When Kids Design Their Own Learning

Ask young students to craft how they want to live and learn together.

Topics: Student Engagement

Schools are civic spaces. They are places where we enact our ideas of community and belonging and figure out how to live and learn together. School leaders often craft an approach to that question carefully through a vision for the school, or teachers participate in setting priorities at a beginning-of-the-year faculty meeting. Yet, how often do we ask our students—the very people most affected by the resulting rules, policies, and procedures—how they want to live and learn together during the school year?

As a researcher who looks at civic education in early childhood and elementary spaces and a former first-grade public school teacher, I have learned that including children in developing a school’s culture allows them to fully engage their civic capabilities and creates learning spaces that represent your community. The beginning of the new school year offers the opportunity to rethink how we approach our youngest students not just as learners, but more importantly, as collaborators.

Below, I offer three areas in which to meaningfully engage our youngest learners around the question, “How do we live and learn together joyfully?”

Filling in the Blanks

When I taught in New York City, I worked at an elementary school where we started our year with “blank” classrooms. Our rooms had everything needed for beginning-of-the-year activities in child-accessible bins, and our bulletin boards were covered with plain paper with a corrugated border; everything else was blank. The philosophy behind the blank walls was that the students were the most important resources in our classrooms, and their ideas were crucial to creating spaces where they would develop and learn together.

My colleague, Anna Falkner, had a similar approach to her classrooms in Austin, Texas. We believe that the “blank walls” approach creates ripe opportunities to engage children in the civic question of how we should live together. Consider the ways in which children can shape the learning environment from the very beginning:

Children can create aesthetics for classrooms, hallways, and common areas. When children are the creators, they bring their identities, inclusive of cultural knowledge, to bear. In my first-grade classroom, children created alphabet cards, schedule cards, and signs for the classroom. I have seen teachers engage young children in portraiture at the start of the year to learn about themselves and others; children’s representations become the focal point of the classroom, rather than a theme dictated by the teacher. To be sure, teachers can create thoughtful spaces in which they will work for the year, but I encourage teachers to consider how children can make their mark on the classroom and the school walls.

Children can curate bulletin boards. Consider the purpose behind a bulletin board: Is it for children to share what they are learning, to teach other people, and/or to interact with other learners moving through the hallways? At the Manhattan School for Children in New York City, we pinned a pencil on a string and a pad of Post-it Notes on our boards with an invitation for others to let us know what they thought. In this way, we made our hallways places for children to engage with each other’s learning.

Consult children on the accessibility of materials and spaces. Ask if there are spaces that they wish they had in their classroom or school. For example, young children’s concerns about play and inclusion have led many schools to build “buddy benches” on the playground where a child who wants a “buddy” can go so others know they want to play.

Use your design mind to ask whose purpose a space or structure best serves. Observe how different children engage with playscapes, gardens, hallways, and the library. In our first-grade classroom, my co-teacher and I realized that children did not have a space to go when they felt overwhelmed. We created a “cozy corner” with a set of headphones, a selection of music, pillows, a low table, paper, and some drawing materials. In another example, at a Head Start center in San Antonio, I observed how the school leader placed bookshelves with books for children to read while they wait in the hallways outside the restrooms.

Creating a Culture of Agency

Teachers and administrators alike can create structures that invite students’ ideas throughout the year. I have seen many classrooms implement a weekly meeting structure to let children know that their concerns and ideas will be taken up. Central to these structures is children’s development of civic capabilities—to advocate for themselves and each other, as well as practice listening to develop empathetic,
perspective-taking capabilities.

In a third-grade classroom, one of the “jobs” was “class council.” Each week, the four students who were council members collected issues and concerns from their classmates, and on Fridays, the students had lunch with the teacher to talk through those issues. For example, students were concerned about where the hot lunch sign-up chart was in the classroom, because it created a bottleneck at the door at arrival. The teacher supported students in the development of plans to present to the class to solve this problem.

While issues didn’t arise every week, class council members still met. No matter what, the class council had a purpose and some power to enact change for the class community. How might your school have a council that treats children’s concerns seriously and acts upon them?

Children as young as 3 can be encouraged to act civically through advocacy and problem-solving, my colleagues and I found in a yearlong study at a Head Start center in South Texas. One of the simplest strat­egies we identified was for educators to wait to see if a child can answer another child’s request for help. By doing something as simple as helping another child open a milk carton, children can share their expertise with a community member.

A Culture of Listening

Educators must develop skills to not only observe children but also to listen to them deeply. “Listening is an active, engaged practice requiring adults to hear children’s intentions over their own agendas and ingrained assumptions,” say early childhood educators Haeny Yoon and Tran Nguyen Templeton in the 2019 paper “The Practice of Listening to Children: The Challenges of Hearing Children Out in an Adult-Regulated World.” They urge educators to listen to children not only for curricular purposes, but also to understand how children experience the world.

In a first-grade classroom in the Midwest, I observed a student teacher-led morning meeting. During the greeting, the children turned what was meant to be a calm morning exercise involving passing a ball into a race. The student teacher paused and told the children that she needed to rethink that greeting because it did not represent the way the class usually started the day. Just as she was about to move on, a student asked, “Can we start over?”

In that moment, I saw how the student teacher and her mentoring teacher had created a space where children knew that they would be heard and that their concerns would be taken seriously. The children did the greeting again more deliberately, and the minute it took validated the teacher as a community member who voiced a concern and the child who responded to it. In listening to the children and treating them as community members, we see ourselves as being in community with children.

In these small moments, educators can carve out spaces where children’s voices can impact how the community lives and learns together. Engaging young learners in school leadership requires creating an environment in which everyone feels seen and heard. And beyond providing space for children to voice their ideas, educators need to take those ideas seriously and act on them.

Children come into the civic spaces of school with community capabilities they have developed alongside their families. School provides children a space to exercise those ideas and expand upon their civic aspects. So, begin the year by asking young learners to collaborate in shaping the community; ask them, “How do we want to live and learn together?”

Katherina A. Payne is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas.