Whatever Happened to Open Classrooms?

From time to time I have published posts that take a look at innovations that policymakers and practitioners hailed as “transforming”  or “revolutionary” insofar as altering how districts conduct business, schools work, teachers teach and students learn. Not only hyped in the media and by word-of-mouth, these innovations spread across thousands of schools in the U.S. as their brand became known. Each was the reform du jour.

Such stories are a reminder of the ever-changing topography of U.S. schooling. Historians of education are like geologists who inspect strata of rock formations for what flora and fauna existed in earlier times and what accounts for their appearance and seeming disappearance. But most important of all, is how the birth and disappearance of an innovation affects the present.

for this post,  I examine the “Open Classroom” that mushroomed in schools and districts in the late-1960s through most the 1970s. To describe the innovation, I ask some of the questions that Jane David and I used when we wrote Cutting through the Hype (2010) and added a few that answer: “Whatever happened to ….”

If some readers are curious about particular reforms they experienced and now seem to have disappeared, please send me your thoughts.

The “open classroom,” an innovation that swept over U.S. schools between the late 1960s and early 1970s (see here and here), 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.

Where Did the Idea Originate?

U.S. educators who visited British schools in the late-1960s spread the gospel of “open classrooms” in the Plowden Report (also called “open education” and “informal education”). Policymakers, academics, practitioners, and student-centered reformers watched teachers teach and listened to headmasters about the child-centeredclassroom that echoed in the ears of U.S.visitors as Deweyan progressivism clothed in 1960s apparel. Americans returned to their classrooms, schools, and districts filled with the optimism that accompanies true believers and began instituting open classrooms in big city and suburban districts (see here).

What is it?

Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs, cushions, and chairs 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 (see here).

In both Britain and the United States, open classrooms contained no whole-class lessons, no standardized tests, and no detailed curriculum. The best of the open classrooms had planned settings where children came in contact with things, books, and one another at “interest centers” and learned at their own pace with the help of the teacher. Teachers structured the classroom and activities for individual students and small work groups. They helped students negotiate each of the reading, math, science, art, and other interest centers on the principle that children learn best when they are interested and see the importance of what they are doing.

Consider the scene from a 3rd-grade open classroom in a New York City elementary school described by two proponents, Walter and Miriam Schneir, in a 1971 New York Times Magazine article:

What is most striking is that there are no desks for pupils or teachers. Instead, the room is arranged as a workshop.

Carelessly draped over the seat, arm, and back of a big old easy chair are three children, each reading to himself. Several other children nearby sprawl comfortably on a covered mattress on the floor, rehearsing a song they have written and copied into a song folio.

One grouping of tables is a science area with . . . magnets, mirrors, a prism, magnifying glasses, a microscope. . . . Several other tables placed together and surrounded by chairs hold a great variety of math materials such as “geo blocks,” combination locks, and Cuisenaire rods, rulers, and graph paper. . . . The teacher sits down at a small round table for a few minutes with two boys, and they work together on vocabulary with word cards. . . . Children move in and out of the classroom constantly.

What Problem Did Open Classrooms Intend to Solve?

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 traditional teaching through lectures, textbooks, and tests. Such teaching turned off students to authentic learning and could be transformed through “open classrooms” where student passions, interests, and curiosity could unfold through projects, learning centers, integration of different subjects, and multi-age groupings.

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 traditional public school teaching and learning.

Did Open Classrooms Work?

Depends on how one defines “work.” If the common measure of “work” is increased test scores on standardized tests, then the answer is somewhere between “maybe” and “no.” After all, the progressive/constructivist approach to teaching and learning, classroom organization, and student participation sought to increase student outcomes such as independent thinking, problem-solving, increased creativity, and others that few available tests then (and now) measured. Researchers and teachers who believed in the principles of informal education and adopted the innovation, adapting its organization and techniques to the students in their classrooms, more often than not, concluded that Open Classrooms worked (see here and here)

What Happened To Open Classrooms?

“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. There were both external and internal reasons for the shrinking of “open classrooms.”

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. Public perceptions of “open classrooms” tilted toward low academic standards and high emphasis on what today would be called “social emotional learning.”

Because there were different definitions of what exactly an “open classroom” was and how it worked, teachers varied in which parts of the innovation (e.g., multiple learning centers, flexible time schedule, student choices) they would adopt and adapt. Thus, putting the innovation into practice differed from classroom to classroom in a school, from school to school, and from district to district.

Then there was the increased workload of teachers to find materials, integrate different academic subjects into units, reorganize space and furniture in their classrooms, and shift in their beliefs about how best students learn. Much was expected of the teacher.

Consider also the students. Increased student choice depended a great deal upon their motivation, interests, and aptitudes. Most students relished the increased role that they played in their learning but there were (and are) many students who needed prodding and would avoid choices that gave them more work to do.

Both internal and external reasons combined to remove the “open classroom” innovation from public attention and practitioner interest.

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 tax-supported schools opened their doors in the mid-1800s.

Times have changed. Standards-based curriculum and test-based accountability where test scores, and dominates talk about schools, there are many teachers, particularly in the primary grades, who 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 SchoolRoots Elementary School in Denver, and many others. There are elementary school teachers and principals who still work quietly but keep their heads low to avoid in-coming shells of criticism. They blend learning centers with whole class instruction and worksheets.

Most high school teachers, however, 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 but readers should expect another variation of “open education” to re-appear in the years ahead. As I read and listen to the rhetoric of “personalized learning” initiatives, the high-tech approach to student engagement and participation suggests a reappearance. So 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, teachers, and parents.




Filed under how teachers teach

20 responses to “Whatever Happened to Open Classrooms?

  1. Jedd from NZ

    In New Zealand the national curriculum underpins the development of flexible learning spaces. Same in Finland.
    To understand how spaces can be optimised to support a range of teaching and learning approaches, Larry, I recommend you check out the NZ government website that supports Innovative Learning Environments http://ile.education.govt.nz/

    So one answer to whatever happened to open classrooms is that the best elements and underpinning theory has been reshape to fit modern NZ classrooms.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Jedd, for the comment and the idea that incarnations of “open classrooms” appear even now in varied places.Keep in mind that open space–or “flexible learning spaces”–can be compatible with “open classrooms” but also may not be.

      • Chester Draws

        Heh, The NZ policy is indeed that new schools should be ILE.

        In practice, after a brief honeymoon period, it collapses. The teachers just cannot keep up the intense pressure such teaching brings, and the students don’t seem to be any better for it. This combines with parents losing faith as they see their children fall behind and moving their students out. It’s happening in my town right at this moment, where a brand new school — with all the resources that could be thrown at it — finds that it isn’t a long term success just because it works for a short while. The traditional schools continue to grow in consequence.

        But still, the Ministry never stop trying, no matter how many failures and how few successes.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks again, Chester, for taking the time to comment.

  2. mike g

    Love the idea for this series.

    On “What happened to”…you describe mostly external reasons for why it died out.

    I had thought one of the big drivers was more of a bottoms up vote of no confidence. That “Typical teacher reaction,” when they tried Open Classrooms, just thought it went badly. A few bright spots, perhaps, but many more kids simply not exerting much effort.

    • larrycuban

      You hit an important point, Mike, that I neglected.There are, indeed, internal reasons for the downsizing of the rhetoric and slowing of adoption on these innovations. In particular, the open classroom demanded of the teacher a great deal of effort, time, and resources, much less a shift in beliefs about how best students learn. Dewey and other thoughtful people pointed this out in the early years of pedagogical progressivism when student-centered learning was stressed. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I subbed in an open classroom school for a couple of weeks. This was a 4 – 8 grade area. The work load on the teachers was massive. There were also constant distractions caused by students that were really not interested in participating in a learning environment like the open classroom. It was abandoned after only a couple of years as being to much to sustain.

    • larrycuban

      See my reply to Mike’s comment, Garth. Your experience is part of the internal pressures that drove “open classrooms” off the school reform radar screen. Thanks.

  4. Shelly Beaser

    I taught in an open classroom middle school in Philadelphia in 1972. Although it often felt chaotic and the noise level was high, I enjoyed a strong bond with my fellow teachers and with my students. When I moved to a more traditional structure, I took the lessons of teacher cooperation that I had learned there and worked with my colleagues to try to recreate the best aspects of the interdisciplinary, individualized instruction that I had practiced in that open classroom.

  5. In the 1970’s, during the height of popularity of open or informal classrooms in the UK, a study of 37 primary schools was carried out by Neville Bennett of Lancaster University. He classified classrooms as formal or informal and measured reading, maths and English achievement. Students learning in the more structured formal classrooms achieved on average 3 – 5 months more progress than in the informal classrooms.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, the Bennett study (he went on to write more about how students did better on tests and other measures in open classrooms) is an instance of such a comparison with traditional classrooms. Overall, as I read the totality of the research comparing the two ways of teaching and organizing classrooms, one does not do measurably better than the other on standardized tests. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Gerald A Heverly

    My recollection of the story in the NYTimes a week or so ago….the woman who tested tech products for companies….I think she had an open classroom set up.

    • larrycuban

      I went back to the article, Jerry, and the photos and snippets the reporter described sure do make it appear as an “open classroom.” Thanks for the reminder.

  7. Siv from Norway

    -New NZ schools are great. So are new Finnish schools, I have seen many of them. But they are quite different from eachother. As i see it, the whole idea behind the change of physical learning environment both in the 60-ies and today is to get the school and the teaching and learning more student centered – thus it is not first of all about the physical environment, but is meant to support certain ways of teaching and learning.
    -One thing that makes it difficult to discuss this topic is the lack of terminology for describing learning spaces. On one hand we have traditional classrooms (and everybody knows the size and shape of it) and on the other hand we have the rest; open, flexible schools. But where traditional classrooms tend to be similar to eachother, the other learning spaces are not. There is a vast variety of new schools, and so far I have not seen a good and systematic way to describe their differences and similarities.
    -We seem to call it open school and flexible school, but the big difference is just about the classrooms, isn’t it?
    -The process of change is slow. Some scientists explain why human beings today like green plants in their office environment with our ancestor’s life in the bush. I wonder if there is a similar explanation to why we continue building traditional classrooms with desks organised in rows in front of the black/white board: the long tradition and the only school environment we really know and know how to use. Change is painful and takes time

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comment on the difficulties of defining open-space schools and the puzzling continuity of traditional space arrangements in classrooms today.

  8. Neil Gislason

    I’ve devoted a fair number of years to studying open-plan schools / flexible-use schools / innovative learning environments (the labels are generally interchangeable). What I’ve learned is that the built environment is only one of several elements at play in determining whether or not a school “works.” For a school to work, especially over the long term, teachers and administrators need to be on board with the school’s physical design and the teaching methods suited to it. Also, the school’s curriculum should match the space; and the curriculum should be developed before occupancy, to avoid overloading teachers. Last, the school’s students need to have reasonably strong self-regulation skills, as large, open spaces are associated with higher levels of acoustic, visual, and social distraction as compared to traditional enclosed classrooms.

    The issue of standardized testing as a measure of environmental quality is a bit of a red herring; socio-economic status (SES) is such an overwhelming determinant of academic outcomes, that it is likely impossible to strip out SES to the point where you can get a clear read on how a given school space helps or hinders test results. Results will be further confounded by the considerable variation in school layouts and curriculum.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s