Self - Contained Classrooms Research Paper Starter

Self - Contained Classrooms

(Research Starters)

This article presents information on self-contained classrooms, the most typical and commonly used organizational arrangement at the elementary-school level. In a self-contained classroom, a class of students remains together with a single teacher, who is responsible for teaching all subject areas of the curriculum, throughout the school day. Among the educational practices which are widely used in self-contained classrooms are direct instruction, individualized instruction, differentiated instruction and curriculum integration. The self-contained classroom teacher has considerable control over the curricular and instructional environment. Students in a self-contained classroom experience relatively constant and cohesive class membership which provides them with increased structure, stability and self-confidence. Research studies of academic achievement, affect and social outcomes in self-contained classrooms have varied in their findings based on the grade levels, specific settings and related contextual variables where conducted.

Curriculum Organization


Self-contained classrooms are the most typical and commonly used organization at the elementary-school level. In fact, most elementary teachers teach in, and the majority of teaching at the elementary level takes place in, self-contained classrooms. Self-contained classrooms are teacher-oriented; teaching in self-contained classrooms is a one-teacher approach. Teachers teach individually and independently as contrasted with teachers who teach in team-teaching arrangements. Most elementary students are placed, grouped and taught in a single self-contained classroom from one teacher throughout the school day. Students are instructed as a single group of 20 to 30 or more learners, who remain together and spend all or most of the school day in one classroom (Beane, Toepfer, & Alessi, 1986; Chan & Jarman, 2004; Schubert, 1986).

Many traditional public schools buildings in the U.S., especially at the elementary level, are subdivided into separate units called self-contained classrooms. Self-contained classrooms are also termed traditional or conventional classrooms, regular classrooms, general-purpose classrooms or resource classrooms. They are also sometimes referred to as whole-class settings, whole-day models or full-day programs. Self-contained schools, classrooms and classes are typically organized according to grade level and are thus age-graded. The general environments of self-contained classrooms are among the simplest of school-classroom situations.


Self-contained classrooms have a long history in the U.S. public schools. The traditional curriculum of the many one-room schoolhouses prior to the 1950s was implemented in "self-contained classrooms." The one-teacher-to-a-classroom approach of self-contained classrooms was the predominant pattern of organization for elementary schools in 1960, and it continues to be the predominant model and the norm in elementary-school grades today (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2000; Chan& Jarman, 2004; Tillman, 1960).

Prior to the advent of team-teaching, elementary schools were organized either in self-contained classrooms or in a departmentalized arrangement. Bahner (1965) contended that the team-teaching approach in elementary schools combined the advantages of self-contained classrooms with the specialization of the departmentalized school organization.

In the early 1970s, some educators began to call for new organizational arrangements to replace self-contained classrooms. Dawson and Lindstrom (1974) argued for radical, innovative and strategic changes in self-contained classrooms. They questioned the continued educational relevance and meaningfulness of self-contained classrooms in elementary schools but believed there were important factors-continuity and equilibrium-that needed to be considered with regard to the innovation of self-contained classrooms. Barnes (1973) concluded that there also needed to be something different from self-contained classrooms implemented in middle and junior-high schools.

Educators who analyzed and compared team-teaching situations with the traditional teaching methods of self-contained classrooms began to find many benefits and advantages to students of teaching teams versus single teachers (Rouse, 1978). Of the three approaches-self-contained classrooms, departmentalized arrangements, and interdisciplinary-team approaches-that were being widely used in middle schools through the 1970s and 1980s, there were both advocates and critics across the board. Rothman (1988) contended that none of the three approaches dealt with the physical development or sense of identity of students. Through the 1990s and up to the present day, some educators have continued to call for the elimination of self-contained classrooms (Callahan, 2003).


Physical Organization & Structure

Physical facilities constitute an important domain of school structure (Dawson & Lindstrom, 1974). Physical facilities, settings and environments of schools and classrooms, especially self-contained classrooms, remain the most prevalent form of environmental organization at the elementary-school level (Schubert, 1986). Specifications need to be developed for planning, structuring and setting up the learning environment of self-contained classrooms for instruction. There is a direct relationship of organizational structure of classrooms to the instruction and learning that takes place in them.

The environmental and ecological characteristics of schools and classrooms include the contextual-setting variables and factors and the organizational structures-arrangements, patterns, designs and layouts. The classroom arrangement that is preferred by most educators is any organizational plan other than the typical straight rows of student desks and chairs. Flexible seating arrangements, for example, have been found to foster cooperation, community and friendship among students (Novelli & Edgar, 1997).

Self-contained classrooms can be designed, organized and laid out in many different ways (Vincent, 1999). In fact, they can and should be arranged and re-arranged to develop designs that are most appropriate for instruction. As a center of learning, the efficient self-contained classroom should be in a state of constant flux (Berg, 1977).

A comprehensive plan can be developed based on the specific learning activities that will take place in the self-contained classroom (Vincent, 1999). Among the different factors to consider in planning learning activities in a self-contained classroom are:

* The use of visual barriers to define activity centers

* Traffic patterns

* The ages and physical-size differences of students

* The likely levels of activity and noise

* The placement of teacher and student resources

* Storage areas for students' belongings (Vincent, 1999).

The various major and minor organizational elements associated with four different design criteria for self-contained classrooms are summarized in Table 1. The respective designs considered are: a layout based on areas of activity, a cooperative-learning layout, a comprehensive layout and a flexible layout. These design criteria and organizational elements are based on schematic maps of self-contained classroom arrangements developed by Vincent (1999).

With an activity-centers approach to self-contained classroom design, different areas are designated for specific purposes (Vincent, 1999). The activity-centers approach is an efficient method for organizing resources in self-contained classrooms (Berg, 1977). The cooperative-learning layout includes an area set aside for whole-class work groups. The comprehensive layout includes areas for activity centers and computer stations in addition to a general work area. The flexible layout is less cluttered and has more open and uncommitted space which can be adapted and changed for improvised classwork as needed.

The self-contained classroom can be more efficiently arranged if there is access and support to one or more storage rooms that is provided. Materials can be neatly stored that are not being actively used in current learning activities in the self-contained classroom (Berg, 1977).

Table 1: Design Criteria with Major

Design Criterion Major Organizational Elements Minor Organizational Elements Areas of activity Art area, av/ multimedia area, teacher-resource area, paired-work area, quiet reading, independent study, group discussion, curriculum File cabinets, bookshelves, tables, chalkboard, bulletin boards, science materials, sink, student desks, sofa, rug, counter, Cooperative learning Art area, group discussion, av/ multimedia area, whole-class work groups, teacher-resource area, quiet reading File cabinets, bookshelves, tables, chalkboard, bulletin boards, science materials, sink, student desks, sofa, rug, counter, doors (hall & outside) Comprehensive layout Computer-work area, classroom storage, student storage, general work area, activity centers, children's-literature library, teacher's personal work area Student-computer stations, teacher's desk, chalkboards, bookshelves, student cubbies and mailboxes, coat rack, closet, sink, counter, cupboards, file cabinets, tables (round & rectangular), overhead projector, math manipulatives, attendance board...

(The entire section is 4174 words.)