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.

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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.

A Keen Reader

These are not new ideas, but they are new for me and have really got my brain pinging.

When I was twelve we had to do some work experience, I guess as part of a ‘careers’ unit. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I sure spent a lot of time reading, so my Dad arranged for me to spend a day in our local library.

A whole day with books? Bliss.

From that day forward, I volunteered in the library all through high school, eventually getting a proper, paid job that saw me through five years at university up until I went into  teaching (English, of course!). For me, libraries are a safe space of sanctuary. Quiet, relaxing, replenishing, and jammed-packed with new ideas, arresting stories, pathways into worlds unknown.

So it’s kind of embarrassing really, that it’s taken me this long to connect my passion for libraries with my passion for future-focused education.

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But I’ve been thinking about school libraries in particular, and how they can be a living representation of the vision and pedagogy of a school. Is the library a storehouse of stories, ideas and information – a whare pukapuka – a traditional house of books?

To me, this would represent an industrial age model and understanding of knowledge. Knowledge as a noun: the facts and tales we need to know to fill our place in society and be a successful worker. In this model, the library is a place of knowledge curation.

Or, is the library a place not only of knowledge curation, but of knowledge creation? Is it a place to showcase our learning and the learning of others? Is it a place to connect ideas and test them out? Is it a whare mātauranga – a space that seeks wisdom, not only offering things to think about, but things to think with?

Because to me, this would represent a future-focused model and understanding of knowledge. Knowledge as a verb: the building blocks of ideas that we develop, connect, unbundle, remix, and play with. The life-blood of the life-long learner and the creative, critical citizen.

Is the library an innovative learning environment? Chock-full yes, of great books, and also a gallery, a makerspace, a design lab, a studio… Is it a place of ‘shhh…!’ – a holy space of study, or a place of ‘sh…sugar!’ – a stimulating space of discovery? How does your school library reflect your vision for teaching and learning?