In Search of a Co-Design Continuum

How many schools lay claim to producing life-long learners despite creating conditions that force students to be little more than passengers on their educational journey? In my experience, plenty.

School: We create life-long learners.
Student: Cool! So I can access the curriculum based on my interests and strengths?
School: No.
Student: I can help design assessment tasks that best show my understanding?
School: Uh… 
Student: I can be responsible for managing my own time?
School: *crickets*
Student: Why would I want to attend to this school?
School: We create life-long learners.

How many of us develop a love of learning in spite of our school experience? High school student Isabella Bruyere wrote a poignant article last year called Why School Sucks which thoughtfully explores this question. Personally, I was the unlucky recipient of a cattle class education for much of my schooling. We were all headed to the same destination, but there was little room for anyone to move, my in-flight entertainment system was broken, and the passengers either side of me were hogging the arm-rests! The point is unless school affords learners the opportunity to develop and guide what, why, how, where and when they learn, I think claims of developing a love of learning are at best, optimistic, at worst, redundant.

As a teacher, I’ve tried to create conditions where students can take greater responsibility for their learning. I’ve tried to be the teacher I wish I had in school. Most recently, I’ve been trying to build on my understanding of co-design which I found to be messy and complex, so I went in search of a framework that might help streamline the process. I was unsuccessful in my search because, as it turns out, co-design is messy and complex…

“The nature of the co-design with children practice and the endless variety of design situations and approaches makes it neither feasible nor sensible to create an exhaustive checklist for supporting novice practitioners in co-design sessions with children.” Mazzone, Read, and Beale — Towards a Framework of Co-Design Sessions with Children

So, if co-design is so convoluted to implement, why bother? Is it just another #EduFad? Or can co-design make learning more accessible and impactful for students and help meet where and when they need it?

Moving from “No-Design to Co-Design”

I thought this might be a snappy title for this blog post, but as I dug into the concept of co-design, I realised that I was approaching this idea with a binary headset; that teachers either do or do not.

But it’s possible that Master Yoda and I were both wrong, in this case, there might just be a try. As I’ve come to better appreciate, co-design exists across a broad continuum that extends beyond the narrow scope of curriculum and lesson content to include processes, procedures, time, the learning environment, feedback, assessment and reporting. This became more obvious to me when Tom Barrett kindly shared a bevy of co-design resources from other domains like healthcare and social services. This graphic, IAP2’s Public Participation Spectrum, got my wheels turning.

Inform – Consult – Involve — Collaborate – Empower

What I like about this continuum is that I believe it represents every educator. In fact, as a generalist teacher covering eight subjects with my primary class, I can think of instances where I could cover the breadth of the continuum in a single day. I asked my Twitter PLN friend Mary Wade, a passionate advocate of student agency, for her thoughts about using the continuum as a framework for developing co-design.

I think this has the potential to be extremely powerful. Those words, (inform, consult, involve, collaborate, empower), succinctly capture the degree to which we’re soliciting student input, which is a great scaffolding tool for teachers taking small steps toward implementation as you say. Hard to go from full teacher-based direct instruction to full PBL without guidance in between. The continuum gives teachers a chance to more purposefully evaluate when/why they might choose different degrees of student input (i.e. they might need to inform at certain times for legitimate reasons, but this gives teachers a chance to tell students where along the continuum they’re currently working)

Striking a balance that moves between informing and empowering would seem to me to be more sensible than focusing too much attention at any single point. So that will become my immediate challenge, to consciously reflect on where teaching and learning are at any particular time to ensure a healthy balance. I will continue to investigate co-design with students because I believe the benefits of personalising education are worth the time and effort required.

Does Co-Design = Authentic Learning?

According to Starr Sackstein, authentic learning only begins when students are involved in curriculum design. So what stops teachers from shifting towards involving students more meaningfully in learning design? Starr suggests:

In this current culture of shifted teacher evaluation and the inherent anxiety of our own assessment, teachers are almost forced to control their environments for what appears to be optimal output. Conflicting messages from the administration and current pedagogical trends add to the challenges of creating meaningful learning for our students. Although tradition has always had the teacher in charge, the times are no longer as they were; students should be the masters of their own learning.

I think Starr is spot on with this assessment. But in my context, I would actually go further and say that a limiting factor is my own self-doubt about whether I am helping students achieve “optimal output”. Another would be whether the pre-teens I work alongside are developmentally ready to assume the responsibility for driving their own learning. Dean Shareski recently wrote an article called Finding and Developing the Willing which resonated with me. In it, he explored the difference between students who are motivated to own their learning versus those that are simply “willing”. This has raised many questions and challenged some assumptions that I had about individual learners in our class.

In a future blog post I’m hoping to explore:
– My own version of a classroom-based co-design continuum
– Some examples of outstanding co-design practice in classrooms.
– Where the Lead Teacher outcomes of the Classroom Practice Continuum from the AITSL standards fall in regards to the co-design continuum.
– How Montessori schools develop learning and assessment programs with students according to developmental readiness.

I will leave you with this quote from Dylan Wiliam because I think it aptly sums up my search for a silver bullet in regards to finding or developing my own framework for co-design.

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