School design.
Learning Environment

Opening up spaces…or a can of worms?

The open concept school—a classroom fad from 40-50 years ago—appears to be back.

“If open concept was a flop, why are we going back?”

This question posed by Kate Hammer, education reporter for the Globe and Mail, is at the center of a debate around the re-emergence of a once discarded novelty: the open concept classroom. Hyped in the 1970s as the classroom of the future, this wall-less departure from traditional design gained a certain level of acceptance back then. It also gained a great deal of criticism, as multiple classes learning different lessons simultaneously in one space, sans-separation, became a potent source of distraction for curious young minds.

Ready for a reprise?

Just as traditional classroom-based schools were once considered a relic of the Industrial Revolution, these open classroom models have largely been relegated to the same dustbin as 8-track tapes. Although its failure has been well documented, today the open concept appears to be making a comeback as 21st century schools seek to focus and promote critical thinking, inquiry, collaboration, and flexibility for all students.

It is the dream of educators everywhere to repurpose our built inventory and to retain what’s valuable. With ever-rising construction costs and the uncertainty of future demographics, it just makes sense to conserve older infrastructure but infuse it with new life as an effective learning environment for today and beyond.

The budget-busting question is, “How?”

Two views diverged…

Critics readily point out that, while the open concept was being sold as the classroom of the future, reality intruded with the inconvenient fact that students were struggling with it. Many children were distracted by students in other classes located just a few feet away—with teachers teaching totally unrelated material. For those students prone to easy boredom, or with a deeper interest in the lessons being imparted to neighboring classes, this struggle was very real!

Kenneth P. Lawson, associate superintendent of instruction and student services in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County public schools, summed up the problems as early as the mid-‘90s: “We’ve heard from certain communities that a closed classroom environment is more conducive to effective teaching and learning. I think it would be fair to say that most schools and communities prefer the old-style closed classrooms.”

“School design architect Prakesh Nair, the visionary leader of Fielding Nair International, disagrees. “The classroom has been obsolete for several decades,” he maintains. In a July 2011 Education Week commentary, Nair claimed that the classroom was “the most visible symbol of a failed system.”

“As a student who attended a 7-12 HS with an open-classroom design, I can attest to hearing some noise from teachers across the area or next door,” states Kelly Wood, a veteran educator and education advocate. “However, material and curricula were delivered and received daily. The library was at the front of this open space, providing a quiet area accessible at any time to all those in class in what we called ‘Open Court.’”

Will it really work this time?

Open concept offices have become a fixture in the adult-professional world, where convenience and collaboration are abetted by the absence of walls. But those are adult spaces. While it’s true that technological advances have occurred since the ‘70s which could make open classrooms a real possibility for today’s schoolchildren, many educators aver that open concept-promoting architects or designers are merely trying to force feed pedagogical changes without really understanding the learning process or the needs of students. Only time will tell…
What do you think?


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