To Co-Create or Not Co-Create, That is the Question

Angela Townsend

Angela Townsend (M.S. Elementary Education) is part of the founding faculty of Vista Innovation and Design Academy (VIDA) where she teaches 8th grade math, U.S. History and is a P.B.L. Coach. Angela believes that engagement of all learners starts with teaching practices that include students as the leaders of their own learning.


This post was originally published on Design Thinking, Co-Creating, and everything in between. One teacher’s adventure in CHANGE and is reprinted with permission.

I remember the day last spring when I successfully co-created a “How Might We” statement with my 8th grade U.S. History class. I knew it was a stretch to attempt this co-creation, but I tried anyway. I had successfully co-created a lot of stuff with them that year. I had co-created rubrics, and success criteria. I had given them freedom to choose who they were going to study in history and how they would create their projects. The “How Might We” co-creation was eight months in the making, but if I was going to try with any class, this would be the one.

I teach at a design thinking school in Vista, California. I love my job. I helped create the school where I teach. I am physically and emotionally tied to our philosophies and what we do. As teachers, we often hear about theories, however, we rarely are shown how to put these theories into action. What do you actually do in the classroom every day, to make that theory a reality? And then, when you do, how do you make it successful? And by successful, I mean how do you train your students to work this way when they have been trained otherwise, how do you manage and assess student learning and how do you keep it all organized so that it doesn’t fall apart when you are ready to give up? (My principal today mentioned the most interesting case study would be one of following teachers around each day. I agree. After thinking about what we do each day, I’m perplexed.)

I think that learning how to teach design thinking at a school is also challenging because there aren’t a whole lot of people who actually do it. I mean, how many design thinking schools are in your neighborhood? We don’t get to go to other schools and observe what they are doing often, if ever. I mean, we are literally figuring this out as we go. Luckily we have great support in our administration and we have a TON of parents cheering us along.

So back to the matter of co-creating a “How Might We” statement. A “How Might We” is a statement we use in design thinking to pose a question that would lead to a process of solution creation. The topic we were studying at the time was the Civil War. I had given the students several resources to study so that we could come back for a discussion on how we wanted to showcase our learning. We knew that we had our school expo coming up and we wanted to do something special for exhibition. I won’t say that the process was easy, it took a lot of time, and I think there were a few students that got frustrated with how we created the statement, however I think overall it went well and with time, the procedure will get better as I continue the practice.

We started out by looking at the users, the people that experienced the Civil War. We studied them, then came together to determine what were their needs. My students looked at all sorts of people involved in the war; slaves, families of soldiers, soldiers, politicians, spies, and even foreign powers. Obviously their needs were also very diverse, however we eventually came to the conclusion that many people’s stories of the war had not been told. We created the statement, “How might we tell the untold stories of heroes of the Civil War.”

Once this was decided, all students were allowed to choose who they would study, how to tell their story, and what they would tell. I gave specific criteria that needed to be included (standards), however they got to choose how they were going to incorporate that criteria. After that, I basically let them go and do.

I was astonished and delighted with what each of my students created. We all decided that we were going to put our projects together and we would create a Civil War Museum for the night of the Expo. I honestly have never seen students work so hard and be so proud of the work they created. ALL of them brought their parents to see their work, ALL of them. They took turns being docents for the museum and guiding groups through their work as they proudly announced what EVERYONE had done for the project. They were collectively proud of what everybody had done. I had students that traditionally never came to an Expo night show up and work several shifts because they were so happy. A fundraiser was created to help victims of human trafficking to connect modern day slavery to 19th century slavery. It was amazing.

Student created map of the Civil War Museum

When all was said and done, I realized that I had to grade these projects. As I think about it, very few students asked me what kind of grade they were getting in history. That is always my goal. Make learning so awesome that you forget about grades and just do the coolest stuff ever. I mean, how do you put a grade on an experience like this? Giving them As seemed like a slap in the face. It DID NOT reflect the effort and work put into what my students did. What was even better? Every student turned in something beautiful to them. They worked hard because they got to choose how they would showcase their learning.

A model of a wet plate camera that would be used during the Civil War
co-creation
Students enjoying an interactive timeline of the Civil War

I said in a conversation today with my principal and a few other colleagues, that I rarely know what the outcome of a project will be, because I go into projects knowing that my students will determine what they will create. I do give my students criteria (standards) that must be included in their project, but every time I have allowed them the freedom to create what they will do, I have been astounded by the results. The power of co-creation is real, and I wonder how much better work we would get from our students if we were to just step away, and let them create.

Letters written by students in the voice of a soldier and the families he left back home.
Movie written and directed by students that showed how spies communicated
during the Civil War and how they communicate now

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