How Giving All Stakeholders a Voice Can Improve School Reopening Plans

Imagining September: Principles and Design Elements for Ambitious Schools During COVID-19

The new school year is around the corner, but many families and educators remain in the dark about what back-to-school will look like. Leaders have no playbook to contend with a developing pandemic that is as unprecedented as it is unpredictable. Matters are further complicated by federal pressure to resume face-to-face classes, and officials at all levels sending conflicting messages.

Satisfactory solutions remain elusive on these shifting grounds, but a new report authored by Harvard and MIT researchers may offer a way forward.

Titled Imagining September: Principles and Design Elements for Ambitious Schools During COVID-19, the report outlines a participatory design framework to help communities equitably negotiate the challenges of schooling in the foreseeable future. It shares colorful storyboards of implementable ideas distilled from four structured brainstorming sessions carried out in May. A companion report, Imagining September: Online Design Charrettes for Fall 2020 Planning with Students and Stakeholders, provides concise guidelines for districts, schools, teachers and students who want to run their own design charrettes together.

“A charrette is a design sprint that puts people together to take on the design of a defined task that encompasses a variety of different people's views, but it also allows for something to be developed in a short period of time,” said Jal Mehta, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the report’s co-author. 

Collaborative planning invites parents, principals, district leaders and, importantly, teachers and students to co-construct models that become modular building blocks for the upcoming year.

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“I see a lot of people sitting in district or state offices drawing up plans in their heads,” said Justin Reich, director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab and the lead author of the report. “Part of what we're trying to say is, no, if you want to have really good plans, you need to get the people who are closest to the most vital experiences in classrooms involved in the design process, particularly students. Adults know all kinds of things about how schools operate, but there's only one generation of American kids who have gone to school during a pandemic.”

The approach is grounded in a handful of core concepts, including the premise that complexity and uncertainty are best tackled with modular and adaptable systems. To achieve this, schools can make room for trial and error experimentation and foster a culture of design and innovation.

“You don’t know exactly what is going to work,” according to the report. “Nor is it clear that what works in one context will work in another. You want to let people closest to the ground innovate and then make sensible adaptations as they see what is working.”

These localized efforts are developed under “tentpoles,” or core organizational values to ensure that all the moving parts are working in concert towards common goals. Culture, infrastructure and demographics differ from school to school, and this agile design system can generate solutions that are tailored to each institution’s unique needs.

Student Voice to Marie Kondo School Priorities

During the pandemic, Reich and Mehta, his former professor at Harvard, exchanged concerns about schooling and decided to do something about it. They formulated a hybrid charrette framework to digest the views of diverse stakeholders through a format that is both accessible and easily implemented.

Then, they hosted three charrettes in the spring where participants with a variety of roles and backgrounds were invited to collaboratively generate ideas for the new school year. In one preliminary task, they were asked to write short diary entries from the point of view of a student or a teacher one month into the next school year. These first person accounts leveraged storytelling as a means to explore and concretize possibility spaces. Some proposals that emerged included teacher looping, microschooling, trading student contact time for teacher collaboration time, and increasing attention to vulnerable students.

A fourth charrette was modified to accomodate a group of fifteen Grade 8 students from Neema Avashia’s civics class at the John W. McCormack School in Boston.

“The voices of young people have not really been acknowledged in the policy conversation, and so we decided to run the design charrette with kids, and it was awesome,” said Avashia. “They were able to speak from their experience and not get bogged down by questions of budget or politics or logistics, but just express what's worked for then, what's been hard for them, and what could be done differently in September.”

The session was documented by a sketchnote artist, while Avashia’s students reflected on their needs and what schools might do without in September. However the new year looks, schools will operate with significant constraints, so it is vital to reduce clutter and identify what is essential, a process the researchers playfully refer to as ”Marie Kondo-ing” priorities and curriculum.

Reich emphasizes that curricular efficiency does not mean concentrating on core standards but, as expressed by student voice, nourishing values like relationships and engagement through opportunities for art, recreation and social connections. For example, some students proposed eSports recreation leagues with blended teacher and student teams; others imagined hosting classes on Minecraft and Fortnite; some students proposed designating home as the place for curriculum, and school as the place for relationships.

“There are all these great ideas to consider, but if people can only do one thing, it would be to run their own charrette,” said Mehta.

Values Eat Logistics For Breakfast

A pillar of the charrette protocol is to prioritize values over logistics. Early on, participants are asked to identify core values such as relationships, flexibility and an emphasis on social justice. Values are the broth of school culture and should define how schools are structured, rather than the reverse.

“There is a lot of discussion about how to space the students, which days students will go to school, how to transport students to school, and so forth,” states the report. “These are important discussions and we do not want to minimize the importance of keeping students safe. But if they are not grounded in values or principles about what we want for students and what produces good educational experiences, then they are not likely to work or achieve their best results.”

Building around core values puts the student at the centre of the experience, which can be particularly beneficial for kids who are underserved or struggling.

“If you aren't leading with your values, you're leading with politics and you're leading with things that don't acknowledge what kids just went through,” said Avashia. “A lot of my kids have already experienced different kinds of trauma and now we have this collective trauma. We need them to have a strong relationship with an adult who can really help them re-engage with learning and with school. If we started with values, that's where it would lead us, but because we're starting with logistics we're going to end up creating learning environments where kids can't learn because they don’t feel safe.”

From Ownership to Equity

The charrette design protocols generate ideas from those who stand to be most impacted by decisions in regard to pandemic schooling, but their inclusive design also engenders a sense of ownership and buy-in from students and stakeholders. Otherwise, as the report warns, “people will resent what they perceive as constraints imposed from above, whereas they tend to own what they create.”

“It's more likely that if young people feel like they have voice and ownership and are part of the process of reopening and recreating schools, that they will be more likely to be excited to participate in them,” said Reich.

And, the sense of ownership produced through participatory design can help engage underserved students. The report underscores that involving diverse learners in design and decision-making is fundamental for establishing genuine equity. 

“We tend not to think about disadvantaged students as if they had agency and thoughts of their own,” said Mehta. “So the more that you design with such students, the more likely the solutions that you're going to devise are going to be the kinds of solutions that are going to work for them.”

 One of the major themes that percolated from the spring sessions is the need for a liberatory approach to equity, which not only encourages academic success for students of color and underserved youth but, as the report recommends, it also involves a need to unpack “existing systems, structures, processes, pedagogies, and culture to see how they can be made more equitable.”

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“We should be thinking how to create strong mechanisms to engage all kids in learning and really prioritize our most vulnerable kids and our most disengaged kids as the people who we need to listen to the most if we really want learning to work for everybody,” said Avashia. “Then my job –  our job – is to figure out how to take those needs that kids are identifying and make them real.”