The Open Classroom

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By Larry Cuban

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Spring 2004 / Vol. 4, No. 2

Like automotive models, women’s hemlines, and children’s toys, pedagogical fads come and go, causing an immediate stir but rarely influencing teaching practice in any significant way. The notion that every innovation dreamed up by reformers inside and outside public schools makes its way into the nation’s classrooms is popular among those hunting for reasons to malign the schools. But it is crucial to distinguish between mere intellectual chatter and ideas that provoke substantive change.

Where on this spectrum does the idea of the “open classroom” lie? At first glance, it would seem to be just another fad. It burst onto the American education scene in the late 1960s, only to fade away by the late 1970s. Appearances, however, can be deceiving.

British Invasion

The open-classroom movement originated in British public elementary schools after World War II. The movement, known then as informal education, spread slowly to the United States. In 1967 a parliamentary commission headed by Lady Bridget Plowden published a report, Children and Their Primary Schools, that promoted open education in all British schools. American educators who visited British schools during the late 1960s had read the Plowden report and visited classrooms where informal education dominated teaching and learning. They viewed informal education–or, as they came to call it, open classrooms or open education–as an answer to both the American education system’s critics and the problems of U.S. society.

For more than a decade, U.S. schools had been subjected to withering attacks, blamed for everything from the launch of Sputnik to urban decay. They were faulted for not developing enough engineers and scientists; for being racially segregated and hostile to disadvantaged children; and for producing uncreative graduates who seldom questioned authority. Critics thought that the schools could be the vehicle for winning the Cold War, furthering the civil rights struggle, and roiling a 1950s culture of conformity that suffocated imagination.

Open classrooms’ focus on students’ “learning by doing” resonated with those who believed that America’s formal, teacher-led classrooms were crushing students’ creativity. In that sense the open-classroom movement mirrored the social, political, and cultural changes of the 1960s and early 1970s. The era saw the rise of a youth-oriented counterculture and various political and social movements–the civil-rights movement, antiwar protests, feminist and environmental activism–that questioned traditional seats of authority, including the way classrooms and schools were organized and students were taught.

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.

Schools without Walls

As the idea of open education gained momentum, thousands of elementary-school classrooms became home-like settings where young children moved from one attractive learning center for math to another for art. Additional learning centers engaged them in science, reading, and writing lessons. Teams of teachers worked with multiage groups of students and created elementary schools where children were no longer assigned to grade levels. Some school districts started alternative open education programs at the high-school level and gave teachers discretion to create new academic courses where students directed their own learning, worked in the community, and pursued intellectual interests. At both the elementary and secondary levels, open education meant teachers were acting more as coaches in helping students than as bosses directing children in every activity.

Avid promoters of open education commissioned architects to build schools without walls. Teams of teachers worked collaboratively with one another, using movable dividers to reconfigure the open space for large- and small-group projects and individual study.

By the early 1970s, the phrase open classrooms dominated educators’ vocabularies. Even though parents and practitioners found it hard to pin down exactly what open education meant, many school boards adopted open-education programs, and open-space schools were built across the country. Few superintendents or principals could risk saying aloud that they had neither heard of the innovation nor found it desirable without risking sneers from peers or criticism from bosses.

So many schools were adopting the physical attributes of open classrooms that some advocates wondered whether the spirit of informal education was truly being followed. In his 1973 book The Open Classroom Reader, Charles Silberman warned enthusiastic teachers and parents:

By itself, dividing a classroom into interest areas does not constitute open education; creating large open spaces does not constitute open education; individualizing instruction does not constitute open education. . . . For the open classroom . . . is not a model or set of techniques, it is an approach to teaching and learning.

The artifacts of the open classroom–interest areas, concrete materials, wall displays–are not ends in themselves but rather means to other ends. . . . In addition, open classrooms are organized to encourage:

• Active learning rather than passive learning;

• Learning and expression in a variety of media, rather than just pencil and paper and the spoken word;
• Self-directed, student-initiated learning more than teacher-directed learning.

Backlash

Just a few years later, however, the ground shifted. In the mid-1970s, with the economy stagnating and the nation deeply divided over the Vietnam War, critics again trained their sights on the public schools. The national crisis gave rise to a perception, amplified by the media, that academic standards had slipped, that the desegregation movement had failed, and that urban schools were becoming violent places. This time the call was not for open education but for a return to the basics, again mirroring general social trends–namely, the conservative backlash against the cultural and political changes of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Traditional schools sprang up in suburbs and cities. Open-space schools rebuilt their walls. States tried to raise academic standards by developing minimum competency tests that high-school students had to pass in order to receive a diploma. Citations in the media and academic journals indicate that interest in open classrooms peaked somewhere around 1974. By the early 1980s, open classrooms had already become a footnote in doctoral dissertations.

But were open classrooms just another fad? Perhaps in the sense that, like hula hoops and pet rocks, they had soared onto the scene and then disappeared without a trace. Considering them merely a fad, however, would miss the deeper meaning of open classrooms as yet another skirmish in the ideological wars that have split educators and the public since the first tax-supported schools opened their doors in the early 1800s.

The School Wars

For at least two centuries, competing traditions of teaching reading, math, citizenship, and morality have fired policy debates and occasionally touched classroom practices. In teacher-centered instruction, knowledge is often (but not always) “presented” to a learner (via lectures, textbooks, and testing) who is–and the metaphors vary–a “blank slate” or a “vessel to fill.” In student-centered instruction, by contrast, knowledge is often (but not always) “discovered” by the learner (via individual and small-group work, projects blending different subjects and skills, and inquiry and questioning), who may be described as “rich clay in the hands of an artist” or “a flourishing garden in need of a masterful cultivator.” On the whole, different forms of teacher-centered instruction have dominated U.S. classrooms for the past century.

However, major challenges to teacher-centered instruction were mounted at the beginning of the 20th century by “pedagogical progressives,” to use Lawrence Cremin’s apt phrase; in the 1960s by enthusiasts for open education; and again in the late 1980s and early 1990s by neoprogressives committed to integrated curricula, performance-based assessments (rather than standardized tests), and smaller schools. Nevertheless, a wide gap remained between ideas and actual practice. Among educators, mainstream classroom practices remained teacher-centered, even if substantial numbers of teachers–trained by progressive faculty members–grasped pieces of the student-centered tradition and created hybrid practices.

The present moment in American education, with its emphasis on standards-based curricula and test-based accountability, surely favors the teacher-centered crowd. Nevertheless, many teachers, particularly in elementary schools, continue to prize active student involvement, cross-disciplinary projects completed by small groups, and similar activities. And even full-fledged open education is still thriving in schools across the country, from the Los Angeles Open Charter School to the Irwin Avenue Open Elementary in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district. Many teachers and principals still embrace the principles of open education, but keep their heads low to avoid incoming fire.

In high schools, most teachers continue to use teacher-centered practices, leavened slightly by informal practices that have crept into their repertoires. Yet activists in the small-schools movement carry the torch of open education and progressive practices from earlier generations.

Why this long-running ideological war over the best ways to teach reading, math, civic engagement, and character building? The short answer is that these enduring pedagogical quarrels are proxies for deeper political divisions between conservatives and liberals on issues ranging from environmental protection to foreign policy. There are, of course, liberals who believe in traditional education and conservatives who embrace progressive ideas, but the lines are fairly well drawn.

So while the open classroom has clearly disappeared from the vocabulary of educators, another variation of open education is likely to reappear in the years ahead. Deep-seated progressive and traditional beliefs about rearing children, classroom teaching and learning, and the values and knowledge that should be instilled in the next generation will continue to reappear because schools historically have been battlegrounds for solving national problems and working out differences in values.

Since children differ in their motivations, interests, and backgrounds, and learn at different speeds in different subjects, there will never be a victory for either traditional or progressive teaching and learning. The fact is that no single best way for teachers to teach and for children to learn can fit all situations. Both traditional and progressive ways of teaching and learning need to be part of a school’s approach to children. Smart teachers and principals have carefully constructed hybrid classrooms and schools that reflect the diversities of children. Alas, that lesson remains to be learned by the policymakers, educators, and parents of each generation.

-Larry Cuban is a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University.




Comment on this article
  • Betsye Sargent says:

    Your article brings back so many memories, especially “Keep your head low” So many times I advised young teachers in the seventies to do just that if they were serious about integrating the ideas of the open classroom into their teaching. We soon found out that tearing down walls, putting in materials and letting kids loose didn’t work, but American education made the mistake that it was the tenets of open ed that were wrong. Instead, it was our lack of understanding of the complexities of the open classroom combined with the willingness of administrators, parents, and probably politicians who were not willing to give teachers the time to change. Sound familiar? It’s as if history is repeating itself.

    Education will probably always be split between those advocating for child-centered learning and those favoring teacher-directed learning, although I find it hard to see how the latter will provide the kids of today with the skills they need and will need in a rapidly changing world.

    I was fortunate enough to be able to found my own school, 30 years ago (The Phoenix School in Salem, MA). We continued to explore and develop our model based on our observations of how kids learned best.

  • Alicia says:

    My elementary school was an Open School. Not until researching kindergarten options for my own five-year old did I come to realize this. In discussing it with my husband, I know now how different the experience was from a traditional school. It was a beautiful open building with a large pit in the library area and a mosaic mural depicting important historical events. Reflecting on my experience, it gave me the courage to enroll my daughter in a bilingual kindergarten where she has a different teacher for Language Arts then for her other subjects, and she is in a combined class of Kinder and First Grade for most of the day. From the age of six on I was accustomed to going from teacher to teacher during the day. I think it protects her from having one bad teacher destroy a whole year. I know it worked for me.

  • Barbara says:

    I am looking for a list of Open Schools in the US and have found no information on the internet. Can you direct me to a reference?

    Thank you.

  • erin says:

    Middle country central school district has open classrooms in some elementary schools, mccsd.net

  • [...] students by performance in math, reading, and other subjects rather than what grade they in. Open classrooms flourished in the late-1960s and early 1970s–and this is when The Palace came into [...]

  • Caroline O'Brien says:

    Australian follow Simon says (The US)and as a result.Australian school are basically copying this model. It is a fad downunder! It is extremely difficult for the students to focus when they have 3 or 4 rawdy classrooms next to each other. Not to mention how frustrating it can be when 2 teachers withstrong voices speak at the same time!It is a total disaster! Wesimply cannotteach with so much noise and disruptions, but we got to pretend we agree with this idiotic system because the principal has to follow the department latest fad… Which is nothing more than rubbish… I truly hope this comes to an end soon!

  • [...] Cuban’s very readable account of the popularity of the open classroom idea in the US in the 1970s and the subsequent backlash [...]

  • Andrea Heitzman says:

    I remember visiting an Open Classroom in 1972. It was awful. The noise level was too much for me. I questioned why does one size fit all? It seems we are always jumping on these bandwagons “a blast from the past” programs. Our district is planning to spend money on two Open classroom schools….God help us!
    What I have read about OC is that they do not give standardized testing..how will that fit into today’s society of test taking…the common core?

  • Eugena Robinson says:

    I have read these comments with goose pimples all over my body. I taught in London 1967-April 1973. I was a very successful open education teacher in an infant school in London Borough of Newham. Visitors from many countries visited to see the Integrated Day in practice.
    Although I retired many years now I am still being called to assist as a Consultant for early Childhood Education. I can only wish and hope that before I die, I will hear again that early childhood educators will once again reintroduce the open education.

  • Roger Osorio says:

    I think that there are two distinct elements to the open classroom model. One is the venue and the other is the approach. While it seems from people’s past experiences that the venue made it difficult to focus because of the distractions, etc., the approach may still have a lot of potential if we adjust for a more appropriate venue. In my opinion there is nothing wrong with a “classroom” but if we must then let’s call it something else (i.e. labs, thinking rooms, exploration labs, etc.). What I enjoyed about reading this review of the open classroom was the approach, the philosophy, the beliefs, the culture, the development, and the attitudes that the open classroom encouraged and fostered.

    Perhaps with the right venue and a name change to the “Open School” – open as in thinking, learning, exploring openly – we can find a solution that yields a lot more success.

    Just my two cents. Thanks!

  • [...]  Larry Cuban on the Open Classroom / Schools (a good and balanced perspective) [...]

  • Stephanie says:

    As a parent becoming involved with an Open Classroom program for the first time, I can’t say that this article truly describes what most OC programs look like today. The one here in Ventura, CA, is amazing. It’s a dedicated wing at a traditional elementary school with their own garden and play area. Each class is two grades per teacher, but the teacher is barely EVER teaching the entire class at once. Instead, the class is separated into groups and at the head of each one is a parent volunteer leading whatever project is at hand. Then everyone switches. Not only are the parents completely involved in their child’s education, the children are not forced to sit in chairs all day and pretend to pay attention to a teacher that is not interested in engagement, but just keeping unruly children under control. I’ve noticed from my own observation that the OC kids were actually able to control themselves with very little guidance, versus a traditional classroom where the teacher is at their wits end from telling kids to stop talking. I wish they’d had this type of a program for me when I was in grade school.

  • Amanda Fields says:

    My school is an open classroom. I think that the teachers have a hard job of planning all of the centers, organizing the materials so that they make sense and are orderly, and planning the learning goals for the centers on a daily basis. As a teacher at this school, I work all day long until I go to bed and there is still not enough time to do this approach, although I think it is far superior to teaching young children in one, big group out of a book with a teacher at the board. That model is a terrible one. I think some combination is a good idea and a lot of teacher training. Most teachers teach the way they were taught unless they are extremely mindful about what they are doing.

  • Jason J says:

    I am a product of the OC experiment. For first grade, I was the first class in a brand new, no walls, elementary school in the early 1970s in Spring, TX. I remember grades 1-5 as being chaotic hot mess. I would get bored with what we were trying to learn in our group and either listen to the other groups, teachers in another group or just day dream the day away. I or my parents didn’t know I was falling behind because their weren’t any tests that measured my knowledge of subject matter. When I got into middle school, I was lacking a solid grasp of foundation subjects like Math, English, Science and History. Oh, I had plenty of experience in Art, social skills and day dreaming. I had to rebuild all of my foundation in essential subjects, some of which I struggled with even to this day. After I barely graduated high school, I went into the military where I was taught one thing that all my other OC schools and teachers failed to teach, and that was HOW TO LEARN. After my military service, I went to university and actually did quite well. I still wish I had a stronger grasp of the fundamentals, but that is something that has to be TAUGHT to kids at an early age. Now, that I have kids of my own, I see how they are in a much more structured environment and learn within knowledge stations in their classroom. They are tested and graded on the subjects which they have had to study, so they and I know how they are doing. Their grade school is not necessarily traditional, yet it is not the chaotic OC environment either. Their teacher actually teaches and leads them to discovery, not just leaving it up to the child to find out on their own or within a group. After all you don’t know what you don’t know, so how is a group of kids who don’t know, supposed to automatically gleen knowledge from each other? Being a product of OC, I can honestly tell you it IS a failed experiment. The US should never go back to that method as I can attest it is a waste of learning potential. In my opinion, the best learning environment for youngsters is a safe, distraction free environment where they are lead by a teacher to self discovery and knowledge through practical methods. Parents, don’t listen to the progressive, i.e. socialists, the OC method is a disorganized mess and leaves your children lacking in the fundamentals. Having come from that environment I know what I am talking about. If my kids school had been a pure OC, like I was in, I would have removed them immediately.

  • Ann Black says:

    The end of the article sums it up, a hybrid is where most successful attempts at an open classroom land. As with any approach teachers must practice the “art” of education by knowing 1) their students and 2) their curriculum. Good teachers do step out of their comfort zones to do what is best for their students. When coupled with the collaborative approaches that are espoused today (thinking; PLCs at Work – Rick DuFour & company, aspects of Charlotte Danielson’s Teacher Framework, PLB – The Buck Institute, etc. – the list is long) an open concept makes sense.

    Good teaching is hard work. And, most of a good teacher’s work takes place outside of the school day. Putting in hours of preparation so that they are able to engage their students in an active learning environment and available to interact in a profound manner with each student in the classroom each and every day. It is the structure of American schools that makes this really difficult. At the secondary level in a traditional setting a teacher has 45-60 minutes to interact with up to 35 students. Do the math – that is less than 2 minutes per student. No wonder they default to teacher-centered activities.

    Effective schools focus on student learning, not teaching. It is not a “chicken or the egg” question. Student learning must be first and foremost. When teachers focus their attention on what it will take for students to learn they step away from the way they were taught and pull from many pedagogies and blend them in exactly the way that works best for the students currently under their tutelage.

  • Ann Black says:

    I forgot to mention – I attended an open classroom school from grades 3 – 6 in the early 1970s. It wasn’t until I was given time to investigate my 5th Grade teacher’s paperback reading library, in a corner of the our “team pod”, that I developed a love of reading and really learned to read. Reading groups had done nothing for me – I thought they were a joke and refused to prepare for the reading circle. To this day, I am grateful to Mrs. Cindy Turse for providing me with the opportunity to learn to read in the manner that was best for me. I hope the impact I have on students is, at least, close to the impact she had on me.

  • P L Tidwell says:

    I was fortunate to be raised in a community of college educators. While in school in the 70′s most if not all of my classrooms were “open” and I received the finest education that I believe American public education has ever offered.

    Since public school, I’ve toured the world in a musical groups, done numerous public service projects in diverse populations, worked for state and federal agencies, had a wonderful career in our National Parks and now teach cultural studies and environmental justice as a college professor myself. I believe that none of this would have been possible in a “formal” educational setting that would not have emphasized the opportunity for all of my peers to meet their full potential.

    Now, in my own classroom, I daily lament the regimentation and standardization that stands in the way of meaningful student learning. I reminisce on a daily basis about the quality of my education that my students likely never have and never will experience. I’ve done what I can for my own children in their struggle with corporatized and stultifying educational system–and they have flourished in the limited freedoms that we have been able to afford them. Thank you for this article.

  • Eugena Robinson says:

    I have recently revisited this site and I have found the comments all very interesting. I believe there are misconceptions about the open classroom. This is an approach to teaching and learning and is in no way related to classrooms without walls. My six years in a London Infant School demonstrated a very successful integrated day concept. The classroom looked like any other classrooms but for a visitor (like my Principal) one has to see how the day begins. Each time she entered the room the children were all busy in a very friendly environment. How did this all happen? She wanted to see it all for herself.Sometimes she found me sitting in the classroom library sharing a story with two children.The children were divided into four groups by colour names, group one being the highest achievers and group four not too confident in reading or math.. The whole class met twice for the day. Circle time listened to news and a story. Sometimes a whole group was necessary for constructing a graph. This gave the children something to write about in their news. each child irrespective of a group knew that they had to write their news, do their math, do some Teacher assigned whole group activity and read to “my teacher’. When a child has completed all tasks, each child had the rest of the day to choose freely from a range of activities including, block building, painting, sand/ water, Wendy house, reading corner, science, art and crafts. The real success to this programme was my personal decision to spend at least two hours in my classroom after school each day. This ensured that task cards were placed in each child’s box either for reinforcement or a new skill to be taught by the teacher in a select group. To avoid confusion, first activities were assigned to each group so the children knew where to start and what followed. The children worked deligiently to complete their tasks as they knew that they would be free to choose for the rest of the day.The entire series of Ladybird readers was read by all the children at their own speed.. Some children had advanced to Happy Venture series, while they used library books for their group or individual projects. I was happy for a break each day when the class went for music or P.E. The first group of students spent two years and on entering the Junior school, a very puzzled male teacher had to meet me to enquire what I had done to a class of children who were so independent. For the six years, I had never written a lesson plan, nor was I given a curriculum. The Nuffield Mathematics was my guide while I followed the creative ideas of the children. The Open Classroom has two goals: There is no limit set by a curriculum and each child’s potential is identified and nurtured. Whatever activity the children were engaged in, once they heard two claps from me, they stopped, looked at me for an announcement which was never repeated. Not too long ago, I tried my own method of the integrated day in a Florida classroom and it was described by a Supervisor as one of the best classes in Broward County. Early childhood practice is not static, but we fail to achieve most times because we get bogged down in theories and the lecturers who train our teachers rarely ever want to teach a class for their students to observe them. Telling is always easier than showing. The Open classroom has tremendous benefits for the classroom, and more teachers should be encouraged to make adjustments to their teaching style if they are so convinced that they can reach every child.
    .

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