Open Classroom Schools

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Open education is a philosophy which values the natural development and experience of the child as the primary determinants for the appropriate curriculum and methods. During the 1960s the world witnessed a remarkable amount of social change and the emergence of new philosophies in various aspects of society. Groups seeking reform challenged many institutional practices. Criticism from these groups often reflected their lack of trust in decision-making structures. Educators were prompted to examine issues of control within their traditional philosophy, notions of curricula, and protocols of teaching and learning. Educators began a search for an institutional model of child-centered pedagogy.

In the mid-1960s Americans visited the English infant schools, which promoted self-determination. These elementary schools advocated "informal" or "open" education and the "integrated day." The "integrated day" refers to an interdisciplinary approach in which content from various subjects is woven and presented in a hands-on, problem-solving context. Educators from several continents adapted and applied these concepts in new open space or open plan facilities.

The open classroom school generally had an architectural configuration of large pods containing six to twelve classrooms, each with an outside access and no interior walls. Children were not assigned individual desks; they sat in cooperative small groups at tables. Teachers usually defined their workspace by their arrangements of bookshelves and cabinets. The lack of hallways meant more space was available for instructional use. The outside accesses and lack of walls allowed for greater accessibility. These design changes also resulted in a more efficient use of energy at a time when energy was becoming more costly.

The changes in the internal structure of the pod accommodated changes in the philosophical approach taken by educators. Without traditional rooms, teachers could redefine the nature of their role. The teacher shifted from the dispenser of knowledge to the facilitator of learning. Teachers were no longer isolated from each other. They were better able to confer and plan. Learning became an activity that was child centered rather than teacher-oriented. Standard grade-level skill checklists were set aside and the differences in individual needs provided the rationale for the curricula. Students' progress was not based on rankings, which define success in a competitive context; instead, evaluation of progress was reported in terms of the individual's achievement in relation to growth from previous levels and the individual's initiative and responsibility as demonstrated in academic and related arts areas.

As the role of the teacher changed, methods of instructional delivery were necessarily challenged. Traditional instruction involved discrete subject areas with generalized class expectations for performance. The open space philosophy altered the format of instruction. Classes were replaced with interest centers, which offered topical activities. Center choices promoted the discovery method, a precedent to constructivism. Learners were prompted to explore and develop their own connections in order to promote concept development and the scientific method. Students moved among the centers largely by choice and often without specific schedules.

Class composition was reminiscent of the one-room schoolhouse. Teachers arranged flexible multi-age grouping within the interest centers. Mindful of individual needs, teachers were challenged to maintain fluid group membership. In this manner, they could naturally develop a disposition towards diversity and citizenship. In some open classroom schools, homerooms or "family groups" were not configured by grade level. A class may have contained five students at each level, kindergarten through fourth grade. Each year, five would enter, and five would graduate. The stability of relationships over a number of years allowed a different social dynamic. The homeroom was designed to reflect the cooperative nature of learning. Over time the teacher could develop a richer knowledge of each student and serve as a long-term counselor and mentor.

The construction of open classroom schools declined by the mid-1970s. Concerns about noise and distraction encouraged educators to return to a traditional approach. Although the open classroom movement lost popularity, certain aspects of its philosophy and methods were reshaped and used. Many open-space facilities have been remodeled with the addition of inside walls, or become magnet programs, which have located technology labs and computer stations conveniently in the open spaces. Schools with open space classrooms varied to the degree in which the philosophies were operationalized. This variability limits the degree to which one evaluates the concept's effectiveness. Research has indicated that the open classroom approach may not have significantly improved learning, but it certainly did not impede achievement. Additional research suggested that children in open classroom programs did score higher than traditional classroom students in self-concept, attitudes towards school, and creativity.

See also: Elementary Education, subentry on History of; Infant Schools in England; Instructional Design; Neill, A. S.; Open Education; Progressive Education.


Barth, Roland. 1972. Open Education and the American School. New York: Agathon.

Rothenberg, Phillip. 1989. "The Open Classroom Reconsidered." The Elementary School Journal 90:6986.

Silberman, Charles E., ed. 1973. The Open Classroom Reader. New York: Vintage.

Steven R. Baum