Open Classrooms.  I have been looking at the analysis of data on the international promotion of citizenship and democratic practice.  You can read the report by Knowles, Turney-Purta and Barber here.  They explicitly call for open classrooms.

What do they mean?  I am going start by looking at the history of the open classroom in the UK.  In my next post I hope to consider evidence based good practice that might be applied to an open classroom.

Open Classrooms- Definitions

I am English so I am going to look at the case from this perspective first.

The movement towards open classrooms in the UK gained momentum after the Second World War.  The 1967 Plowden Report , building on two decades of innovation and investigation and a new sense of social democracy, recommended the use of open classrooms in primary schools.  Plowden made some radical suggestions that were eagerly taken up by teachers across the country

  • children learn better by doing.
  • spaces should be desiged for learning by doing.
  • teaching styles should be informal and communicative, not didactic and formal.

For a brief period in the seventies the UK became the centre of a world-wide movement towards progressive teaching.  It emphasized dialogue instead of instruction, informal learning in family-style learning areas and a redesign of the conventional classroom.  This movement influenced the design of schools, the training of teachers and the management of the timetable.  It is sometimes referred to as progressive or informal education in contrast to traditional “chalk and talk” teaching.

If you are looking for information, the excellent Education in England website has a range of articles about the Plowden Report.  Some of the articles may seem a little dry, but they are well worth reading because the issues are still with us in the twenty-first century.

Primary School Emphasis

The full title of the Plowden Report was Children and Their Primary Schools.  Secondary schools did not adopt its ideas.  At 11+ children had to take an examination to see whether they were going to go to a Grammar School or a Secondary Modern.  Grammar schools were seen as the route to universities.  Examination boards dominated the secondary school system in the UK. They were responsible for setting public examinations at sixteen (O Level) and eighteen (A Level).

Even when inclusive comprehensive schools started to replace the 11+, secondary education never adopted the principles of the open classroom.  There was a short-lived flirtation with project work and continuous assessment in the eighties and nineties.  It did not affect the architecture of classrooms, the structure of the timetable or the desire to get examination passes as tokens giving access to the next level in education.

The open classroom culture of primary school and the closed, examination focus of secondary school has meant that children in the UK have generally suffered a cultural and cognitive shock on “moving up”.  In countries where the open classroom concept at primary level was never put into practice, such as Spain, people see things differently.  They move from the didactic college to the open institute.

Early Critics of Plowden

Plowden was criticized from the moment the report came out.  1968 was a year of revolutionary student protest from Paris to Berkeley.  Educational conservatives felt that left-wing teachers had too much influence in education at all levels, not just primary.  A series of publications called The Black Papers came out.  They argued, without much evidence, that standards had declined, that behavior in schools was chaotic and that trendy teaching methods were responsible.

The authors were just as opposed to the open classrooms of the Plowden Report as they were to the new comprehensive schools.  They said that selective secondary education was essential, but that it should be 13+ instead of 11+.  Rhodes Boyson, the headmaster of a successful comprehensive school, gave the Black Papers credibility when he joined the clique of writers who were mostly academics and intellectuals.

It took little time for a reaction to the openness of the seventies classroom to set in.  Teachers, parents and community leaders were all doubtful.  The William Tyndale Affair led to controversy.  The school leaders tried to impose some Summerhillian features on a school that was already working with open classrooms.  The results were mixed but led to a media frenzy and national outrage.  Politicians were able to take advantage of this situation to demand a more direct involvement of the state in the administration of schools.  The conservatives called for a return to traditional values and emphasis on discipline and control.

Problems with the Theory

Piaget formed the theoretical underpinnings of the Plowden Report.  Piaget’s work is still studied but few people would use it to justify an approach to teaching.  His stages of development are independent of the effect of teachers.  The fact that the last of Piaget’s stages is 11+ explains in part the failure to extend the practices of the open classroom to secondary education.  Bennett says “the model of teaching prescribed has not stood the test of time.”

The writers of The Black Papers, however, started with a socio-political complaint about innovations in education.  They were not interested in theory.  For them “trendy” teaching was the problem.  They saw lefties in at university, secondary school and primary levels.  They had nothing serious to say about the open classroom.  If theories of teaching and learning have moved on since Piaget that does not mean that the authors of the Black Papers were right or that Plowden was wrong, in principle.

The open classroom was doomed by a combination of forces that conspired to create the English National Curriculum, OFSTED inspectorate, and many different quangos to supervise what was to be taught in schools.  The pre-Plowden days when teachers had control over the curriculum were gone.  The late twentieth century saw teachers controlled minutely by bureaucrats and vilified in the popular imagination.

Close the Classroom

It would seem, then, that the Open Classroom had its heyday in the early seventies.  It blew up into a messy scandal in the mid seventies and was the victim of a politically-driven clampdown in the eighties and nineties. At the same time the prestige of teaching plummeted and recruitment suffered.

It is hard to see how the involvement of the state has helped.  Emphasis on discipline and control has not had a beneficial effect on behavior in schools.  Many teachers find that the stress of trying to control unwilling children, along with the exigencies of a demanding testing and assessment culture make the job unsustainable.  To add insult to injury they no longer have the respect of the communities they live in.  They are seen to be whinging when they make justifiable complaints.  Read this article in the Guardian.

Reading Plowden today, I am aware of two things.  First, the individualistic and inclusive sentiments of the report are familiar from talking to many teacher friends.  In spite of all the emphasis on curriculum, measuring, control and discipline, primary school teachers continue to share a broad sentiment that it is good to have children doing things.  Teachers feel that activity helps them to learn and that each child is different.  Second, education in primary schools has probably never fully engaged with the possibilities of the Open Classroom even at the height of its fame.

William Tyndale was not a reflection of practice around the country.

The Reduced Curriculum and the Open Classroom

One of the reasons for this is that schools have never known what to do with children when they are not in classes.  This emerges in an article by Maurice Galton.   He shows just how little Plowden was really put into practice.  Teachers were in no position to do so; they didn’t understand it in any depth.  This is a perennial problem and one that we face when we recommend a reduced curriculum to schools.  You cannot innovate without training teachers.

We recommend the reduced curriculum for reasons that are familiar to the bigwigs in the educational establishment.  We want to focus on the Core Curriculum, not so that children can reach National Curriculum levels, but so that they can achieve real mastery.  Surprisingly, this is something that has featured in recent talks by Tim Oates, from Cambridge Assessment, for example, who emphasizes the motto, “fewer things at greater depth.”

This does not have much to do with the open classroom until you think, “what are children going to do with the rest of their time?”  If you want mastery in the core curriculum and you fill up the rest of their time with other academic learning that is rather similar, you will lose that focus.  If you do  not know how to handle children’s freedom, you can’t let them out of the classroom without there being chaos.

However, it is impossible for a teacher without training or experience to manage freedom effectively.

The Open Classroom is an attractive option.  But the problem of teachers remains.  They would have to learn to be an entirely different kind of teacher.

Summerhill and the Open Classroom

Summerhill is at the margins of these arguments.  Why?

  • it does not promote one pedagogical model.  At one time there may be formal teachers and informal teachers.
  • it has its own development model based on movement up through the school as a boarder.  11+ is not particularly meaningful at Summerhill.
  • since children have freedom, teachers do not have to entertain children with learning activities, project work or games.

This does not mean that Summerhill is on a different planet, only that the problems of the mainstream are somewhat different.  Indeed, Leonard’s experience with mounting Clubhouse Democracy in Canada was partly in the mainstream.  It then fed into the development of Class 2 as a model of a junior democratic classroom.  The model owes a lot to Plowden and the seventies informal classroom movement.

Class 2 is a highly consistent expression of the open classroom.  Leonard adapted it to a school in which the children have the freedom to go to lessons or not.  This statement from Plowden could refer to Class 2: “The school sets out deliberately to devise the right environment for children, to allow them to be themselves and to develop in the way and at the pace appropriate for them … It lays special stress on individual discovery, on first hand experience and on opportunities for creative work.”

Back to Democracy

Let’s return to the reason I started writing this post.  A group of researchers suggested the open classroom as essential to the development of citizenship and education in democratic values.  They were not talking about Summerhill and they did not mention democratic education at all.  It was an international study written by academics in the USA using data from all over the world.

The phrase open classroom conjures two images into my mind.  On the one hand I think of primary school teachers in seventies Britain trying to introduce progressive and discovery-based education.  On the other hand I think of big budget modern schools trying to turn schools into something approaching an open office.

The first vision wobbled to an unhappy conclusion.  There was not enough solid good practice behind the model.  People threw themselves with more enthusiasm than practical good sense at the practice.  Conservatives subverted it.  The second model is wobbling its way to another unsatisfactory conclusion.  Does it make sense for teachers and children to work together in one big space?  Has anybody thought about the importance of noise levels, different kinds of attention and activity?

Our advice

We always say to schools:

  • it doesn’t have to be expensive- don’t spend a mint on something you may want to change tomorrow.
  • divide your spaces and think about the different types of activity that will take place in them
  • learn how to work with children to create a self-regulating meeting.  You can only start giving freedom when you have an ordered society.

Open Classrooms?  The verdict is out and I am still not sure whether it is going to come in as a success.  But one thing is certain: you are crazy if you think an architect can design a usable school by herself!

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