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Can you hear them? Were they listening? As I enter any learning space, these questions are often in the forefront of my thinking. Through this lens, it becomes clear whether the design of the space is soaked in the ideas and needs of students or whether the design was based on the guesswork of well-intentioned adults about what they believe that students need.

Can you really tell?

Does it really matter?

If you have seen and felt the difference, then you will know that the answer to both questions is a resounding YES, and it holds true for all kinds of spaces including classrooms, libraries, outdoor spaces, hallway spaces, cafeterias, gymnasiums and more.

You can tell if designers listened to students throughout the process when the space has a playful energy. It is functional, but flexible. It showcases images of students learning in the space through images and videos. Students are excited to share the spaces with family and friends. There is joy in these spaces. There is engagement in these spaces. There is a sense of ownership by the students in these spaces.

It matters because students are craving welcoming spaces that promote curiosity, wonder and awe. It matters because students have ideas that aren’t layered in years of risk averse thinking. It matters because we can’t keep doing school to students, but we need to do it with them and learning environments is an easier entry point to this co-design than other aspects of education.

Design is a process over time. Sure, it seems like a built environment is complete when the ribbon cutting occurs, and yes, much of the design is baked at this point, but learning environments are organic and grow over time based on the individuals that fill and craft the space. It is never too late to engage students in the design process because the process continues until the space is retired.

But don’t wait. Start early.

Purposefully inserting students into the design process early not only influences the design, but it can create a sense of pride, care and ownership of the space. In so many of the spaces that I’ve helped to craft, the best unintended consequences of our work was the way that the students took care of their space like it was their own home or bedroom. They felt like I made this, and I’m going to make sure that we and the students at the school after us know that it is important. No sign, camera or supervision can preserve space like pride and ownership can.

How can you make student voice a deeper part of your intentional design work?

  • Design with multiple teams. Schools and districts that have multiple teams of students involved in the process are able to get a more diverse group of voices into the design. Consider these three student design teams or find others that work for your situation.
  1. Ideation team – This group supports the work of the adults with expertise by widening the scope of ideas for the project. They have the goal of divergent thinking, so consider the right students for this role.
  2. Main design team – This group melds with the adults that are providing their feedback to the process. They are in a 3:1 ratio or less to the adults involved as student voices never impact when they exist at a level where they are intimidated to contribute. Choose students who have shown that their voice can exist in parallel with the adults involved.
  3. Specialized feedback team – This group continues to craft the design especially after it is being used. They are talking with other students to get their feedback. They are observing the space. They are thinking about ways to augment the space to better support learning. Select a group that can gather and amplify the voices of a variety of students.
  • Gather feedback in a variety of ways. Students can support design through meetings and working in parallel with the adults on the project, but we should look to diversify our student feedback using these methods.
  1. Observational feedback – Ask students to do something in the space, and then observe how it is being used. Compare their use with how designers thought the space would be used. This technique can often be used early in a prototyped space. This gives insight before purchases.
  2. Verbal feedback – Remember that students are used to using a variety of media to communicate. This includes video, audio and written feedback. Allow them to utilize the tools in which they are comfortable as it will raise the quality and quantity of feedback.
  3. Visual feedback – Asking students to find images of engaging and joyful spaces can add to the ideas in the project, but it is also important that students gather images of the spaces in the building or building design that bring them excitement or drain their energy. Allow your student designers to think in images.

No project has gotten worse from having students involved in a meaningful and robust way. Can this work take more time? It most certainly will, but it is time worth spending because great design transforms all aspects of learning from academic gains to being in spaces that prime the joy for learning. Make sure that everyone that enters your learning environment can answer yes to the questions, can you hear the students in this space and were they listening to students in the design?

About Dr. Robert Dillon

Dr. Robert Dillon has served as a thought leader in education over the last twenty-five years as a teacher, principal, and director of innovation. Dr. Dillon has a passion to change the educational landscape by building excellent engaging schools for all students. Dr. Dillon has had the opportunity to speak and lead learning throughout the world as well as share his thoughts and ideas in a variety of publications. He is the author of six books on intentional design in learning. The latest book, The Space: A Guide for Leaders is available wherever you get your books.

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