Posted by Charlene Glassley on June 27th, 2016
In my line of work, I often find myself googling terms from the field (a universal problem), most recently, “participatory design.”
Participatory design is an approach to design attempting to actively involve all stakeholders … in the design process … The term is used in a variety of fields e.g. software design, urban design, architecture, landscape architecture, product design, sustainability, graphic design, planning, and even medicine as a way of creating environments that are more responsive and appropriate to their inhabitants’ and users’ cultural, emotional, spiritual and practical needs.
It’s not much different from its more commonly used cousin, “co-design,” but a search result for participatory design turns up a world of examples in professional work spaces. My husband is a landscape architect and I’ve spent years collecting parallels between his work and mine (you should have seen the day he came home and said they’d done “something called a charrette“) and the similarities are remarkable but the area where he beats education is in client voice. It’s a given that their client knows the location better than they do. It would be ridiculous for a firm to walk into a town knowing the measurements and specs of a site and assume that’s all they need to know to build a usable playground, roundabout, or ballpark. They bring all stake-holders to the table to talk about it because the user is the expert.
This isn’t the default in education. I support many schools and one in particular, i3@FPCHS, supports some of the most confident kids I’ve ever met but they didn’t show up like this. i3 fosters a culture where students know they matter and one of the ways this is communicated to students is through project design. It’s no surprise that one of their facilitators, Courtney VandeBunte, won Best in Network for New Tech Network this year. Her high school Anatomy of Design students used their 3D printer to create a prosthetic leg for a German Shephard. A quick online search turns up dozens of news articles about her class and project so I won’t dwell on the particulars, but I will talk about the inception of the project.
“What do you want to do?”
The kids took it from there. That doesn’t mean Courtney didn’t help- but her classroom practices participatory design. Just like Landscape Architects, she knows the grade the sidewalk has to be at, the state and local policies they have to adhere to, and what native plants will behave best in the climate. What she doesn’t know is what will best engage the kids. She doesn’t know what they want to learn but once she asks, she can figure out how to make those interests align with the state and local policies she has to adhere to. What is left is a group of students that know more about prosthetics than any adult not in the field (a prosperous and growing field by the way) and a classroom that’s almost sick of news crews.
Try and remember what it felt like to have to spend every minute doing what someone else told you was important. Now imagine what it would have felt like for a respected adult to say, “That’s a great idea. Let’s do that.” Take just a minute and think about what that might mean to a child.
At the end of the year Courtney has a classroom of students that know they count. They know they bring value to the conversation. Sometimes they crash and burn because sometimes we all crash and burn and this is part of the learning process, but when they leave the safe doors of i3 behind the adults that love them won’t have to worry. These students already know their voices matter and they will always advocate for themselves because someone taught them that they matter.