Open Classrooms Research Paper Starter

Open Classrooms

(Research Starters)

This article presents the history of Open Education in the U.S., and provides and discussion of its merits and criticisms. Open classrooms evolved from reforms made in British primary schools during and after World War II. Open education refers to a related set of ideas, methods and loosely defined practices that characterize a highly individualized approach to early education. Open classrooms of the open-education era were based on architectural designs commonly used and popularized in elementary schools that consisted of large undivided instructional spaces instead of traditional walled classrooms. The distinguishing features of an open arrangement are the learning activity centers established within a classroom to provide for different aspects of the curriculum. Students in an open classroom move freely from one activity center to another and from one small group to another. Open schools emphasized the needs, interests, motivation and involvement of the individual student in the design of his or her own instruction. Past research syntheses have not reached clear-cut findings on generally-accepted measures of progress, performance and academic achievement for open-classroom students. Many positive outcomes for open education are claimed on different psychological-effect measures. Some educational researchers have identified open education as a failed innovation that has research to support it. As a result, various studies have questioned the desirability and advisability of extending the practice.

At its most basic level, open education refers to a related set of ideas, methods, and loosely defined practices (Noddings & Enright, 1984; Walberg & Thomas, 1972). Hare (1983) considered open education a "fashionable and influential idea." Open education is also referred to as informal education, humanistic education, affective education, and existential education (Ornstein & Hunkins, 1988). Other names for open schools are informal schools or open-space schools (Featherstone, 1971). Open-education programs are variously referred to as open- space classroom designs, integrated-day plans, or Leicestershire models, the latter after the revolutionary programs of British primary schools (Gage & Berliner, 1988). Open classrooms are sometimes referred to as open-space classrooms (Ornstein & Hunkins, 1988).

Open-education programs are characterized by a highly individualized approach to early education (Gage & Berliner, 1988). In fact, open classrooms at the elementary school level reinforced educational interest in the individualization of instruction, or simply, individualized instruction (Goldman, Wade, & Zegar, 1974). Open schools emphasized the needs, interests, motivation, and involvement of the individual student in the design of his or her own instruction (Packard, 1973). As a learner-centered curriculum design, the open classroom is focused on students, their self-directed learning, self-understanding and self-concepts (Ornstein & Hunkins, 1988). Students participate in learning activities based on their individual interests (Dillon & Franks, 1973). Table 1 examines the main characteristics of open-education classrooms.

Characteristic Description Curriculum Learner-centered, activity- oriented, integration of various subject areas Instruction Team teaching, individual and small-group Learning materials Rich variety for students to manipulate Evaluation Diagnostic observations and use of work samples to help improve student learning, subjective forms of appraisal Space Flexible with activity centers and no assigned seating Groups Multiage, nongraded (two-year or more sequence) Students Learn to take personal responsibility for their own learning, show respect for teachers, participate in activities by free choice, move about and work cooperatively, explore and discover things of interest Teachers Facilitate learning, show respect for students

The distinguishing features of an open arrangement are the learning activity centers established within a classroom to provide for different aspects of the curriculum (Karlin, 1980). Desks are pushed aside and centers of enrichment are created for active, informal, and social learning (Schubert, 1986). There is, in fact, a common ideological link between these centers -- whether called learning, activity, enrichment, or teacher centers -- and open education (Yarger & Yarger, 1978). Nontraditional open schools emphasized a humanistic education without rigidity or inflexible structure (Webb, Metha, & Jordan, 1992). The planned progress and precise measurement of instruction associated with traditional classrooms gave way and were replaced by natural adjustment and students' spontaneous fulfillment in open classrooms (Packard, 1973).

Existentialism under-girds and supports open classrooms and, as such, it is the most appropriate metaphor of existential school classroom environment (Webb et al., 1992). Existentialist philosophy focuses on personal and subjective existence in a world where choice and responsibility are primary (Webb et al., 1992). The goal of an open education is "to produce educated people whose spirits, uniqueness, receptivity, curiosity and sensitivity have not been impaired" (Karlin, 1980, p. 146).


The open-education, open-school, or open-classroom movement was an outgrowth of the Great Society of the 1960s (Webb et al., 1992). It was, in part, a response to the overemphasis on the disciplines approach of the 1950s and early 1960s (Ornstein & Hunkins, 1988). American educators bought into the idea of open classrooms and they gained prominence in the late 1960s and 1970s (Schubert, 1986). As open education further developed and advanced during the 1970s, it transitioned from an ideology into an orthodoxy (Mai, 1978). Open education, touted as a means to humanize elementary schools, ultimately wrought many changes in classrooms throughout the U.S. (Ornstein & Hunkins, 1988; Salz, 1974).

The term "open education" was coined in the U.S. (Sealey, 1976). However, the antecedents of the open-classroom approach, arrangement, and organizational model of instruction in American schools evolved and were patterned after reforms made in British primary schools (Karlin, 1980; Ornstein & Hunkins, 1988; Sealey, 1976). The concept of "open space" schools was based on a plan and a form of educational practice in which English students during World War II, in order to avoid bombing raids, were taken into informal, non-school, outdoor settings with large open spaces where teachers were forced to develop new modes of instruction (Schubert, 1986). English informal education, informal schools, and informal classrooms thus became precursory correlatives of American open education, open schools, and open classrooms (Grannis, 1973).

The U.S. open-education system operated on its own model with distinctly American components (Sloan, 1974). The programs, methods, and at least some of the "open" educational arrangements were vestiges of, and modeled closely after those advocated by Progressives and the progressive education movement (Webb et al., 1992). Progressivism was active in the U. S. from the 1920s to the mid-1950s (Gage & Berliner, 1988). Open education also had commonalities with approaches used in one-room school houses of the nineteenth-and early twentieth-centuries (Walberg & Thomas, 1972). The chief manifestation and most visible reflection of the open-education movement was the renewed and increased attention focused on students (Webb et al., 1992).

Open education was another of a long line of enthusiastic U.S. school reforms that meant different things to different people, and it came of age at different times and in different places (Ravitch, 1978). However, open education proved its importance in many ways to educational practice in a relatively brief span of time (Salz, 1974). During the heyday of the open-education movement, almost every major city and school district across the country had open schools and open classrooms (Salz, 1974). Open education was, in hindsight, a relatively short-lived phenomenon (Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005). Some schools that were pioneers in the open-education movement eventually reverted back to traditional classrooms. While the model of open education remains "salient and vital" to many educators, the open-education movement has come and gone (Noddings & Enright, 1984; Rothenberg, 1989). When the U.S. federal government became the prime source, mover, and governor of curriculum policy and began regulating funding, it effectively ended the open-education movement (Schubert, 1986).


Physical Environment

Open classrooms actually refer to architectural designs commonly used and popularized in elementary schools during the late 1960s and 1970s that consisted of large undivided instructional spaces instead of traditional walled classrooms (Webb et al., 1992). Although open classrooms were basically open instructional spaces (essentially "classrooms without walls") they were not totally unstructured environments (Rothenberg, 1989; Webb et al., 1992). Open classrooms followed alternative organizational patterns of their own distinct designs, plans, and layouts (Kepler & Randall, 1977).

Open education utilized large open spaces where various groups of students could be involved in different activities simultaneously (Marzano et al., 2005). The general atmosphere of an open-classroom arrangement was informal. Students did not have their own assigned seats in an open-education classroom. There were various tables set up in different corners or areas of the open classroom at which students engaged in work and play (Gage & Berliner, 1988). The environment of the open classroom was dedicated to individual choice, unrestrained freedom of movement, and self-discovery (Webb et al., 1992).

On a superficial level, open education represented a relatively simple alteration in the physical structure of schools (Marzano et al., 2005). However, this simple physical change to open classrooms necessitated numerous other alterations in schools and teaching -- for example, how teachers interacted, prepared for instruction, and presented content (Marzano et al., 2005). Teachers had to make special efforts to enrich the content and the physical accoutrements of open classrooms (Schwartz, 1974).


(The entire section is 4566 words.)