Open Space Offices and Open Space Schools–Borrowing Across Organizations?

Some viewers and friends ask me from time to time where do I get my ideas for writing twice-weekly posts about school reform and classroom practice. I tell them that I read lots of blogs, magazine articles, and curated websites written by teachers, administrators, school board members, historians of education, and state and federal policymakers. I listen to current and former graduate students who stay in touch with me. And then there are films I watch, magazines and books I read, and friends and family I talk with every week where schooling, policy, and classroom teaching are completely absent.

From all of these writings, conversations, and experiences I get ideas and jot them down on post-its or make copies of the blog, article, or video and put them on my desktop screen as reminders for possible posts. I think about each one, scratching out some entries on post-its and deleting PDFs but keeping a few. More often than not, I consider how “new” ideas, innovations, popular policies, and classroom practices have a history that often goes unnoted.

And that is how I came to write about open space offices and schools.

Connecting Office Cubicles and Open Space Schools

A week ago, I saw an article criticizing open space in offices, the open areas filled with cubicles for employees that began in the U.S. and Europe in the 1950s , accelerating in the 1960s and since have become so widespread, 70 percent of all office space is open, as to be satirized in Dilbert and “The Office.”






















After reading the article (and similar ones–(see here and here), I noted the dates for introducing open space offices and thought about the architectural innovations in schools–called “open space”–that swept across U.S. schools in the late-1960s through the late-1970s. I asked myself: with all of the influence that business practices have had on schooling historically, are open space schools another instance of that influence? I was curious and began–you guessed it–researching it on the Internet. I did find one writer who made the explicit connection between open space  offices and schools. No others could I find.

Keep in mind, however, that open space schools are not identical with “open classrooms,” a pedagogical innovation aimed at classrooms in both traditional age-graded school buildings as well as in those newly-built open space schools.

Still, open space schools, like “open classrooms,” did have (and still does) a progressive pedagogical philosophy in creating pods, large spaces for groups to assemble, cubicles for small group and individual activities and few, if any, classrooms with four walls. No hallways either.

Progressive-minded educators wanted to liberate teachers from traditional instruction in self-contained classroom buildings that architecturally looked like egg-crates. They wanted open space for small group activities, team-teaching,  multiple learning centers for young children, student-driven projects for youth, and  frequent collaboration among both teachers and students. Open space schools, these advocates said, would make “frontal teaching“disappear.













Criticism of open space schools, however, arose in the 1970s from teachers, parents, and administrators about the noise and distractions that accompanied lessons taught cheek-by-jowl in open spaces. Many students and teachers found it hard to manage activities that required team-work, collaboration, and independence. Within a few years, teachers and administrators had erected bookcases and sliding partitions to re-create self-contained classrooms. Over time, open space buildings were demolished to be replaced with new ones containing, yes, you know what I will put next:  “egg-crate” classrooms and corridors.

And what about open space offices? One writer who summarized research on the psychological ill effects of open space upon office worker performance, said: “they [open space and cubicles] were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.” Such effects were very close to what teachers, embedded in open space schools, said decades ago.

Back to my original query: with all of the influence that business practices have had on schooling historically, are open space schools another instance of that influence? My answer is “yes.” That influence, however, is not new; it has been around for well over a century.

The early progressive movement at the beginning of the 20th century contained two competing wings  –administrative and pedagogical: Pedagogical progressives sought student-centered curriculum and instruction with sensitivity to child and youth development while administrative progressives sought efficiency through Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” and Edward Thorndike‘s focus on measurement.  Empowered by “scientific management,” academics and superintendents imbued with heart-felt beliefs in more efficient schools, according to historian David Tyack, handily beat followers of John Dewey in influencing school and classroom practices.

The point I make is that business influence on school organization, structure and use of space has a long history and did not begin or end with open space schools.





Filed under school reform policies

13 responses to “Open Space Offices and Open Space Schools–Borrowing Across Organizations?

  1. Pingback: Open Space Offices and Open Space Schools–Borrowing Across Organizations? | Educational Policy Information

  2. Garth

    I taught briefly in an open space school. Way to noisy. It was a middle school and more time was spent with classroom management than teaching. As for open space offices I think it is just cheaper to build or refit a building into open space. It may not be a philosophy at all.

  3. The UK’s Building Schools for the Future programme saw an explosion of this kind of open space thinking in school design. But as the headline TES article here points out, to little effect.

    A single classroom, owned, decorated and managed by a passionate subject specialist teacher, is one of the most powerful educational tools any school can deploy.

  4. EB

    Our K-6 school had a natural experiment with open classrooms: all classrooms were traditional, except for 4th grade, where a large open space was occupied by 4 teachers and their classes. The students did not like it, as it was a sudden transition from what they were used to. But apart from that, it’s a stretch to say that open space translates to a more collaborative, student-centered type of education. That all depends on the teacher and the curriculum, not the space arrangements. Plus, children need a certain amount of structure and predictability in order to pour themselves into learning; I’d rather that the space be predictable than the curriculum and activities that support the curriculum.

  5. Gary Ravani

    As I recall there was at least one book on “Classrooms Without Walls,” which was a metaphor for opening minds, instruction, and curriculum to what was going on outside the walls of the classroom. (Or “relevance” as it was described at the time.) It appeared that a few (or more than a few) educators jumped from the metaphor to a literal interpretation of the concept. I still know of schools that operate on the “cluster” format, though most of the schools did , and quickly, erect false walls between classroom spaces because of the distraction factor. Over time other problems, like managing temperature in individual spaces when heating/cooling systems were designed for large spaces, drove costly retrofitting efforts.

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