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A Pluralistic Endeavor: Connecting Learning, People & Places

The word, ‘pluralistic’ has many meanings and varies with its context, “broad-based, varied, multicultural, assorted, cosmopolitan and diverse”. It translates into approaching the seemingly infinite stimuli we all deal with every day in our rapidly changing world. The phrase, “A Picture is worth a Thousand Words” has lost its edge as we deal with multi-media information overload.

For students, it’s an ongoing challenge to navigate between themselves and the outside world; for teachers it’s a challenge to help guide and assist with each individual student’s unique journey. Advancements in educational delivery tap into this shift from knowledge retention to active participation within the flow of information exchange. Developments in the culture of learning seek layered responses from the built environment to support the flow and rate of unencumbered free thought and expressive exchange.

In its simplest form the prescription for the design of learning spaces is that they promote social gathering in a safe and comfortable setting to both complement and offset the referenced barrage of information; to ‘humanize’ the experience and encourage engagement with others during one’s own learning process. A pluralistic experience through which each learner can become self-aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, then choose a path forward. That the basic resource is the individual student, and how to foster environments conducive to both self-reflection and sharing, promoting empathy towards oneself and others.

The prescription above is not new, however it continues to evolve. In 2021, we have a heightened awareness of physical building infrastructure needs, access to technology, and the importance of empathy. Some have argued that new buildings will solve all the issues, but the reality is that it’s more about re-thinking current indoor and outdoor settings that have yet to realize their full potential. Dreaming big about “the ideal” can inform how to reconfigure current facilities both in time with scheduling, and space by design.

A symphony is the careful planning and placement of many different notes by many differing instruments into intricately fluctuating patterns and groupings. Music is intangible, yet pluralistic and simple to appreciate and enjoy – in different ways – all at the same time. Students are living in a world of disparate musical notes looking for a rhythm and a melody to make sense of it all and create a tangible harmony, if only as a reference to hang on to amidst the cacophony.

Like composing music, the design of learning environments is a pluralistic endeavor. It’s about providing a context of gathering and support for dynamic, multi-faceted lifelong learning. It starts with community involvement in a team made up of the school district, planners & designers, local leadership, and the public. Connecting learning and people with less compartmentalized places allows for adaptive flexibility, bringing out the best in all of us through cooperative exchange.

This article appeared in the November 2021 issue of The Councilgram newsletter published by the New York State Council of School Superintendents (NYSCOSS).

Kevin Walsh, AIA, ALEP, LEED AP
Partner | Education Planning Architect
(631) 294-0703

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