Courtesy of Dan X. O’Neil

Design + Ownership + Participation:

An exploration of the possibilities of youth-adult curricular co-design

I conducted a small-scale research project based on the following essential question: How might community-based organizations engage high-school-age youth in the process of designing curricula for paid summer learning programming? Through qualitative research focused on one youth-serving program, I sought to (1) better understand the learning goals of both youth participants and adult facilitators in paid summer experiences, (2) better understand the perspectives of both young people and adult facilitators with regard to high-quality summer learning experiences, (3) understand how youth and adult facilitators feel about the feasibility and value of involving young people in curricular design, and (4) identify potential barriers to and opportunities for the inclusion of young people in curricular design.

My professional background in youth development in informal learning spaces, combined with my commitment to challenging power structures that prioritize adult decision making, were the primary motivations for conducting this research project. I sought to challenge assumptions about which stakeholders should, or could, participate in curricular design, what it takes to design “good” curricula for young people, and which skills young people should develop through paid summer learning programming. I was specifically interested in exploring how distinctions between access to and use of digital tools and experiences could be applicable to the design of learning experiences.

A primary motivation for exploring this research topic was the desire to challenge conventional power dynamics between designers and communities being designed for, and between adults and young people. The relationship between designers and recipients of design often reproduces privilege and oppression by positioning the former as experts and the latter as ‘problems’ to solve. The exclusion of young people in curricular design for summer programming highlights this sentiment; the public, private, and social sectors often view young people, especially low-income youth of color in large cities, as ‘risks’ in need of solutions, like summer employment. The manners in which learning environments, both formal and informal, are designed for young people, rather than by young people, highlights both adultist structures of decision-making, wherein adults are deemed to have more power than young people, and the reproduction of privilege afforded to design ‘experts’ at the expense of young people. Rarely do young people get to be involved in meaningful design processes of learning experiences in schools and in community-based programs. While recognizing and acknowledging my own privilege as an adult carrying out this project, I am specifically motivated to dismantle systemic power structures in design processes by developing a more thorough understanding of the existing work of youth-adult design processes, and by offering concrete strategies and steps that can be taken in order to fluidly, authentically include young people in program design.

I define “paid summer learning programming” as any experience offered to young people, typically in the form of a job or an internship, that is focused on positive youth development. Positive youth development can be defined as “an intentional, pro-social approach that engages youth within their communities, schools, organizations, peer groups, and families in a manner that is productive and constructive; recognizes, utilizes, and enhances youths’ strengths; and promotes positive outcomes for young people by providing opportunities, fostering positive relationships, and furnishing the support needed to build on their leadership strengths” (“Positive Youth Development,” 2016). I use the phase “paid summer learning programming” in contrast to “summer employment” to distinguish the former from summer job opportunities in sectors such as service and retail, where there is not a specific focus on positive youth development. I define “curricula” as a set of content-based and skill-based activities that are planned, designed, and delivered for an audience of learners in order to guide the learners towards a particular set of goals. In classroom settings, curricula are the series of lessons that teachers design and deliver so that their students learn a particular set of content and develop a set of skills. In the paid summer learning spaces, curricula are the set of activities that adult program facilitators design and deliver in order for youth participants to learn how to develop skills in areas such as qualitative research, civic leadership, and policymaking.


I developed an interview guide for youth and an interview guide for the adult facilitators. I conducted phone interviews with three program alumni and in-person interviews with three adult facilitators of the program, with a total of six hours of interviews over a two-week period. I transcribed all of the interviews and used inductive coding methods, in that I derived a set of codes based on themes I identified from the interviews, rather than using deductive coding methods and utilizing a pre-existing set of codes from the field to identify themes. All interviews have been de-identified, and names of individuals and programs have been replaced with pseudonyms.

The limitations of the study included a small sample size, lack of diversity in the sample, and lack of access to coding software. In order to deepen the ethnographic research on this single program, I would seek to interview 10–15 young people and 5–6 former and current adult facilitators. Specifically, I would seek to interview young people who did not have a positive experience with the summer program, or who did not complete the program. I would also seek to expand the scale of the study by gathering data from multiple programs across multiple youth-serving organizations, rather than focusing solely on a single program.

Artifact and Analysis

I began the research project with three core hypotheses:

  1. Young people are not currently included in curricular co-design for paid summer learning programs.
  2. Young people want to be involved, and adults want young people to be involved in curricular co-design.
  3. There is potential to include returning members in planning curricula for the summer.

I developed these hypotheses based on my own experiences designing and facilitating youth programs. As a curriculum designer, I disagreed with the practice of excluding young people from the process of informing and participating in curriculum design, but I also juggled a number of logistical obstacles that made it difficult to create spaces for young people to meaningfully and sustainably participate in curriculum design. As a program facilitator, I had provided choice within structure for youth participants, but conventionally, adults determined both the choices and structures. In my experience, I had neither authentically involved young people in curricular design nor seen it done by others in the field. I also recognized the limitations of including new youth in a curriculum design process, particularly because the bulk of curriculum design for a program tends to take place weeks, if not months, before a program is delivered, and new youth may not be involved in a program early enough to be involved with curriculum design. However, in youth programs that have returning youth, who are repeating the program for a second or third time, it seems possible that they could partner with adult facilitators to design relevant, engaging programming for their peers. Through the interviews with youth alumni and adults, I was interested to see if this idea would emerge as a possible entry point for experimenting with youth-adult co-design.

I identified the following five findings through my research process:

  1. Youth involvement in design is already happening.
  2. Youth and adult facilitators reported similar ideas of high quality summer programming.
  3. Curricular co-design raises complex questions without clear answers.
  4. There are multiple barriers to involving young people in curricular design.
  5. There are multiple opportunities for involving young people in curricular design.

I elaborate on each finding below.

Existing youth involvement in design

Youth involvement in curricular design is already taking place in four core ways: (1) returning youth participants interview new candidates in the hiring process in the spring; (2) youth have the option to lead team-building activities throughout the summer; (3) youth have flexibility and freedom to design the final product of the summer program; and (4) during the summer, facilitators design and reconfigure curricula in response to youth input and youth’s learning needs.

While not explicitly an element of curricular design, one example of how youth participants participate in design is through the process of recruiting and hiring new youth each year. Youth who have participated in this agency’s summer programming in the past, who are sometimes referred to as “returners” or “veterans,” conduct interviews in the spring with the 900+ youth who apply to be part of one of the six councils in the organization (Belinda, personal communication, October 28, 2016). Since the adult facilitators do not conduct any of the interviews with the new candidates, the returners’ feedback on candidates is integral to the formation of each summer’s council. Belinda, a former adult facilitator, noted that other youth-serving organizations have expressed surprise at this process. She said, “[other organizations] are like, ‘you let students talk to students? You do that? really?’ Things that we think are little are big” (personal communication, October 28, 2016.)

Youth participants, especially returning youth, are also involved in some curricular design through the selection and implementation of team building activities throughout the summer. Belinda explained that “as the summer went on, we had a handful of veterans, I don’t know if they were bored or asking for it, and trying to grow in their own ways and had new leadership goals…but some students took it on their own and made their own games instead of just copying something we had in curriculum” (personal communication, October 28, 2016). However, Belinda admitted that this was “low-hanging fruit,” meaning that this was a relatively easy and low-impact way of including young people in design. Belinda suggested that more substantial youth involvement would require young people to have influence over the actual informational content that was presented in a session, and the learning outcomes of a given session, rather than mere choice among team building activities to lead.

Another way that youth are already involved with design is through the formation of the final products that they share with external stakeholders, such as written policy recommendations and formal oral presentations. As Evie, a program alumna, said, “facilitating the meetings with public officials — whoever it may be, we could have that turn if we wanted…I remember I [facilitated a meeting] one time and I was very proud of it, because the thing I thought I would never do is talk to someone who really impacts the community” (personal communication, November 1, 2016). As Evie’s reflection suggests, youth input in designing their external-facing experiences can have a crucial impact on their leadership development and sense of ownership of the program. Empowering youth participants to have control over these elements of design helps ensure that youth are more equal stakeholders in their learning and leadership development, and it ensures that youth are not tokenized, manipulated, or decorated in their relationships with both adult facilitators and external adult stakeholders.

Finally, adult facilitators understand the importance and value of flexible, responsive curriculum, and as a result, they must constantly be prepared to modify curricula, whether it’s a single lesson or an entire week of programming. A former facilitator explained the following:

After the first two weeks of introductory stuff, [the program] was based on the direction young people wanted to take it, so we had to refine what happened the day before. I still think we could have planned at beginning of each week and then responded to what happened that week, but it was just based on the lead facilitator and how he liked to do things. We gave them what the research question was and we provided the research, but it was partially what they responded to, what they were excited about and wanted to learn more about, it was partially what they wanted the final project to look like and how do we facilitate making that happen, and I think it was also about, ‘what did we get through that day? Tomorrow we’ll have to reconfigure.’”

The built-in room for adaptability and change in plans was one example of how the adult facilitators sought to ensure that youth participants’ feedback and opinions about the day-by-day programming were influencing the flow of the program. While this sometimes created additional coordination efforts for facilitators, it seemed to be a program element that could not be compromised because it ensured that the program stayed relevant for youth throughout the six-week summer.

Shared ideas of high-quality summer learning programming

Youth and adult facilitators reported similar ideas of high quality summer learning programming. Key components of high quality summer programming that both groups of interviewees reported included: (1) foundational development of a strong, cohesive, unified group at the beginning of the program; (2) risk-taking and pushing one another outside of one’s comfort zone; (3) a balance of work and play; (4) the presence of concrete short-term and long-term goals to which to aspire as a group; and (5) fair payment of wages for youth participants.

This summer learning program recruits young people from across the city to participate. Not only do youth participants not know one another at the start of the program, they also bring a vast range of identities and experiences to the council and do not explicitly share common ground through neighborhoods, schools, or other forms of community. Thus, community-building is a central feature that must be embedded into the curriculum of the program. One way the facilitators integrated this into program design was through the introduction and implementation of group norms, where the youth and adults establish a set of general terms of how they would engage with one another throughout the program. By co-establishing group norms, facilitators signaled to youth that they had the power to set the tone of group dynamics, and that the youth would play a role in designing the atmosphere they shared. Sydney shared the following:

Students come from all over the city and don’t know each other, so setting norms and having a lot of intentionality about how the group gets to know each other — establishing the way people interacted — felt really important, especially in a city like ours, where there are neighborhoods with certain stereotypes. Part of that was setting a norm that everyone’s voice matters, that all young people and facilitators were there to facilitate, and that leadership was coming from the people who showed up there. We were being really explicit about that, both verbally and in action…this is the hard part of pushing people for participation and letting people take initiative when they feel comfortable, and letting things happen.

The establishment of group norms was an entry way for some young people to recognize that the summer program would be a space in which they would actively co-create terms of engagement among the group members. Unlike in other spaces, such as schools, where rules are standardized and designed for young people by adults, the JJYAT actively created ways for young people to determine how they wanted to engage with one another. Examples of group norms included “step up, step back,” which meant that one should adjust their levels of participation to ensure equitable participation across members, and “one mic,” which meant that only one person should speak at a time. Alumna Lissette also stated, “first everyone is exposed…to the idea of creating norms, the values we want and how we want to be in a specific group. The way that we checked in [with one another] — I really liked it.” Not only was the development of group norms a way to create a safer, more cohesive group, but it was also an example of how youth were involved in an element of program design.

Pushing participants out of their comfort zones was also a core component of the program design and was reported to be a key element of high-quality summer learning programming. Alumna Evie, said, “my first year, it was nothing like I expected at all. Working with a lot of people I didn’t know was a whole new experience, considering that I was a shy person, almost like an introvert. It was very new, but it turned out to be something that I really liked and stayed with me until now, until maybe forever, especially about improving my people skills, and public speaking especially.” Through features such as group norms, the program emphasized safe risk-taking for youth, which encouraged them to work on new skills without the fear of embarrassment or making errors.

Furthermore, the adults were accountable for stepping out of their own comfort zones as program facilitators and curriculum designers. When reflecting on curriculum design and delivery, Sydney noted, “I think part of it was being comfortable stepping back and saying, ‘okay this is not going to happen exactly how I planned it and this is going to get messy,’ and being comfortable with that. Young people can tell when you are wanting to jump in, versus really trusting them and being obvious about that trust. That’s a practiced skill.” For young people, risk-taking took place in the realm of leadership development, as demonstrated by Evie’s commentary on her development of public speaking skills. For adult facilitators, the risk-taking seemed to take place with sharing control and ownership of program structure with the young people, as Sydney indicated. Because there was a shared understanding of leaving one’s respective comfort zones, both youth and adult participants were more willing to be vulnerable with one another, and all parties agreed that this was integral to the success of the program.

Both the youth alumni and adult facilitators emphasized the balance of work and play as another core component of high-quality summer employment programming. It seemed important to challenge traditional assumptions about employment as rigid, and to make sure that the program was distinct from the oft-authoritarian structures of school. When describing the balance of work and play, Sydney explained:

This was not a traditional lecture setting where young people were quiet the whole time…that’s not realistic… we were playing games and having fun and then also getting really serious because they were there to do work and have important things to share…having the duality of ‘we’re gonna have a lot of fun and get our energy out,’ and have that paired with really serious stuff is important for both aspects of where high school students are at, and all humans truly. The idea that ‘good youth work is good adult work,’ and that people are not meant to sit all the time or play games all the time. It has to be a balance.

Through the inclusion of playful activities that emphasized collaboration, communication, creativity, and problem-solving, the program was able to further strengthen the bonds among the youth participants, as well as between youth and adult staff. The combination of work and play may have also with participant retention, in that it fostered safe, playful spaces in which to engage in serious tasks such as research and policy development.

A fourth key component of high-quality summer programming is the establishment of short-term and long-term goals towards which the youth participants worked to achieve. As alumna Lissette notes, goals are just as invaluable to persistence to the establishment of group norms and the balance of work and play:

I think setting goals that are attainable is really going to affect not only the experience that a person has while involved but is also going to motivate them to be with a program. For us, having a goal of creating a paper of recommendations was startling at the beginning but as we worked through it, we knew we had to achieve it and had a group to achieve it with. Keeping that involvement from the participants is going to come from that.

In the JJYAT, youth participants had a long-term goal to develop recommendations to create more youth-friendly policies in the county’s juvenile justice system, and this goal was prominent throughout the program. Furthermore, in the day-to-day programming, adults would write the day’s goals and objectives visibly in the working space, so that all participants had shared expectations of how their time and resources should be spent that day (Belinda, personal communication, October 28, 2016). Thus, both youth and adults had a concrete sense of the purpose of the summer program. At the same time, there seemed to be ample flexibility for the young people to determine what the recommendations would look like and how the recommendations would be presented. This two-fold emphasis on goals seemed to be an important element of program design because it guided how the facilitators designed curriculum, and it kept both youth and adults accountable for how they spent their time together.

Finally, paying youth fair wages is an integral element of this program’s design. Because paid summer learning opportunities are often funded by agencies such as the city government and private foundations, youth payment can be distributed as stipends rather than as wages. The use of stipends rather than wages can result in underpayment for youth’s time, in that they are paid below the minimum wage. For young people whose financial resources may already be limited, or whose livelihoods depend on their earnings, the payment of stipends rather than real wages can be a significant barrier to participation in paid summer learning programming, no matter how high the quality of programming may be. One facilitator, Kristine, explained the following:

One summer youth did 12 hours of work and 8 learning hours, so essentially young people were working and getting paid for 12 hours of work and then volunteering their time, or if you advertise the hourly wage from those 12 across 20 then they’re being paid pennies…Illinois minimum wage is $10 an hour, but [this funder] paid young people $8.25… So the young person is deciding between a summer employment opportunity that can be some sort of supplementary enrichment, or [a job] that just pays them and is more wages but may not necessarily help them grow in a holistic way. It’s a false choice then because they would be paid more in that latter option. So for me, [especially] trying to engage more court involved young people, I wanted to bump us up to the Illinois minimum wage to eliminate that false choice.

Belinda affirmed Kristine’s sentiment by articulating, “we have to pay young people for their time because their time is valuable, their work is valuable, and they have other responsibilities” (personal communication, October 28, 2016). Without competitive wages, it seems that paid summer programming for young people will face challenges with recruitment and retention, especially for young people who might not otherwise be able to access and participate in such programming.

Complexities of curricular co-design

Curricular co-design raises complex questions without clear answers. One example of complexity that adult facilitators raised is the balance of youth involvement in curricular design with adult responsibility for their own work. Belinda posed the following questions: “where is the line of it being collaborative versus exploitative? If they are truly co creating, are they doing our work for us? At what point does it stop being meaningful and start being extra work?” There seemed to be unanimous agreement among facilitators that youth should paid for any time they engage with the program, including potential curricular design sessions that would take place outside of standard program hours, and that this would need to be a non-negotiable component of including young people in curriculum design.

Another question that was raised was equitably providing all youth with the opportunity to engage in curricular design. Given that returning youth have an existing sense of the program structure, flow, and intended outcomes, facilitators acknowledged that the returners are more likely to be given opportunities to inform curriculum design. However, they also pointed out that this does not need to be the case. Alumna Evie confirmed the risks of this approach, noting that “ sometimes I would notice there would be people left out, or people with good ideas but who were shy…you could see them falling off the council. Sometimes you just need a push, like ‘oh, you wanna facilitate this one meeting?’ It could help them keep going with the program.” It seems that curricular co-design would require facilitators to be especially mindful of ensuring that design opportunities are accessible to all youth, regardless of their personality styles and the amount of previous experience they may have with the program. There seemed to be common agreement among interviewees that the adult facilitators must be willing to share their decision-making power and curricular influence with all youth participants.

There also seems to be tension between the need to follow standards that are broadly accepted in the field of positive youth development, and the need to respect and respond to youth’s needs on a case-by-case, program-by-program basis. Kristine asked, “how can I offer supports or facilitate certain best practices, and then apply what [youth] know to be their truth or expertise?” She cited an instance in which she gave the youth participants final say in a decision, and she had felt that their decision did not result in the best outcome based on best practices. At the same time, she prioritized honoring the youth’s decisions and was willing to take a risk with her youth, knowing that their involvement in the process of designing that particular element of the program was more significant than the outcome itself.

Barriers to curricular co-design

There are multiple barriers to involving young people in curricular design, including youth’s time, youth’s mobility, staff’s time, operational and logistical factors determined by outside sources such as funders, and perceived lack of content expertise. Youth interviewees noted that, during the school year, where the bulk of summer program planning and curriculum design takes place, they were busy with extracurricular activities and academic commitments that would have restricted their ability to participate in curricular design, even if given the opportunity. The barrier of youth’s limited time is compounded by their limited mobility. Due to the size of the city, and the fact that youth participants live and attend school in various neighborhoods, it can be difficult for them to commute up to two hours each way to the organization’s office in order to work with adult facilitators on curriculum design outside of program hours. For some, time and mobility constraints were arguably the most formidable barriers to sustained involvement in curricular design.

Staff time was another factor that challenged curricular co-design. Since many of the staff who facilitated summer programming led separate youth programming during the school year, they reported having a small, two-to-three-week window to plan and design the six-week summer program. Sydney reported feeling “burnt out from an intense school year” and having to design curricula in segmented pockets of time. Given that curriculum design tended to be rushed and even spontaneous, facilitators reported that involving young people would have added an extra layer of coordination that would have made an already challenging task even more daunting. Thus, while staff reported a desire to involve young people in curricular design, it was apparent that time constraints ultimately required adults to sacrifice youth co-design for the sake of practicality and efficiency.

The possibilities of youth-adult curricular co-design are further challenged by logistical factors and parameters over which facilitators have little to no control. Belinda explained, “there’s an initial draft [to select youth into each of the six summer councils,] and then a drop-off of students and a scramble to get more students. With that influx, we tried to do the research [for the summer] before, and I don’t remember any student involvement.” Given that the members of the summer program were not necessarily finalized until a few days before the start of the summer program, or even until the first week of the summer program, it was simply not possible to even know who the program participants were beforehand, let alone involve them in curricular design.

Finally, youth alumni reported feeling that a lack of content expertise could dissuade young people from feeling qualified to engage in curricular design. While they expressed interest in curricular design, alumni expressed uncertainty about their own ability to meaningfully inform curriculum given a lack of background knowledge about the content they were learning through the summer program. Alumna Mariella stated, “it is hard for me to give out my ideas. That’s what I thought when they were building the program…Maybe because I was scared, I felt more intimidated, and I didn’t know if I wanted to contribute, or maybe I was afraid of rejection.” Lissette also noted that it would have been challenging to “lead a group [as a young person] while learning something that you may not be completely aware of or know everything about.” While many of the youth participants reported interest in, or experience with, the juvenile justice system before participating in the summer program, they unanimously expressed doubts about the ability to design curriculum around the issue area based on their lack of content expertise. Interestingly enough, however, the adult facilitators also reported that they faced a high learning curve with the content before and during the process of designing and delivering the curriculum. While the adult facilitators also reported interested in topics of juvenile justice, the facilitators had not had prior experience working within the juvenile justice system or designing learning experiences around juvenile justice topics. Sydney, for example, stated the following:

I was learning about the juvenile justice system as we were planning so there were some things I knew more about than others. I was definitely doing some evening cramming and saying, ‘okay, I think this is what makes sense for the next day.’ Also, in the beginning we planned for the first two weeks, and then after that, we planned on the morning before students showed up, and that felt stressful in light of not having facilitated many of the activities before and feeling not like an expert myself in terms of ‘teaching’ [the content].

A lack of content knowledge among both the adult facilitators and youth participants could lay the framework for an exploratory summer program in which youth and adults are learning about, and uncovering issue areas in, the juvenile justice system together. However, given broader programmatic goals, such as the need to create policy recommendations by the end of the summer, it seemed important to have baseline foci, clarity, and pre-determined content on which the facilitators could draw upon to shape the summer activities and research.

Opportunities for implementing curricular co-design

While there are multiple barriers to including young people in curricular co-design, there are also multiple opportunities to involving them in the process. Five key areas of potential involvement emerged from the research: (1) creating a larger, more intentional design role for returning youth during the spring months leading up to summer programming; (2) exposing youth to external-facing opportunities to increase their content expertise; (3) dividing aspects of summer programming so that youth worked in small groups to inform design; (4) utilizing digital tools to promote remote collaboration on curricular design between youth and adults; and (5) codifying youth-adult program design in broader organizational goals in order to ensure that youth involvement in design is compulsory, rather than optional.

Facilitators noted that the spring months could be better utilized for collaborative curriculum design between adults and youth who had previously participated in the summer programming. Belinda stated that “for young people that have gone through it at least one summer, they should be part of the planning process because they know what works, what doesn’t have important perspective of what needs to be changed or pursued.” Furthermore, Sydney noted that spring planning could be especially symbolic for youth who were exiting out of the program: “really planning the summer together [is]… the toolkit young people walk away with, of ‘what is the change you want to make?’ in setting up for the next group to take the torch.” Sydney sees youth involvement in curricular design as a form of legacy-building for veteran youth to influence the direction and priorities of the council, whether they are returning to participate in the program or are moving on. While councils continue to meet and operate throughout the school year, it seems possible to adjust the flow of school-year programming in order to dedicate time to plan summer curricula. By making curriculum design a core aspect of school-year council programming, adult facilitators may be able to maximize youth input in the design process while ensuring that youth are paid for their time.

Inviting youth to external events related to the mission of the program can be a key entry point to co-design, in that it addresses the lack of content knowledge that some youth believe to be a barrier to their involvement. Kristine believes that this is a particularly meaningful way to involve young people in design, and shared the following:

For the JJYAT in particular…by way of how many convenings and collaboratives and meetings there are, there’s an opportunity for members to be playing a more outward-facing role in the juvenile justice community. For those who are not necessarily in school regularly, they can come to certain meetings with me, versus just me being in those meetings, and that foundational exposure can then enable them to play a more meaningful role in some of the planning because they were at that collaborative meeting, you know. So some of their involvement beyond just, you could certainly have them engaged in what icebreaker they like, or which activity they like, and have them develop that, but for me I would love for their involvement in curriculum development…to have greater opportunity for them to be involved in the issue based [work] that directors are doing.

A number of factors seem to support youth’s participation in external-facing opportunities as a means of informing curricular design. First, since the council meets throughout the school year with less frequency than in the summer, it is a way to keep council members actively involved in the program. Second, youth members’ participation in external-facing meetings can help the council build positive relationships and network with important stakeholders in the juvenile justice community, and can help them better understand some of the stakeholders’ policy priorities, which can inform curriculum design for the summer.

Both youth alumni and facilitators suggested that facilitating curricular co-design in small groups could be more feasible and effective than whole-group co-design approaches. For example, Sydney suggested, “maybe in an ideal situation the group works through a topic until natural leaders emerge…we have young people take ownership of certain weeks, and then plan with the facilitator…to say, ‘okay what is this day look like, or this week?’” Similarly, alumna Lissette posed the following:

I wonder if there was someone in a position, with a group facilitator, that could be at least representative of youth. If there was someone dedicated to work on design with [the lead facilitators], and say ‘here’s what I think about this or that.’ It’s only one person, but if they have that designated role, then maybe then can prioritize it.

Curricular design in smaller groups could help ensure that youth involvement is consensual, and that the involvement is rooted in a genuine interest in the content. Furthermore, small-group co-design could help foster individualized leadership growth and skill development by delegating specific, specialized responsibilities to youth based on their interests and needs.

Another potential opportunity for facilitators to increase youth involvement in curricular design is through the use of existing online collaboration tools, such as Google Docs. By facilitating and encouraging dialogues with youth participants in designated online spaces, adult facilitators may be able to increase youth input in curricular design in both formal and informal ways. Belinda expressed interest in online collaboration, explaining that she and other facilitators had attempted using the team messaging tool Slack in a previous year. She wondered:

What if we shared Google Docs and had [youth] comment on it? These are practical tools we always use. What about — we used Slack — Russ and me were excited about it. And I mean, it was weird with three people but what if councils had Slack or internal communication? It’s more accessible than email, has so many emojis…What if sessions didn’t have to end? If [youth] see something, like media coverage, and want to have another forum to talk about it instead of waiting for the next day or session…if there is always an open line of communication, it makes it easier as a program lead to be like, ‘this student is really trying, maybe we should create an opportunity’…it would be easier to spot in a more passive way. It can be simple and using the tools we already have.

It seemed that there was significant online collaboration already taking place among adult facilitators, and that facilitators were willing to try out various group productivity tools. Online collaboration among youth and adults could address the barrier of youth mobility, in that individuals could connect from any location, and it could potentially encourage input and participation from youth who are less comfortable sharing feedback in-person. Collaboration could range from formal curriculum planning, wherein facilitators and youth examine and edit the goals and activities of any given session together, to informal planning, where adults and youth engage in discussion around specific topics that have arisen in sessions and use the discussion to inform future sessions. Yet, while curricular co-design in online spaces could promote access for some youth, it could inhibit access for any youth who lack reliable Internet access. Furthermore, ongoing online collaboration opens up challenges for gauging the time youth work on co-design; given that a core element of the program is the payment of fair wages for all hours youth participants work, facilitators would need to consider how to appropriately and fairly pay youth for their online contributions.

Finally, it seems that involving youth in curricular design would be difficult to sustain without broader organizational support through the codification of youth-adult co-design as a core component of the program, with metrics against which youth involvement in design is measured. Belinda explained that curricular co-design could be integrated in simple ways, but that changing the habits and traditions of the organization could be tricky and spotty (personal communication, October 28, 2016). Kristine, who has already been involving young people in curriculum design in informal ways, also observed the following:

From a capacity perspective, it’s on my plate to plan curriculum, and it’s also on my plate to plan curriculum to involve young people. But right now at least, that’s not a goal in the [youth advisory council program]. We could have that be, where veteran JJYAT members are involved in the planning of next year’s curriculum. It’s not mission creep, it could very well be part of the program. If integrated into the program, there needs to be a mindfulness on the part of the organization to get that that’s part of staff capacity. So the capacity question is interesting because it could be done in a way that integrates it programmatically.

Belinda’s and Kristine’s comments suggest that curricular co-design requires a cultural shift not just within a single youth council, but across all councils and within the organization more broadly. This scale of adoption would likely involve approval and endorsement from senior and executive-level management, and would likely require strategic planning to help minimize the barriers to curricular co-design that facilitators might face.

Implications and Opportunities

The findings of this project confirmed the three hypotheses I posed prior to conducting research. Both young people and adults want to engage in curricular co-design, but programs like the JJYAT have not yet mastered the adoption of co-design. While a number of barriers and challenges exist, the intentionality and prioritization of co-design, including bringing veteran youth into the design process, could promote co-design in immediate and tangible ways. Based on the identification of multiple opportunities for involving young people in curricular design, it seems promising that youth-serving organizations can better adopt youth-adult co-design in their programs. I am especially interested in further investigating the following question in future research: How might online tools promote and support collaboration among young people and adults in the process of designing meaningful learning experiences together?

Young people, if given the right opportunities by adults in power, can be participants, co-owners, and designers of their learning experiences. However, this requires a deliberate and ongoing cultural shift towards undoing adult-centered and adultist practices, both at the individual facilitator level and at the organizational level. Without codified policies and practices to support youth-adult co-design, it may be difficult to ensure that young people are provided with meaningful opportunities to shape their learning opportunities. Yet, the potential benefits of co-design, both for youth skill development and for program quality, seem to far exceed any costs of adapting co-design practices.


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