For … With

Last week I went to the Wellington EdTech MeetUp where, among other speakers as well, I listened to a man named Rahman Satti. He spoke about his experience working with refugees and new migrants in Germany in 2015. And of course, we’re not talking about a small group of 15 in a community, but a whole country working with an influx of one million displaced people.

One of the ideas a group had was to create and build an app for refugees and migrants. It would be multi-lingual with the aim of being a kind of ‘one stop shop’ for all kinds of things new people to Germany might need. It was well-intentioned and thoughtful. But it didn’t fly with the people it was supposed to help. There were numerous reasons for this, as there always are, but the point Satti was making was that the app with designed for refugees and new migrants rather than designed with.

Instead, Satti and his group approached the refugees and new migrants as co-designers, as crucial, as agentic, and as fundamental to the design process as they were. One of the first learnings Satti and group gained was that the refugees and migrants didn’t like these labels. They wanted to be known as new-comers.

This idea of co-design, of designing with rather than for, really got me thinking. When we design for, we run the risk of re-creating existing power imbalances despite our very best intentions. Whereas, when we design with, this is empowering for all involved. I think this holds great potential within a school (or a Community of Learning) for open, flexible, genuine learning for all involved – no matter their shoe size (as Keryn Davis might say.)

Co-design calls on us to hold our ideas lightly and to be ready to challenge and confront own assumptions. To put aside what we think “should” be.


I wonder if we might have a tendency as adults who work with younger learners to want to “just” help and that this might mean that although we intend on designing with – this could come with an unintended superiority or paternalism/maternalism, to want to do ‘for’. Perhaps as adults we might need to do some ‘unlearning’ first and to remember the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, where children have the right to be heard, the right to be taken seriously, and the right to be treated with respect. (There are also some cool NZ resources on working with children from the NZ Children’s Commissioner: an explanation of the children’s rights, and some ways to engage with children.)

Which leads me to wonder:

  • How might we approach learners as co-designers?
  • How might we create a safe space for co-design? (The principles of Universal Design for Learning could be awesome here.)

And then further, given my current interest in school libraries: What might a co-designed school library be like?

  • What do learners value in their school library?
  • What innovative ways could they see the library space being used?
  • By whom?
  • At what times?

What rich learning is possible if we design with rather than for.

Believe: My Word for the Year 2017

Okay, so confession time first: I was not great at relishing last year. As is often the way of New Year’s resolutions, I started with a hiss and a roar, and then it faded almost as quickly as it began. However, I already have higher hopes for this year’s word:


Firstly, on a strictly pragmatic level, I have higher hopes because this word came to me several weeks ago – and I’m still remembering it in February.

Secondly, and more importantly, I think ‘Believe’ will stick better this year simply because my thinking around this word has already evolved.

Originally, I conceived of the word in the context of ‘believe things will get better’ (which makes it sound like I’m having some kind of crisis – which I most decidedly am not). But this meant that I was having hamster-wheel thoughts about how things would get better; the steps I would take to ensure this happens; the people I would talk to; how those conversations would play out… etc, etc. I feel exhausted just writing that, and I’m kind of picking it wasn’t a joy to read either.

But then I had a kind of, well, epiphany, I guess – to go with the religious connotations of my word for the year. If I believe that things will get better, then they will. I don’t need to spend time and energy worrying about them. This then, leaves time to have time. To be here and present in this moment without worrying unnecessarily about the future. And in this way, for me, ‘believe’ has evolved into a kind of peaceful optimism which I fervently hope persists.