Authentic student agency + school design

It can be a lonely life, writing a PhD thesis. It involves ready some really interesting papers, the kind of thing you would share with a colleague. And as educators, we are sharers, aren’t we, so I’m sharing.

A research study I read this week painted a very interesting picture of engaging students in the design of the new school, and the benefits of doing so
“School design: opportunities through collaboration”
Parnell, R., Cave, V. & Torrington, J. (2008), CoDesign 4/4 December 2008, p.211-224

a tendency to focus on the product – the finished school – at the expense of process means that opportunities are not always being recognised or exploited

Parnell, Cave & Torrington (2008) p.213

We talk about the value of agency for students and teachers, that their voice is heard. An empathic culture provides avenues to gain deeper insight into their lived experiences. But how much is seeking genuine insight and how much is mere lip service. In this piece, I’m going to focus on the opportunities afforded by student voice from this paper.

Short version

Opportunities afforded by engaging students in the design process:

  • Truly authentic learning
  • More than a tick-box exercise

Success factors:

  • A school culture that encourages openness and collaboration
  • The right mix in the room
  • Appreciating what they bring
  • A skilled facilitator

Longer version

When it comes to consulting on school building/development programs, I advocate for student voice as part of the process.
Who knows the site like they do?
Who knows the ins and out, what’s working, what’s not?
However, in the resource allocation and expediency of the timeline, this can get lost.

What the researchers discovered about engaging students in the design consultation…

Creative development and learning – “mutual creative inspiration”
Truly authentic learning – Engaging students in consulting on a research project provides an opportunity to see change, where ideas develop. You might gain an insight into a student you’ve never seen before.

  • The students might gain insight, ‘I want to study architecture!’
  • Development of spatial skills
  • Meaningful linkages to the curriculum

Having a voice – “to be heard and taken seriously”
More than a tick-box exercise – Students know what is working in a school, how to get around and what to avoid. When student voice mattered, there were positive impacts on school life.

  • Students insight was resected
  • Develop a sense of ownership – ‘I chose that colour’
  • Taking responsibility – reduction in vandalism
  • Teachers saw students’ capacity in a new light

How do we do this?

It’s about creating the right tone for the workshop. The researchers identified several factors for the success of the consultation process.

  1. Who’s in the room? Ensuring the right mix of experience
  2. Does your school culture encourage openness and collaboration?
    (or are people to timid to say what they really think)
  3. What do they bring? Taking time to understand their knowledge and skills
  4. How do we allow the conversation to flow? Making sure it is meaningful and open (minimising unhelpful tangents)

As a facilitator, I see the benefit of providing a fresh pair of eyes in the process. When I have worked with student groups, they see me as relatively neutral. As a teacher by background, I know kids, I also notice who’s dominant in the discussion and who do we need to hear from (usually the quiet ones have the ‘gold’).

If we truly believe in ‘student agency’ what an amazing opportunity to hear from your students and in so doing provide authentic learning. In the pressure of budgets and deadlines this can fall away, but if it matters then include it as a priority.

Do you have stories of student engagement in building design consultation?

Love to hear them. The form below goes straight to my inbox


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