How to Co-Design Better Schools

How to Co-Design Better Schools

A new toolkit supports school communities in putting equity first
Larry Corio
Adha Mengis
AJ Mapes
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Along with educators and families around the country, those of us at IDEO who work in education have been asking ourselves, “Where do we go from here?” What do we stand for in this moment when education is being disrupted, inequities are being exacerbated, and we feel more isolated than ever before?

Knowing we couldn’t answer those questions alone, we hosted listening circles earlier this year to learn how educators were navigating their personal and professional lives as the pandemic surged.

Those sessions surfaced questions like these:

  • What can we do to increase students' and families' joy right now?
  • Can we build safer and more inclusive spaces for school communities?
  • How do we make sure we prioritize—not just accommodate—the needs of marginalized students?
  • How might we be healers of a broken system?

These gnarly, complex issues can’t be addressed by any single person or organization, and making progress requires more than repurposed solutions delivered by outsiders. As we’ve learned through our work with teachers and principals, navigating these types of challenges depends on school communities being supported to co-design the future for themselves. As one teacher in Fremont, California told us: “Teaching and innovating have to go hand in hand right now.”

With that in mind, we developed a method for educators to take a co-design approach to driving better outcomes for their schools and the students and families they serve. The Co-Designing Schools Toolkit is a collection of 40 activities, frameworks, and research-based practices designed by The Teachers Guild and School Retool programs, supported by and in collaboration with Riverdale Country School, the Deeper Learning network, Liberatory Design, the Stanford, and the input of educators, local collaborators, and coaches.

At its core, the toolkit is about designing for equity. It complements an approach we developed nearly 10 years ago, the Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit, encouraging educators to focus on equity issues in their schools as part of diverse design teams. The toolkit focuses on the needs and lives of students furthest from opportunity, helps teams explore their members’ personal identities, and guides educators in articulating equity goals for their schools. Taken together, these components aren’t just boxes to tick off, but a set of principles that guide the entire change process.

Designing with students, not for them

Myron Long, Principal of The Social Justice School in northeast Washington, DC, says the co-design process has pushed him to fundamentally rethink the role of his students. “We ask for their feedback,” Myron says, “but we actually have to listen to them and then act on it.” For example, rather than assuming his students are always eager to take on justice issues, he asks them, and recalls a student replying, “Can’t we just play dodgeball, too?” Myron urges his colleagues to regularly invite students to be co-designers, and to build in “time to pause, listen to, and design with our students, not just for them.”

Meet parents where they are

Another example of co-design comes from across the country in South County San Diego, where a team of Special Education leaders hosted co-design workshops. Inviting families in was crucial to the team’s efforts to bridge gaps in understanding between parents and the countless people who provide support for students with special needs.

But to ensure that caretakers of children with special needs would be able to show up as collaborators, they knew they’d have to offer some basic support, like hiring professional translators and lining up child care. “The parents felt so respected, valued, and part of the process,” said Olivia Rivera, a team member. Knowing their children would be taken care of during the workshops gave parents the time and space they needed to “share from their hearts.”

Meet 4 educators who are co-designing solutions for their school communities.

We know that no single strategy or process can solve all the complicated issues facing schools. But with roots in design, equity, and community, the Co-Designing Schools Toolkit can support schools and families as they navigate complexity and look ahead to building a collaborative environment in which all students thrive.

Learn more about co-designing a more equitable future for your community at

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Larry Corio
Product Lead
Larry leads product and impact for The Teachers Guild x School Retool, which supports educators to co-design more equitable futures for their schools. A former K-12 teacher and education researcher, he is inspired by the use of data to tell compelling, human-centered stories about school communities.
Adha Mengis
Adha helps shift school culture from the ground up by supporting teachers and school districts to reimagine learning. With a background in public policy and classroom teaching, he is particularly passionate about educational equity and building empathetic school climates.
AJ Mapes
Design Lead
As a design lead at IDEO San Francisco, AJ looks for opportunities where a focus on human-centered design works with strong and compelling visual communication to enhance the way people experience the world.
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