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Who Thought 'Open Classrooms' Were a Good Idea?

The flexible, spacious school rooms of the 1960s and ‘70s often failed miserably. Why are some designers and educators trying to bring them back?

Students work in an open classroom at Douglas Park elementary school in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Students work in an open classroom at Douglas Park elementary school in Regina, Saskatchewan. (Courtesy of Fielding Nair International)

When Johns Hopkins University and its nonprofit and government partners opened East Baltimore’s Henderson-Hopkins school in 2014, it billed the K-8 facility as a national model for urban education. The $43 million facility—the first new school built on the city’s east side in more than two decades—would not only boast a cutting-edge curriculum devised by Hopkins School of Education experts, it would provide a physical space far superior to the city’s aging public schools.

In lieu of traditional classrooms, the architecture and urban design firm Rogers Partners built the facility around five separate areas, or “houses,” featuring open, airy spaces and generous windows. “Each house has its own central meeting area and adjacent ‘servery,’ or cafeteria,” a university publication reported upon the school’s opening. “The communal rooms, with their soaring, wood-lattice ceilings, ceiling fans, and large windows, look more like high-end office building lobbies than something you'd find in a public school.” The school’s audacious design (which also included a rooftop deck) received awards, including the prestigious American Institute of Architects Institute Honor Award.

Three years later, as the Baltimore Sun reports, the school is struggling: Test scores are low, staff turnover has been high, and the vision of creating an integrated student body drawn both from nearby low-income East Baltimore households and the families of university staff has not yet been achieved. Henderson-Hopkins’ physical layout appears to be part of the problem: Teachers have found the open spaces to be distracting and difficult to teach in. The school is now using temporary partitions, and this summer permanent walls will replace them.

So, who thought “open classrooms” were such a great idea in the first place?

The overall idea behind these spaces is that flexible areas without the usual fixed rows of desks provide more opportunities for individualized instruction and help kids learn at their own pace, according to their abilities and needs. Such spaces are also thought to spark creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration—among students as well as teachers.

But that’s not always how they work out. Neil Gislason, a Toronto high school teacher who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation and a subsequent book on open classrooms, says Henderson-Hopkins’ problems sound typical for those who opt for such designs. For one, teachers and students generally find that these spaces’ noise level interferes with their concentration (much as it does for workers in open offices). However, the more fundamental problem, he says, is not the design itself: “It’s that there’s not enough organizational or financial support to make the spaces work.”

Gislason’s research shows that contemporary schools in Canada and the United States that are built or remodeled with an open design (usually charter schools in the U.S. and public schools in Canada) tend to experience difficulties because injecting a non-traditional approach to learning and education into a school “has a very high risk of confusion.”

Schools often don’t train teachers in advance about how to use these spaces, he says. Without adequate preparation, teachers tend to revert to traditional methods of instruction. They divide large areas with bookshelves, filing cabinets, and the like, carving out smaller spaces where they can teach groups as before. “When teachers do this,” Gislason says, “it’s an effective response to an environment that isn’t working well.”

We’ve been here before. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, open classrooms had a minor heyday. Thousands of schools in North America—mainly elementary, but some secondary—were constructed or remodeled as home-like spaces with flexible learning areas.

Children work in a variety of spaces in an open classroom at Pratt Community School in Minneapolis. (Courtesy of Fielding Nair International)

Larry Cuban, an emeritus professor of education at Stanford University, wrote in Education Next that these paradigm-busting designs appealed to the revolution-minded culture of the time: “Open classrooms…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 era].”

By the late 1970s, a backlash set in, driven in part by the noise and teaching challenges, but also, writes Cuban, by the conservative response to the cultural and political changes of the previous decade.

Today, the architecture firm Fielding Nair International is on a mission to bring back open classrooms—and change education in the process. It has designed these spaces for schools in 47 countries, including the United States, Oman, and China. The open classroom movement is particularly taking off in Australia, where earlier this week Melbourne’s Herald Sun reported that “flexible classrooms [are] the way of the future.” The trend is also catching on, to a lesser extent, in New Zealand, Southeast Asia, and East Asia.

Fielding Nair founding president and CEO Prakash Nair says that his open classrooms are “enormously successful,” unlike those of the 1960s and 70s. He points out that because the instructors of that time continued to interact with students as teachers, rather than as guides—Nair believes that children are capable of directing their own learning—the first open classroom movement failed. His firm helps to make sure this doesn’t happen in the buildings it designs by working with school officials on curricula, scheduling, and teacher development. “If you touch one piece of the puzzle you have to touch everything, or it all falls apart,” he says.

That strategy addresses some of Gislason’s concerns about teachers, but the issue of resources remains. Can cash-strapped public schools commit to continually providing special training for new hires that open-classroom schools require? In Washington, D.C., school officials don’t seem to think so: They’re in the process of “modernizing” a mid-1970s public school with an open-space plan. Noise is a particular problem, they say, for children with special needs, such as those on the autism spectrum, who often need quiet.

But noise is only an issue when it interferes with learning—not when it’s simply a “healthy buzz,” Nair says. He’s adamant that his designs can work for all children—after all, that’s the whole idea behind the open-classroom movement, which was driven by the desire to accommodate students as individuals. “The biggest obstruction to these spaces is that any change is terrifying for people,” he says. “What we’re doing is based on research about how children learn best, and how to bring out the best in them.”  

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