Students working in multi-age groups
Teachers as coaches
Teams of teachers worked collaboratively with one another
Spaces reconfigured to for large and small group projects and individual work
Architects commissioned to design schools without walls.
Teachers given discretion to create new academic courses
Students direct their own learning.
This sounds like the types of learning spaces that many of us are championing for our students today, but actually, this list is a summary of the 1970 Open Classroom in an article Whatever happened to the Open Classroom, by Larry Cuban.
Recently the major Sydney daily newspaper, Sydney Morning Herald, reported on the trend toward open learning spaces in schools today, by focussing on Greg Whitby and his work in the Parramatta Diocese in Sydney. The article All in together – 197 students in one room:
The blackboard has already gone from most NSW classrooms. Now, the head of a big school system is determined that the classroom itself joins it in the scrapbook of history. ”It’s dead,” said Greg Whitby, the executive director of 78 schools in the Catholic diocese of Parramatta, which 42,000 students attend.
He is not alone. The Sydney diocese has embarked on the same path for primary schools. Forty of the 112 primary schools already use large-form learning areas instead of classrooms and the diocese is keen to expand their use. (Read the article here)
The letters to the editors, following this story reflected the usual arguments:
Team teaching has occurred since the 1970s, but has rarely been successful, nearly always being dependent on the particular teachers involved. It is not clear what these latest experiments have that will increase the likelihood of its success.
Looking back at attempts to prove that statement true in the 1960s and 1970s, I think even Mark Twain would be surprised at the exaggeration of the classroom’s demise. They have been around for thousands of years; I’ll give them another 50 at least.
Open-plan learning areas are not a new concept in NSW education. Open-plan teaching, as we called it, was introduced by the Department of Education in the 1970s… After about five years the concept was deemed unsatisfactory for young primary school learners and walls were erected in the new purpose-built schools.
According to Cuban, Open classrooms first began in British public elementary schools after WW2, then spreading to the US. In a report commissioned by Lady Bridget Plowden Children and their Primary Schools (1967) open education was promoted in all British schools.
The Plowden Report emphasises the need to see children as individuals. ‘Individual differences between children of the same age are so great that any class, however homogeneous it seems, must always be treated as a body of children needing individual and different attention.’
This was the time of the ‘Cold War’, the USA and the USSR were in a race for supremacy. US schools were blamed for the nation falling behind Soviets in the space race, they were criticised for ‘producing conformist uncreative graduates who rarely questioned authority’.
At the same time there was the rise of the youth-oriented counter-culture and the emergence of various political and social movements – civil rights movement, antiwar protests, feminism and environmental activism. As a result the traditional authority, including schools and classrooms and the way students were taught were questioned.
I was in primary school in 1966 – 1972. I remember violent anti-war protest on the evening TV news and the use of the term ‘generation gap’ to describe the vast differences between young people and their parents’ generation. There was immense change, experimentation and cultural innovation.
The open classrooms gained momentum and 1000s of schools became home-like and children moved between activity centres, based on their own interests. There was a focus on students “learning by doing”, it was believed that formal teacher-led classrooms restricted students creativity. The guiding principle was that children would learn best when they were interested and could see the importance of what they were doing.
Open classrooms peaked around 1974. During the mid-1970s the economy in the US stagnated and the nation was divided over Vietnam War. A conservative backlash against the cultural and political changes of the 1960s – early 1970s emerged, this saw a return to the traditional view of schools and the walls were rebuilt. Competency tests were used to raise academic standards. As the pendulum swung, ‘Back to the basics’ became the cry.
So why will open space learning work today?
Firstly, there are some similarities – we are living in an era of unprecedented change, as it was in the 1970s. We are also questioning the practices of what has gone before and reinventing many aspects of society, and this generation, like the youth-culture on the 1960s, is rewriting the rule-book.
I believe there are a number of reasons why open space learning in 2011 is not just a passing fad, but marks a significant shift in the way we ‘do’ school in the third millennium and we are just seeing the beginning of a groundswell movement that will radically transform schools – that have children and young people it its very heart. These reasons include:
Emergence from the industrial era
Design and building innovation
But most significantly, technology is the biggest game-changer, and especially the personalised and ubiquitous nature of technology and the ability to access knowledge and connect as far as we can possibly imagine.
This doesn’t mean that this is the way we will stay. The key is flexibility.
Larry Cuban, Whatever happened to open classrooms (2004) http://educationnext.org/files/ednext20042_68.pdf
Sydney Morning Herald, All in together – 197 students in one room http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/all-in-together–197-students-in-one-room-20110605-1fnji.html#ixzz1QG9xVuHX
The Plowden Report: Children and their primary schools http://www.infed.org/schooling/plowden_report.htm