year the planning process was much different from previous years. Rather than assigning students their roles in facilitating, we began our initial planning meeting with a few open-ended questions, directed at the students: “What is the story you want to tell? What have you done on OOEL that is meaningful to you? What would you tell a friend who knew nothing about OOEL?”

Finn and Tatum dove right into brainstorming and reflecting on their experiences, then quickly began crafting ideas on how they might present their learning. The students seemed naturally empowered, which undoubtedly is a result of Natalie’s practice of cultivating student voice and agency in her classroom. Student co-facilitator Tatum explains, “It was a really different and cool experience to be teaching the teachers, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable talking to adults because we do so much debating in Mrs. Belli’s class. We don’t talk to her like she’s our teacher. We talk to her like she’s our friend.”

Tatum and Finn chose to center the course around a particular Out of Eden Learn footstep (or activity) that they had both enjoyed doing as participants in OOEL. The footstep is titled “Noticing Global Forces in the Everyday.” They began the session by introducing the term “global forces.” They then invited participants to brainstorm some common global forces, as well as connections between these forces. As participants offered up their ideas, Finn and Tatum drew a concept web on the whiteboard, making visible their students’ thoughts. They were also prepared to add in some examples along the way to keep the conversation going.

Finn reflects on this experience: “I found that when we were doing the mind map, people were just skimming the surface, not deepening their thoughts. I remembered back to when I first started Out of Eden Learn, this was like me just skimming the surface. After a little bit of nudging here or there, and by the end of the session, we were having more deep, more intricate discussions leading to questions, connections, wonders, and endless thoughts.”

After inviting participants to map connections between different global forces, Tatum and Finn then asked the class to go out into Harvard Square and try out the footstep. The instructions, adapted from the OOEL curriculum, were simple:

  • Take a slow walk of your own
  • Notice global forces along your walk; you can choose to photograph, sketch or film what you see
  • Along your walk, write down your ideas and questions

Tatum and Finn offered some strategies for slow looking and careful observation, inviting participants to “relish what they see” along their walks. The young facilitators also generated some reflection questions in preparation for the course, and when participants returned from taking walks, they were invited to debrief in small groups and consider the following questions:

  • What surprised you during your walk?
  • What were your strategies for noticing global forces?

Then when it came time to share out to the larger group, Finn and Tatum asked:

  • What did you learn from your partner/small group?
  • What did you do on your walk that was different from your partner/small group?

Reflecting on this segment of the session, Tatum says, “I loved talking to the mini course participants because of all the different perspectives they shared. On the Out of Eden Learn platform, we talk to other kids, so it was interesting to see how adults did one of the footsteps.”

The final student-led component of the course involved Finn and Tatum sharing some of their work from the Out of Eden Learn platform, which we printed and hung around the room. Tatum and Finn invited participants to use an analog version of OOEL’s online Dialogue Toolkit to comment on their work. Participants posted sticky-note comments to the work and engaged in informal conversations with the facilitators and each other.

Tatum reflects on this process: “At first I was worried that all of the participants would just say “great job” and “good work” when they commented on our student work, but their comments were actually very deep and interesting. We had different and thought-provoking conversations every time.”

The participatory approach to designing and facilitating the Out of Eden Learn interactive course laid the foundation for a facilitation ecosystem: adult co-facilitators created the conditions for student-driven and student-centered design simply by asking open-ended questions and stepping back to listen, while youth co-facilitators shared their own stories of learning, perspectives on pedagogical practices, and what was most meaningful to them throughout their learning experiences. Co-design and co-facilitation by students foreground and honor student voice, promote authentic demonstrations of Project Zero ideas, and provide powerful learning experiences for institute participants. Let’s do more of it.

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