Whatever Happened to Open Education?

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 Education,” often called the “open classroom” when districts caught up in the fervor of the a neo-Progressive moment adopted the innovation in the 1960s and 1970s. The “open classroom” swept over U.S. schools in these decades (see here and here), causing a few waves only to disappear from schools by the end of the 1970s 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.

The above photo captures one of many “open education” classrooms.

Now consider a verbal description follows of 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 Education 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 Education 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 “yes,” “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 standardized tests then (and now) measured. Researchers and teachers who believed in the principles of “open education” and adopted the innovation, adapting its organization and techniques to the students in their classrooms, more often than not, concluded that this kind of classroom organization and practice worked (see here and here)

What Happened To Open Education?

It 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 “open education” was and how it worked in classrooms, 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 was “open education” just another fad? Yes and no. The yes part of the answer is that “open classrooms” as the educational version of fashionable 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 education” 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. “Open education,” 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 “open education” 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, a 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.




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12 responses to “Whatever Happened to Open Education?

  1. Thanks for this post. As a open class teacher and principal in israel – open in away you described : blended open and structured – I ask these questions myself from time to time.
    Recently I try to do a research about what happened during last year remote study with these kind of schools in Israel.

    Do you know what happened in th US?
    Don’t you think it could be pedagogical interesting?

    • larrycuban

      You raise a fine question about those open classrooms during the pandemic. I have not seen any data answering the question that you ask. Yes, I do think it is pedagogically interesting.

  2. Pingback: Lectuur op zaterdag: de onzin van lichaamstaalvideo’s, #RIPStephenSondheim, en wellicht een van de vreemdste verhalen ooit in dit overzicht,… (Oh, en Tetris) | X, Y of Einstein?

  3. Peter

    Back in the late 60s/early 70s my aunt, who was a traditionally trained elementary teacher, launched an open school. She gave up after a couple of years, having decided that maybe a great deal of freedom did not lead to students independently searching out learning and education.

  4. John Ogozalek

    How was it put….the ‘guide on the side vs. the sage on the stage’…

    But I have to wonder these days, though, if the ubiquitous ‘smart phone’ has blown that dichotomy out of the water?

    Who is the ‘sage’ or who is the ‘guide’ when teachers, students, administrators are seemly tuned into that small but so extremely powerful machine for so many hours each day? There are millions of sages and guides and, of course, the trolls, conspiracy theorists etc…etc….etc.. that are now part of our wonderfully diverse but frighteningly complicated lives.

    The phrase “tuned in” reveals my age, ha, ha. Mesmerized? Absorbed? But those words imply some active control on our part. Are things spinning beyond that these days?

    The incoming e-mail on Outlook keeps making a binging noise in my classroom. And, I’ve just been too busy this week to turn that damn noise off.

    Meanwhile, I find that I’m having a sort of Pavlovian response to that Microsoftian sound as it cuts through the voices of my students….a twinge of adrenaline or is that anxiety?

    Take care.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your observations about these devices, John. Nicely put. Appreciated it.

    • “Be the Guide on the Side rather than The Sage on the Stage” was the phrase when I was teaching! The Whole Child movement was an attempt to bring back some of the elements of the Open School, but from what I learned at San Jose State to what was being said at my first job there was a huge gap in understanding. For example, “Whole Child/Whole Language is bad because it doesn’t have phonics.” That’s not what I was taught at all. I was taught that you teach the sounds, you just don’t drill on them until the kids want to throw up and hate reading. You show them how reading and writing are useful in the real world. AND you teach phonics in short, daily mini-lessons. As for technology, cell phones have no place in the classroom. Tablets and Chromebooks that only go to certain allowed websites for research, creating docs or slides, etc. are perfect! I taught PowerPoint as a mini-elective to elementary homeschooled kids as young as 2nd grade. The younger kids told a simple story using maybe 4 slides with self-drawn and clip-art pictures. The kids from about 4th – high school choose to report on a topic. I wish public school teachers had much smaller class sizes (cut them in half at least), so these types of things would be more feasible because this is the ideal use of technology for interest-based “personalized” learning.

  5. I attended Los Angeles Unified School District for grades K-3 in the mid-1970’s. They were starting to move back toward a traditional model, but my first grade teacher used an open classroom model. I loved it! I was bored in Kindergarten, but in her class I remember keeping a journal of my daily observations of our silkworms. Teachers need to understand how to manage a classroom like this. It works a lot better if you incorporate student choice and address learning disabilities. I now live and teach in San Jose, CA, where we have many schools based on this model. It isn’t the norm, but there is an option in most neighborhoods. Most require parent involvement so there are enough adults to handle the large class sizes. One school called Washington Open came from the Open School movement and is still going strong (you’ll need to get on a waiting list for any of these schools, they are so popular). All of them have changed slightly with new research on learning, but kept the overall atmosphere. I hope this “personalized learning” idea never becomes the main focus. I can see how it could help homebound kids or target certain skills, but we’ve seen what the outcome is when we put students on computers full time!

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