PARTICIpation x ownership x design

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

The Challenge

Participation x Ownership x Design is an independent research project centered on the following question: “How might community-based organizations engage high school-age youth in Chicago in the process of designing curricula for paid summer learning programming?”

Project Goals

  •  better understand the learning goals of both youth participants and adult facilitators in paid summer experiences

  • better understand the perspectives of both young people and adult facilitators with regard to high-quality summer learning experiences

  • understand how youth and adult facilitators feel about the feasibility and value of involving young people in curricular design

  • identify potential barriers to and opportunities for the inclusion of young people in curricular design

Underlying Motivations

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 questions of equity in design, and the distinctions between access to and use of digital tools and experiences, could be applicable to the design of learning experiences. The results of this research project could inform how other youth-serving organizations engage young people in program design processes and may highlight new ways that organizations can better serve their youth.

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. As Kentaro Toyama illuminates in Geek Heresy, design for social impact not only fails to view the recipients of designs as experts, but it can make complex social problems worse (2015). 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 was 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.

Background Research

A number of different frameworks have been laid out by researchers and practitioners to include young people in design.

Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) is a pedagogical approach that centers young people as the agents of change in their communities. Young people drive the content of their community research projects and design and implement the research, with support from adult allies. YPAR strives to create spaces where “youth are engaged in multi-generational collectives for critical inquiry and action, and these collectives are housed in youth development settings, schools, and/or research sites” (Cammarota and Fine, 2008).

Another framework, Meaningful Student Involvement, is defined as “the process of engaging students in every facet of the educational process for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community and democracy” (Fletcher, 2005). Meaningful Student Involvement adapts Roger Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation (1992) and offers the Ladder of Student Involvement in Schools. Fletcher’s Ladder describes youth involvement in decision-making in eight levels (2005). Hart’s and Fletcher’s respective ladders of youth involvement, shown below, are a helpful way to categorize the degrees in which young people are included (or excluded) from processes like curriculum design for summer employment programs. Youth involvement cannot be assessed through a binary lens; rather, it operates along a spectrum, where there are multiple shades of youth inclusion and participation.

The existing literature provides strong frameworks and guidelines for designing with youth, the benefits of designing with youth, and the integral role of summer employment programs for youth, but there is a lack of work around how to design high-quality summer employment programs with youth. The argument that young people should be included in design processes is made evident through an array of theories, but there is a scarcity of concrete guidelines for how community-based agencies can immediately include young people in program design.


I focused my research on one program within one youth-serving organization in a large city in the Midwest region of the United States. I developed an interview guide for youth and an interview guide for the adult facilitators, each of which can be found in the Appendix. 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 were de-identified, and names of individuals and programs have been replaced with pseudonyms. 


I began the research project with three core hypotheses:

Young people are not currently included in curricular co-design for paid summer learning programs.

Young people want to be involved, and adults want young people to be involved in curricular co-design.

There is potential to include returning members in planning curricula for the summer.

Core Findings

Youth involvement in design is already happening.

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.

Youth and adult facilitators reported similar ideas of high quality summer 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.

Curricular co-design raises complex questions without clear answers.

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. Another question that was raised was equitably providing all youth with the opportunity to engage in curricular design.

There are multiple barriers to involving young people in curricular 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.

There are multiple opportunities for involving young people in curricular design.

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.

Implications and Opportunities

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.