What’s the difference between the ‘Open Classroom’ of the 1970s and ‘Open Space’ learning today?

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

Brain research

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

 Sydney Morning Herald, Letters to the Editor, June 7 2011 http://www.smh.com.au/national/letters/educators-fail-to-learn-classroom-lessons-20110606-1fpco.html#ixzz1QGC3up92

The Plowden Report: Children and their primary schools http://www.infed.org/schooling/plowden_report.htm

6 thoughts on “What’s the difference between the ‘Open Classroom’ of the 1970s and ‘Open Space’ learning today?

  1. Thanks Anne for asking the question and supplying some context to both the 70s and now.

    Apart from all that was mentioned in your post, the personal digital device (PDD) students now have access to, has allowed individuals to manage more of their own learning. PDDs are tools which serves as an interactive conduit for learning. With both masses of content and Web2.0 learning activities, no longer is the teacher the only source of knowledge or has to be hands on for learning to occur.

    Surely this has to make a difference today!


  2. Thank you Anne for providing the additional explanation. I also agree with Jen that today’s technology provides a major difference. Other differences gave also become clear – our further understanding of the human psyche & the development of our society as a whole. Added to this, the ability now for the education community to network and to continue it’s self education in workable strategies via technology will ensure that the very best outcomes at achieved not only for some, but all students under the care of our teachers. Apart from the parents, There are none more dedicated to the development of children than the teaching community.


  3. I agree with the direction and hope of re-imagining open classrooms but as always, the success of these initiatives will be highly dependent on teachers and the school culture and leadership. Any initiative can be be executed poorly. (I know people with some serious misgivings, still, of open classrooms in the late 60’s and 70’s) So the challenge is to sufficiently support and monitor progress to ensure the best learning and outcomes for students and teachers alike.


  4. Thanks Ann. I recently spoke to a psychologist who has a keen interest in the latest brain research with friends heavily into this area as neural surgeons. One interesting fact is that ADD students have a brain that is slow and that is why speed is used to speed up the brain. He said there are people using techniques to speed up a brain without drugs. Interesting stuff. I believe the environment and use of IT can overcome much of these issues.

    As for open rooms, that is fine but I am more interested in areas that motivate, inspire and provide avenues for expression. So the room does need to be designed very well. The other side is what furniture, colors and provocation towards learning are inside the building. Thirdly, how does the teacher influence the space?


  5. Please, please, please don’t let us return to open classrooms. They were a huge mistake. I was one of the children taught in open classrooms in the late ’60s early ’70s and it set my education back by years and effectively ruined the lives of several of my friends, I can see that the addition of ipads etc would help children in modern open classrooms, but I still don’t think it’s a good way to learn. Children need structure and they need to have an adult to guide their education, the adult doesn’t have to be a teacher and they don’t have to be teaching lessons, but there does need to be someone on hand at all times to lead the child to discovery, to reward the child for success, and then to move them on to the next goal. Without that guide the child will never fully achieve their potential and won’t know how they’re progressing.

    Marcus Austin

    Liked by 1 person

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