Fad or Tradition: The Case of the Open Classroom

Fads come and go in cars, clothes, and cereals. So why blink when voguish changes in schools–a community institution that directly touches one out of four Americans–capture popular attention?

Just as pet rocks, micro-skirts, and hula-hoops have caused ripples on the surface of a large media lake but hardly stirred the bottom, educational fads have come and gone barely leaving a trace in classrooms. Thus, it is important to distinguish between policy chatter about school change, authorities adopting policies, whether teachers put the policies into practice and, finally, whether the changed classroom practices have endured.

And so it appears that the “open classroom,” an innovation that swept over U.S. schools between the late 1960s and early 1970s, caused a few waves only to disappear from schools by the end of the decade with nary a ripple since. But appearances can be deceiving.

Why “open classrooms” in the late-1960s? The story of how a British import called “informal education” became the reform du jour in the U.S. begins with critics’ heavy pounding of schools in the mid-1950s. Across the political spectrum, critics flailed U.S. schools because education, they believed, could solve national problems arising from Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, caste-like treatment of black citizens, and a pervasive culture of conformity that suffocated imagination. School-based solutions poured like torrents upon these problems including more math and science, Advanced Placement courses, racially integrating schools, and “open education.”

Richly amplified by the media, “open education” in its focus on students learning by doing resonated with vocal critics of creativity-crushing classrooms as just the right kind of solution to what ailed public schools. Educators who visited British schools in the late-1960s spread the gospel of “open classrooms” (also called “open education” and “informal education”). Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs moved from one attractive “learning center” for math to others in science, reading, writing, and art. Teams of teachers worked with multi-age groups of students and created non-graded elementary schools. Applied to high schools, some districts gave teachers discretion to create new academic courses where students directed their learning, worked in the community, and pursued intellectual interests.

By the early 1970s, the phrase “open classrooms” dominated educators’ vocabularies. Many school boards adopted “open education” programs and built “open space” schools to harness the student-centered thrust of the innovation. Both “open education” and “open-space” schools popped up in Fargo, North Dakota, Harlem, and Los Angeles.

What happened to the innovation? “Open classrooms” peaked in the mid-1970s and within a few years the innovation moved from the center of the public radar screen to a mere blip on the edge. Public concerns over a lagging economy, rising unemployment, and the Vietnam War grew into a perception, again amplified by the media, that academic standards had slipped, desegregating schools had failed, and urban schools had become violent places. School critics’ loud voices and rising public concern over these messy problems melded into “back-to-basics” policies that toughened the curriculum, increased the teacher’s authority, and required more work of students.

“Traditional” schools mushroomed in suburbs and cities. By the early 1980s, “open classrooms” had already become a footnote in doctoral dissertations.

So were “open classrooms” just another fad? Yes and no. The yes part of the answer is that “open classrooms” as the educational version of long tail fins on cars and short skirts had, indeed, soared and faded from the public scene. But to call it a fad would miss the deeper meaning of “open classrooms” as another skirmish in the ideological wars that have split educational progressives from conservatives since the first tax-supported schools opened their doors in the early 1800s. (Also see my post of August 13, 2009)

Now, amid standards-based curriculum and test-based accountability where test scores, and No Child Left Behind dominates talk about schools, many teachers, particularly in the primary grades, continue learning centers and similar activities. “Open education” is still present in schools founded over 30 years ago such as the Los Angeles Open Charter School, The Irwin Avenue Open Elementary (Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina), Heatherwood Open Space Elementary School (Boulder Valley, Colorado) and many others. Teachers and principals still work quietly but keep their heads low to avoid in-coming shells. Most high school teachers continue to use teacher-centered practices leavened slightly by informal practices that have crept into their repertoires. The “open classroom,” then, was not a hula-hoop fad but another skirmish in the nearly two-century long ideological war in the U.S. over how best to make children into good adults and a better society.

So the “open classroom” has clearly disappeared from the vocabulary of educators and previously open-space schools now have walls but readers should expect another variation of “open education” to re-appear in the years ahead. Deep-rooted traditional and progressive ideas about classroom teaching and learning and the best knowledge to instill in the next generation still (and will continue to) abide among taxpayers, voters, and parents.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Fad or Tradition: The Case of the Open Classroom

  1. Pingback: A Look at a Classroom-Less School In Sweden | newsstand – mobile publishing ressource

  2. marcus austin

    Hi Larry, why did they die out? They died out because they were a disaster. I had the misfortune to be a child who was taught in an open classroom in the UK, and it screwed up my education and the education of my friends for several years after. Some of us managed to recover and others didn’t. I think there were several factors behind the failure. One was the inability of the teachers to deal with a new system that they hadn’t any training in, The second reason was the lack of structure, an 8 year old isn’t going to sit down and think now I’ll do some maths, and in an hour I’ll do some english. What they think is “wow I can get away with doing nothing all day,” and that’s what my friends and I did. We got to school in the morning had registration and for the rest of the day we did what we liked. luckily for me I liked sitting in the library reading books. My friends just did nothing.

    Marcus Austin

    • larrycuban

      Marcus.
      Thank you for your on open classrooms as you experienced them in UK. The Plowden Report (1967) advocated informal education became translated into “open classrooms” in U.S. Some of the reasons you offer make sense in the U.S. context. But whatever the reasons many U.S. teachers adapted pieces here and there of the “open classroom.” Most U.S. teachers did not embrace the structure and those that did soon turned to teacher-centered arrangements.

  3. Kelli Sowerbrower

    Hello Mr. Cuban, I am in the data collection phase of my dissertation which started from a line from Tinkering Towards Utopia. It was the idea that we have little idea of what is happening in regards to educational reforms once the teachers close their classroom doors. I am asking three teachers about their experiences with reforms once they close their doors. My question for you is, do you think this type of research is still relevant twenty plus years later after the publishing of your book? I am passionate about teacher narratives because teachers are continually being overlooked in regards to pretty much everything in education. Can you share with me and your readers some of your thoughts in this area?

    Thank you for your blog and continued concern for education and educators.

    Kelli Sowerbrower

    • larrycuban

      Yes, in general, Kelli, capturing teacher responses to reform remains relevant today. Depending on the questions you ask, which reforms you are examining, which teachers you are interviewing and observing (teachers in one school, across a district, or across districts) and the context for the particular reform, teacher perspectives are crucial.

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