Open Classroom Research Paper

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1. Introduction

The open classroom is a highly structured and deliberately organized learning environment in which the teacher performs a significant and crucial role. This kind of schooling is known by several of its manifestations: open school, integrated day, open corridor, informal education and British infant schooling, terms used to describe a learning approach which discards the traditional classroom setting in favor of a less formal, highly individualized atmosphere in which direct experiences are central to the learning process. The adjective ‘open’ recurs because this form of education is not circumscribed in classroom space, time blocks, age grouping, or even standardized curriculums. Instead, each child proceeds at his own pace and according to his own interests within a rich and carefully patterned climate in which active investigation and enjoyment of varied materials lead to the learning of skills and concepts in an integrated, rather than an isolated, manner. This departure from traditional teaching methods affects the role of the teacher as it does the behavior of the students.

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Although an agglomeration of concepts from a variety of sources have contributed to open education theory, including Rousseau and Froebel, the theoretical basis of the open classroom is found in the work of Piaget who was frequently identified in the Plowden Report as being central to an understanding of the process of learning in the open classroom. This document recognized and authenticated the informal styles of teaching and learning that were developed in English primary schools during the previous four decades and investigated by Gardner at the University of London (Horwitz 1979).

As a result of the impact of the Plowden Report upon American teacher advocates, 50 percent of all schools built in the United States during the late 1960s were of open design and a similar percentage of open schools were built in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom (Bennett et al. 1980). In addition, open classrooms have appeared in Japan, Israel, Thailand, and Norway (Bennett 1981).

2. Learning In The Open Classroom

2.1 The Learning Environment

The underlying assumption of open classrooms is that in an enriched and carefully planned environment, that supports the natural drive toward learning, children learn in encounters with the materials and people around them at their own irregular and individual pace. Children learn most intensely when they are interested and understand the relevance of what they are doing. The open classroom represents a way of thinking, a way of living with children in a learning environment that meets the individual needs of the students and therefore, its curriculum is individualized.

Four operating principles govern the learning environment. First, an open flexible space divided into functional areas rather than one fixed homogenous unit. Second, the environment is rich in learning resources including concrete materials, books, and other media. Third, the students are engaged in a variety of activities and levels of operation utilizing the contract-commitment method in which each student ‘contracts’ to do a certain amount of work, or to complete a project within a specified time limit. In this dynamic atmosphere, where learning cuts across subject lines, students are free to talk to each other, move about the room, and they have a significant degree of responsibility for their own progress. Fourth, the teacher divides the time into small, concentrated periods, working with individual children or small groups, rather than addressing the whole class as one group all day.

Open classroom teachers are firm in their assertion that the teacher’s primary responsibility is to create an environment that stimulates learning and is altered and expanded as the needs of each child change and his or her interests become more complex. The child’s response to the environment becomes the starting point for learning because children learn from the things they do and understanding comes through personal experiences. In this environment, the teacher develops a uniquely close relationship with each child, as learning is dependent upon the sensitive responding of the teacher to the needs and interests of the individual student. This cultivated skill demands that the teacher become immersed in each child’s activity, identifies the moment of readiness, and gently guides the child toward direct exploration and experimentation.

2.2 Learning Events

In the diagnosis of learning events, the role of the teacher is to understand the child’s thinking process. By listening and questioning, the teacher draws the child out so that the child can be assisted in realizing their feelings, plans, and details. Teacher interviews illustrate the delicacy used to determine when to intervene, to push, or even to assist. ‘She stretches her empathy for potential, she thinks with the child as he discusses. The ‘tuning in’, the thinking ‘with’, the seeing with a ‘child’s eye’ are part of the response to a child’s own question. It is this question which a child must follow to follow the development of his thinking, that is prime to the teacher—not her own preconceived questions and answers’ (Weber 1971, p. 229). The teacher’s intention as facilitator is not to judge but to reflect back to the child the consequences of the child’s behavior by guiding the child through questions about activities and discoveries relative to the learning experience (Barth 1972). Because diagnosis occurs constantly during teacher–child interactions, errors are acceptable as they provide necessary feedback for continued, guided learning.

Through frequent note-taking describing the child’s feelings, attitudes, and experiences, the teacher assesses and evaluates growth and learning. From this perspective, formal evaluation procedures are ineffective because, rather than being preoccupied with standardized and normative expectations, the teacher is vitally concerned with knowing that each child is making the best possible use of his environment and that he or she is making progress. Careful observation of experiences, linked with accurate recording, constitutes the scientific study of the learning process.

This effectiveness in the diagnosis of learning events depends entirely on the teacher’s knowledge of the child’s ability, individual needs, stage of development, and learning style. The teacher’s focus is on the child who, in turn, is expected to accept both responsibility and internal personal control. Barth (1972) extends this idea by identifying the child as ‘an agent of his own learning’ and teachers as ‘facilitators of learning’ who encourage, help, and assist rather than prescribe, mold, coerce, or manipulate. As a facilitator of learning, which is a highly individual process in which teaching styles are as numerous, complex, and individually effective as learning styles, there is no one specific approach to teaching. In addition, in the multiaged open classroom, students of proven ability, together with parent volunteers and aides, assist other students who are having difficulty in assimilating the knowledge, as research has shown that children benefit from differentiated staffing in which contacts with more than one teacher is more beneficial than having the same teacher all day long. Peer tutoring, where students must think through a topic carefully because they are responsible for teaching it to other students, and collaborative learning, where students share responsibility for learning something and must organize themselves and the topic to do it well, are necessary learning activities in the open classroom.

The belief that children can sit passively and absorb information is not one of the assumptions on which learning occurs in the open classroom but, instead, children must be actively engaged in the process of their own learning. Perkins (1995), in investigating the practice of ability grouping and tracking in K-12 education, viewed the open classroom (with heterogeneously mixed grades) as a superior learning environment because research shows that students understand and retain what they study when instruction engages them in thinking about, and with the content of, their curriculum. Perkins’ thesis is that learning is a consequence of thinking, and if students are not constructively engaged and connected with their thinking processes and their curricular studies, they will neither fully understand nor retain them. From his perspective, the teachers’ basic job in an open classroom is to insure that the students do a majority of thinking about and with the content of what they are learning. This perspective implies a number of learning techniques: problem-based learning (where students study content by seeking out the information needed to solve the problems); project-based learning (where students engage in complex and often socially meaningful projects that enable them to gain content knowledge); engagement in understanding performances (that ask students to use what they know in order to demonstrate and build their understanding); infusion of critical and creative thinking into subject-matter instruction (where students learn to analyze, critique, defend, adopt alternative points of view, and ask ‘what if’ questions); and the use of authentic problems (that have real-world significance and a messy open-ended character). Although thinking- centered learning can be complex and challenging for teachers and administrators to sustain, the ways to configure thinking-centered learning are endless.

2.3 A Learning Concern

There does, however, appear to be a danger that students in the open classroom may display less involvement in their activities and, consequently, learn less. Large discrepancies in time on task appear to be widespread as the findings reported by Bennett (1981) on open education in Britain are very similar to those reported by Fisher et al. (1978) in the United States. ‘It is of interest to note that the curriculum areas which are allocated the most time show the poorest involvement levels’ (Bennett 1981, p. 23). In addition, transition time (from one activity to another) which was studied as part of a survey in the United Kingdom (Bennett et al. 1980), observed examples of wasting time and concluded that students in open schools spend too much time in transition from one activity to the next or from one space to another. Similarly, New Zealand elementary students who were taught at tables rather than seated in rows had increased peer interaction and transition time between activities.

3. Teaching In The Open Classroom

3.1 Important Teacher Functions

As teachers in the United Kingdom have frequently pointed out, the teacher’s primary responsibility is to set the mood or climate of the learning environment as the needs of each student change. In this stage-setting role, the teacher functions as a stimulator who encourages and guides but does not direct children. The teacher sets up opportunities for learning experiences and children’s questions become curriculum starting points. In fact, the teacher’s role is to not impose on children, but to closely cooperate with their native interests and drives so that whatever they are led to do is viewed as something that comes out of themselves. Weber (1971), who calls this ‘opening up a child’s purposes,’ values respect for the child’s questions and purposes as serious forces in learning, while other educational theorists maintain that demonstrating respect for children and managing the learning environment are key teacher functions. Doyle (1986) characterized the open classroom teacher as an effective manager who ensures that students are concentrating on appropriate work in an environment where they have a high degree of choice.

Common to all open classroom facilitators is an enormous trust in learners and the ability to relinquish large amounts of control. Facilitators are more effective if they themselves are involved in learning and challenge their own beliefs and practices when confronted by students. Because, generally speaking, there is no standard curriculum imposed upon the student, three teacher functions have been identified as critical roles of the open-classroom teacher: individualizer of instruction, resource person and counselor, and provider of suitable materials and activities.

Walberg and Thomas (1972) identified a wide range of beliefs and behaviors about the teacher’s role which were grouped into eight themes that are multidimensional and interactive in nature, yet discrete enough to serve as an organizer for an understanding of the teacher’s role in the open classroom. This eight dimensional taxonomy, around which clusters of significant research has been conducted, are: instruction (guidance and extensions of learning), provisioning (provisioning the classroom for learning), diagnosis (diagnosis of learning events), evaluation (reflective evaluation of diagnostic information), humanness (respect, openness, and warmth), seeking (seeking opportunities to promote growth), self-perception (the teacher’s view of herself and her role), and assumptions (ideas about children and the process of learning).

3.2 Planning, Relationships, And Management Skills

Research into open classroom processes reveals that effective teaching requires a high degree of planning, positive personal relationships, and excellent classroom management skills. The teacher creates the environment by restructuring the dimensions of time, space, materials, grouping, and communication. The classroom reflects a diversity of homemade materials to interest the students, books geared to a wide range of reading and interest levels, and a variety of carefully planned activity areas that encourage the student to explore.

Personal relationships are positive as the teacher interacts easily with students who enjoy being around her. The teacher is a ‘real’ person, cognizant of and able to express feelings, needs, attitudes, and motives. Consequently, effective open classroom teachers exhibit characteristics of self-acceptance, self-respect, security, and self-confidence; they are encouraged to be themselves and to reject adopting the role of a teacher at the expense of being oneself.

Several important aspects of teacher classroom management, which are more vital in open than in traditional classrooms, focus on clarity of explanations, vigilance and mobility, and pupil independence. Clarity of explanations are crucial in open classroom teaching as students ought to have a clear idea of what the project entails and the procedure for accomplishing the task. Vigilance and mobility indicates that the effective open teacher has excellent eye contact, and is able to split attention between the individual or group the teacher is working with and the rest of the class. Periodically, the teacher scans the class and is mobile enough to intervene in any problem before it escalates. This vigilance is transmitted to the class when, at intervals, the teacher publicly reviews the progress of different students or groups of students. Another message regularly transmitted is that of pupil independence so that the teacher is not overwhelmed with six or eight students gathered around the teacher’s desk or trailing the teacher around the room.

3.3 Teacher Characteristics, Attitudes, And Reactions

The redefinition of the teacher’s role as that of a facilitator, which encourages short-term decisions directed toward individual students, increases cooperation and communication among faculty and staff members. This research conclusion was reinforced by Harrison and Glaubman (1990) when they studied a systematic random sample of 42 Israeli elementary schools of which 17 had been implementing open education practices for at least three years. Teachers in the open education schools were significantly younger, had less experience than teachers in traditional schools, and reported having more frequent discussions of school goals and school problems with administrators, supervisors, parents, and members of the community. They used more resources for curriculum development and, as might be expected, the Israeli teachers in open schools described their school decision making process as being more decentralized than teachers in traditional schools. Finally, Israeli teachers, who taught in schools that adopted the open classroom approach, reported significantly more skill development, as measured by the number of hours of school-base training, than did teachers in traditional schools.

Schubert and Baxter (1982) documented a close relationship between teachers’ attitudes toward open education and noncognitive student outcomes. Teachers have almost uniformly rated themselves as more open than they are and the difference is especially pronounced in the traditional classroom. When open and traditional classrooms are compared, students in an open-space school or a closed-space school (where teachers have favorable attitudes toward open education principles) consistently scored higher with regard to level of curiosity and self-esteem than students of teachers with unfavorable attitudes toward open education. A significant sample of public school teachers, who taught in both open and traditionally constructed schools, had significantly more positive attitudes toward open education than teachers who taught only in open space schools. Consequently, there is a positive relationship between the number of years of teaching experience and attitudes toward open education because teachers who taught 10 years or more in the open classroom were significantly more positive in their attitudes toward open education than teachers who taught less than 10 years.

Because intrinsic rewards (i.e., to play a significant role in students’ lives) are important for open teachers and because the classroom is the major arena for the receipt of the rewards (Sederberg and Clark 1990), teachers in open schools, generally speaking, show no significant inclination to move back into the self-contained classroom. However, 10 Canadian studies detailing adverse teacher comments report increased workload and insufficient preparation time, as teaching in an open classroom requires continuous innovation, monitoring of students’ performance, and well-developed skills in maintaining order without being authoritarian (Traub et al. 1976). New Zealand teachers stated that increased workload was their major problem and that demands on them were very high, citing the necessity for continuous student evaluation and careful curriculum planning. This teacher reaction to the open classroom was reinforced by Australian teachers who maintained that the open classroom workload was having a negative effect on their private lives (Angus et al. 1975).

4. Conclusion

Research which indicated that cognitive achievement levels in open classrooms were not significantly different from those in traditional classrooms initiated the decline of open education in the United States and by the late 1970s the movement was in retreat. Today, the literature is clearly characterized by its critics but, because widespread research has indicated that students in open classrooms are more independent, less conforming, act more cooperatively, are more attentive and participate more actively in class discussions, and display more creativity than students in traditional classrooms (Rothenberg 1989), open classroom learning strategies continue to be implemented in Western Europe, North and South America, and Asia as many schools continue to offer students the option of learning in open classrooms.


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