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Empathy Interviews and Co-Design Sessions

Integrating empathy interviews and student-teacher co-design sessions to inform systems change and program pilots


Leaders at Monterey Peninsula Unified School District knew that tackling complex equity challenges would require building a deeper understanding of student and family perspectives. As they began to confront specific issues, like needing to change grading policies or addressing survey data that showed lower feelings of connection and belonging amongst nine graders, the team turned to empathy interviews and co-design sessions to better understand needs and engage students, educators, and families more deeply in the process of developing solutions.


As part of its participation in TLA’s Strategy Lab, MPUSD leaders sought to support the re-engagement of students during distance learning. The leadership team decided to use two strategies to build understanding and inform design efforts.

At the school board level, district leadership ran an empathy interview session with students, parents, community members, and staff. After introducing the purpose of the process, the board welcomed participants to share perspectives on what was working — or not — in remote learning. Conversations surfaced a variety of issues, including the need to better engage high school students.

This session, in combination with YouthTruth survey data that indicated incoming 9th-graders felt less connection and belonging in school, helped the team pivot towards tackling that as a concrete challenge.

To do so, the team piloted a co-design process to more deeply explore the issue and pursue potential pilot interventions. The team brought together students and teachers from two freshman classes at one district high school and engaged in a more structured design thinking process to define the meaning of belonging and connectedness as well as develop and prototype strategies to improve the classroom, school, and community environment.

Knowing that this would be a new experience for many adults, the leadership team “front-loaded” the process with a professional learning session with teachers to explain more of the “why” and help them understand the approach. They then executed a three-hour design session.

This strategy is a part of TLA's Hop, Skip, Leapfrog release, which explores the concrete ways in which schools and systems pursued student-centered innovation during COVID-19. Explore the full guide to find additional strategies, insights, and resources.

Strategy Resources

Monterey Peninsula: Students and Teachers Co-Design Process Pilot

Monterey Peninsula wanted to solve a problem in their district: “How might we increase flexibility... Learn More

“Co-Creating with Our Students” presentation

This “mini-PD” training was developed by Monterey Peninsula Unified School District leaders to help teachers... Learn More