22 December 2008 12:02 PM

Open Space Classrooms

by Dr. Rick

Does your child go to an open space school?  Remember them?  They’re in the news lately as increasing numbers of them are “walling up.”  Relics of the 1960s and 1970s, open space education – classrooms without walls – promised lots of benefits.  Chief among these benefits was the added “creativity” and “flexibility” teachers enjoyed.  They could “re-configure” their classes, “re-group” their students for easier and more effective teaching and learning, and be more “autonomous” in the scheduling of their activities.


Um hmm.


During the height of this movement, I was the brand-new chair of a brand-new English department in a brand-new open-space school in Baltimore County, Maryland.  I was young and had the benefit of hand-choosing my own department members.  We were going to make this experiment work, by golly!


Outside forces conspired against us (budget cuts during construction of the building took precious space away from us – wasn’t space supposed to be the very foundation of this project, we asked incredulously?), but we soldiered on.  We were young, idealistic, and not jaded as some of our veteran colleagues in our old schools had become. 


(I look back now and wonder whether decision-makers weren’t more interested in reduced construction, maintenance, and furnishing costs.  These configurations were, after all, the genesis of the cubicle-farms many adults now work in.  Who says education doesn’t influence business?)


I should note that this school, thirty-some years later, now has walls.  I should also note I approve of these walls.  The theory of open-space education never matched its reality.  There are lots of different reasons, I suppose, ranging from those construction budget cuts I experienced (which couldn’t have been unique to my school), to parent doubts, to teacher reluctance, to a lack of noticeable improvement over conventional schools.


But I also remember some of the most remarkable teaching and learning I’ve ever experienced in a long career.


We were enjoying the heady enthusiasm of youth, and we went at our jobs with a no-holds-barred mission to improve kids’ learning and, thereby, their lives.  We each had enough years of experience to know what we were doing but not enough to be blasé.  We were creative, we loved to exchange ideas and practices with each other, we took advantage of the openness of our environment, and we watched each other, each establishing a unique teaching style.  We grew, and our students did, too.


No one could ever “close the door and do his own thing.”  We were on display all the time.  It’s amazing how good you can be when you know that others could be watching.  It’s remarkable how collaborative a group can be when each one recognizes the strengths of the others. 


Those teachers are now authors, editors, curriculum developers, principals, professors, public speakers, career educators, one happily retired golf fanatic, one professional skating judge who followed her bliss, and one blog writer.  We each left open-space education a little battle-scarred but stronger for the experience.  We each also vowed never to go back.  I liken it to reading Moby Dick – glad I did it, but don’t want to do it again.


Our students are now solidly middle-class folks, business owners, a doctor or two, CPAs, delivery truck drivers, a couple of teachers, and moms and dads working diligently and bravely.  There’s also a life-sentence prisoner, but that’s a story for another day.  No school or community is perfect.


So I’m not surprised that the remaining open-space schools around the country are few and far between now.  Most have constructed walls, or teachers have built their own walls of bookshelves and portable cabinets.  Research hasn’t shown open-space schools any more or less effective than conventional schools.  Parents never quite took to them.  Even “multi-tasking” students complained of the noise from other classes.


But I’ll be forever grateful that I had my own unique experience, with my hand-chosen colleagues (who have stayed close friends ever since, battle-bonded).  We are true veterans of a small chapter of American education, and we gave it our all.  Our kids learned.  You can’t ask for much more than that.


Teachers, parents, students – do you have memories or current experiences of open space education?  We’d love to hear about them.  Just click on “comment” at the end of this blog and share your stories with us.


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