Cameron Logan writes:

A central concern of this blog are the different propositions about the nature of the school that are embedded within twentieth century school design. Among such propositions none has been more vexed than the idea of the open classroom.

A new ‘open’ classroom in WA c. 1969. Note the range of activities and different  areas of focus evident in this enlarged classroom space. Source: 1969 annual report of Western Australian Education Department

Openness in planning was central to the modern movement in architecture. Fluidity of movement and spatial perception were championed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Theo van Doesburg and Le Corbusier among many others.  Derived from very different sources, a similar concern with greater freedom and fluidity of movement was characteristic of educational thought in the twentieth century. John Dewey championed the idea of learning by doing, Maria Montessori focused on the development of independent interest and activity on the part of the child, while A.S. Neill championed an educational model based on the autonomy and responsibility of pupils, which included discretion to play as much as they chose.  Yet none of these progressive educational thinkers had much to say about the design of the school itself.

These two strands of progressive thought – the educational and the architectural – converged only in isolated experiments prior to the 1960s. But the fifteen or twenty years from the mid-1960s until the early 1980s saw a great surge of interest in how to design educational environments that  reduced divisions between spaces within the school, enabled the movement of furniture and encouraged the grouping of children in ways that did not involve straight lines of desks. In South Australia in the early 1970s, for example, the idea was taken up at both primary and in more limited ways in secondary schools. New timetables and patterns of interaction between teacher and pupils and among teachers were encouraged as flexibly organised open classrooms became the paradigm for new schools. In other Australian states, such as NSW, such open models were generally only applied at the primary school level.

All over the world the idea of breaking with the traditional distribution of bodies in space, motivated school designers and leaders to experiment with new models of flexibility and planning. As historian John Zimmerman has noted, in California one new school opened per day on average between 1966 and 1969 and 20% of those schools had completely open interiors. Likewise, ‘by 1972 a single county in Colorado had erected 15 “schools without walls”.

But during the 1980s and 1990s a “back to basics” trends in education and a wider reaction against the social trends of the 1960s and 1970s saw support for open classrooms in the US in particular evaporate. While in countries such as Australia and NZ, where the conservative reaction was not as pronounced in the 198os, the energetic support for open approaches to classroom design and use seems to have drained away more slowly.

Larry Cuban’s very readable account of the popularity of the open classroom idea in the US in the 1970s and the subsequent backlash against the ideas, highlights the fact that the debate about openness versus spatial division within the school is a proxy for a wider philosophical and political battle. In crude terms that battle is between a somewhat romantic, Rousseauian vision of childhood, a vision which has tended to support inquiry or child-centred learning, and a more classical model of the child, favoured for the most part by conservatives. This more conservative vision sees the child as  the object of disciplined training in traditional branches of knowledge, with a corollary teacher and text-focused pedagogy.