Working With Stakeholders to Design Better Schools and Universities

Educational settings generally require certain basic infrastructure: classrooms, cafeterias, computer labs. But nothing about education design should be cookie-cutter.

Design thinking should start with the user. Without a deep understanding of the students, teachers, school leaders and families that use a facility, it’s impossible to create places and experiences that fully meet their needs.

Stakeholder groups that provide input to decision-makers such as the school superintendent or board of trustees are critical to uncover a community’s needs and wants. But the different voices can become unwieldy and the process unproductive if the organizers don’t establish a set of principles to distill meaningful feedback from the group.

With that in mind, we’ve developed a guide to help you — the leaders and decision-makers in K-12 schools, universities and other educational institutions — gather stories, experiences, perspectives and ideas that will ultimately inform the design. We prefer to use these tools in collaboration with you to define the problem, tailor an engagement process that suits your needs and find solutions together.

Our designs are made stronger and more relevant by the stakeholder feedback process, which allows us to ask both basic and unconventional questions that can unearth perspectives we hadn’t considered. This guidance early in the design process builds stakeholder ownership in the project and helps avoid expensive disruptions or delays down the line.

Here are some tools to assist you in making the most out of stakeholder engagement efforts:

1.  Define the stakeholder group’s purpose and level of involvement 

This is key to a focused, productive and transparent process. To establish the purpose, decide what it is that you need to know from the stakeholders, and why their voice is important to shape a particular project.

To define the level of participation, consider using the public participation spectrum developed by the International Association for Public Participation. Stakeholders can have superficial involvement (you promise to keep them informed about problems, alternatives and solutions) or be given decision-making powers (you agree to implement their preferences). There are approaches in between, such as working with the public to ensure that their concerns and aspirations are directly reflected in alternatives or, in a greater display of collaboration, looking to stakeholders to formulate solutions and incorporating their advice into your decisions. 

Be upfront about what kind of power you’re bestowing on the group and convey the importance of this responsibility.

2. Build a group that reflects the community you serve

Strive for diversity along many dimensions, such as race and ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status, age, and gender and sexual identity.

Of course, always include students, even the youngest ones. When possible, we recommend that students make up half the group. One or even a few students can’t be expected to represent the perspectives and experiences of the whole student body. Avoid filling the group only with students who routinely get chosen for involvement, such as school leaders or high achievers. For example, consider students who are not high achievers, students with disabilities, students whose first language is not English, students who are homeless, students who are very engaged, and students who are not. These are not all your choices, but they can help you visualize groups you might have unintentionally overlooked.

With the design team’s guidance, stakeholders can share perspectives and shape ideas over several sessions. This gives you the flexibility to break up the stakeholder team into smaller focus groups that make strategic sense for promoting conversation and ideas.

3. Send information packets to prep the group ahead of the meeting

Compile site plans, visuals, project narratives and other information that can spark ideas before the group convenes. Sharing information early gives stakeholders a chance to process details and shape ideas on their own. This step can be an advantage for the more timid members of your group, allowing them to come into the room ready to contribute. It’s also beneficial for the group as a whole, as it can discourage groupthink, a psychological phenomenon that happens when the desire for consensus overrides the need to evaluate alternatives and viewpoints of individual group members.

If your group includes young children, such as kindergartners, craft a narrative ahead of time that can help their parents or teachers frame the stakeholder process in terms and concepts they understand. This planning will prepare students to answer your questions and those of the design team.

4. Assign people to monitor the group’s adherence to norms

It’s no easy task to coordinate people’s schedules and find an opening that works for most if not all members of a group. Stakeholders’ time is valuable, so it’s crucial that you supervise the group for adherence to rules and basic courtesy so that that the process is productive. Deploy designers and other members of your team to stop individual stakeholders from monopolizing the conversation or getting lost in the details instead of looking at the big picture.

For example, if you break up the stakeholder group into subgroups for more intimate discussions and brainstorming, assign designers and other authorities to take notes and steer the conversation back on track if it deviates. Most importantly, the monitors can ensure that the least assertive members of the group are also heard.

5. Document your “deep dive” and present it to the group

The stakeholder process does more than bring into focus programmatic considerations such as the location of a storm shelter or the size of a new library. It also reveals the personality of the school and the aspirations of its community, which also shape the design. Asking students and teachers creative questions — like what book or movie character their school would be — can elicit valuable information about what values the school community holds dear, such as quirkiness or an entrepreneurial spirit. This knowledge guides designers as they make decisions about the different spaces in a campus.

The stakeholder process is a “deep dive” into the community you serve. Document the process and its findings and report them back to the stakeholder group. The document will become a blueprint for you and other decision-makers to successfully guide the project through the design and construction process. Committing stakeholders’ thoughts, ideas and reflections to paper lets them know that they’ve been heard and that their time was a worthy investment.