Educational Planning -- Facilitated Planning Strategy

How can a design process successfully explore alternative or non-traditional educational environments? When creating exciting and new learning environments, one significant dilemma often presents itself, and that is how to have both the educational and parent communities not only accept but embrace proposed changes. A strategy we have used on many projects is one that involves the parent community, educators, and students. By including all in a facilitated design process, a significant range of expertise is brought into the process in an orderly and effective fashion. There are several steps that have proven to be effective in this process.

We find that the most effective first step is to hold a general session with all stakeholders participating. This can be a group as small as 15 to 20 people or as large as a couple of hundred. The larger the group of relevant participants, the more likely it will be to instantly gain broad acceptance of the final product. However, the difficulty of working with a large group is the fact though they will often use the same words, they often have a different interpretation of those words or their priority of importance. Therefore, we typically use a couple of exercises that allow all to express their thoughts on education. Through that exercise, the group builds a common definition of terms. They have a common experience that establishes an understanding of specific concepts, ideas, or methodologies. Questions such as“how do we learn” and“where are other places where we learn” are basic discussion starters. Proceeding on in the exercise, setting priorities, understanding the neighborhood or context, and other areas of concern for the school can be explored to expand the common understanding of the project’s potential.

Large groups are difficult to work with as a whole. Therefore, breaking the larger group into smaller groups of four to eight for the initial exercises is desirable. Each group can explore ideas, record their conclusions, and then report back to the larger group. This allows maximum participation and gives all a sense of their personal involvement. This process does allow the expertise of all to be captured and germination of new ideas to be created.

Preplanning is necessary to understand who the participants will be and in what areas they will have valid input. Parents can assist in setting priorities and provide invaluable expertise in understanding the community and immediate context. Students can help in understanding what makes a comfortable campus; what social concerns they have for the student body, as a whole or in part; and potential areas of difficulty or conflict. Similarly, faculty and staff can provide insight that is unique to their perspective. The fact that each group is providing their individual perspective and doing it in the presence of the others provides a common understanding of those diverse perspectives of the others.

Once an initial series of exercises have been completed, the need to develop more detailed elements of the project would be difficult with this large group. Therefore, the ability to create a smaller group of 10 to 20 people is necessary. This should, if possible, include a number of educators and administrators, parents, and students. Often it is difficult to have students participate for extended periods of time. Typically they are brought into the process for contribution to specific areas where their expertise would be beneficial. The small group or task force is where detailed ideas are developed.

As an architect facilitating this process, the goal is to develop the goals and major concepts with the task force. It is assumed at this point that a general program has been established as the basis for the project. Using this information, along with that created in the larger group exercise, brainstorming on overall concepts begins. This would include not only the educational requirements but the social and community requirements as well. Again, using the technique of breaking into small groups of three to five people or at least three to four groups, each group is tasked to brainstorm on the same specific topics. Reporting back to the task force as a whole with the documentation of their ideas allows everyone to progress at the same rate and with the best ideas being explored in greater detail. Through several iterations and continually becoming more specific, concepts will begin to emerge. The architectural team takes the information gathered and refines it to begin the process again, but building from the information generated.

The task force, working with the architectural team, creates a facility that meets the specific needs of the community. They then have the task of presenting that design to the community as a whole. This really does create innovative educational facilities in which the community takes the pride of ownership.

Paul D. Winslow, FAIA, is a partner in The Orcutt/Winslow Partnership, a 35-year-old, 100-person architectural, planning, and interior design firm located in Phoenix, AZ. Paul has specialized as a community design facilitator for the past 20 years and is a member of the Council for Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI).