TT #22 – The Open School Concept

One off the stated goals for this site is to acquaint teachers with “Progressive” educational ideas that failed in the past.  There are two reasons that teachers should have this information.  The first is so that we develop an institutional memory.  Education is full of ideas that came along, gained a following, were implemented (often at great cost in terms of money and time), failed, and then were quietly shelved.  Soon they were forgotten – at least in part because they proved to be embarrassing to those who implemented them.

The second, and probably more important reason that modern teachers need this knowledge is that these bad ideas have a way of coming back – often with a different name.  All too often, the same rhetoric that made the idea appealing in the first place can be resurrected by a new educational guru who slaps a fresh coat of paint over the rot and peddles it as the next “big new thing.”

There are signs that this may be increasing, to an extent that even so jaded a commentator as Traditionalist Teacher found surprising.  The ‘progressives’ are running around like a flock of decapitated chickens.  They threw everything they had into Common Core, and it is going down in flames.  The public is losing patience, and the ‘progressives’ know it.  They may talk about the nay-sayers as a bunch of unsophisticated rubes, but those rubes still pay the taxes that support the schools.  This has the ‘progressives’ grasping at straws, and those straws are weak.

At any rate, over the rest of the summer, Traditionalist Teacher will attempt to bring to light a series of failed ideas from the past sixty years, explain them and the reasons that they failed, and evaluate the possibility that these ideas could again rear their ugly heads in your school.

The first in this series is called “The Open School Concept”.  If you have ever walked into a school that was built sometime between 1965 and 1980 and wondered why it was so badly designed, there is a pretty good possibility that it was built to be an Open School.

Basically, the Open School Concept tried to free students, teachers, and schools from what some thinkers called “the tyranny of the classroom.”  In this mindset, the classroom itself was a reason that students did not learn to the greatest extent possible.  Classrooms placed a single teacher in a room full of 20-45 students.  All of those students got the same lesson at the same time, regardless of the appropriateness of that lesson for each student at that particular time.

Traditionalist Teacher will attempt to be fair by letting the exponents of the idea explain it.  In this case, that will be done through a 1976 document developed by an organization called International Management Training for Educational Change which explained how the Open School Concept was applied in Austin Texas.[1]

“The open school concept used as an alternative to more traditional forms of schooling in selected elementary and secondary schools in Austin, Texas, includes seven major dimensions: individualized instruction, continuous progress of students, team teaching, multiage and multigrade grouping, differentiated staffing, open space classrooms and learning resource areas, and product and process evaluation.”

Whew!  How many of those catchphrases have you heard in your career?  So let’s unpack each of the seven “dimensions”.  To escape as much jargon as possible, we will discuss a hypothetical twelve-year-old female student.  She would normally be placed in the sixth grade.  However, this student reads at grade level, still has trouble with some fourth-grade math concepts, but is above grade level in social studies and science because her family has done a lot of travelling and her parents are interested in those topics.

  • Individualized instruction – This would provide instruction that is uniquely suited to her and each of her peers at any particular point in his/her development.
  • Continuous progress of students – Presumably, in a normal sixth-grade classroom, our student will suffer in math and probably get further behind.  She will get the instruction that she needs in reading, but will be hopelessly bored in science and history because the class will be learning material that she already knows.  Only in one case out of four are her needs being met at that moment.  Continuous progress offers the promise that she will be consistently challenged in all subjects, no matter what her level of understanding.
  • Team teaching – ‘Progressive’ orthodoxy holds that a group of teachers will be better able to meet the individual needs of students than a single teacher who has to adjust to the needs of the ‘average’ student in the class.  Having more than one teacher in the class helps individual needs be met.  Of course, this is a very expensive solution.
  • Multiage and multigrade grouping – Multiage and multigrade grouping would enable her to work on fourth grade math, sixth grade reading, and eighth grade science and ninth grade social studies all in the same place during the same academic year.
  • Differentiated staffing – She would have access to teachers whose training enable them to assist her at her current level of achievement – remedial math instruction, grade level reading, etc.
  • Open space classrooms and learning resource areas – Normally, she would be in a sixth grade classroom where the available resources would be those normally found in a sixth grade classroom.  The Open School Concept would place her in a room that will be larger and she would be able to use all materials that she needs, instead of those materials being housed in fourth, sixth, eighth, and ninth grade classrooms – most of them being unavailable to her.
  • Evaluation processes – She would be graded on the progress that she has made, rather than being compared with some arbitrary idea of where a sixth grader should be.

Golly!  That sounds good!  What teacher wouldn’t want to provide these advantages to the students?  What parent wouldn’t want them for his/her child?  Let’s do it!

Of course, left unmentioned were the advantages to the administration of the school under such a system.  These may be unspoken, but were very real.  First, it greatly simplified the process of constructing schools.  Fewer walls, fewer halls, less space overall meant that the schools were be less expensive to build, heat, and maintain.  Master scheduling and personnel allocation became much simpler.  More students on-task should have meant fewer students in the office.

There were, however, some problems.

First, for this to make any economic sense, the rooms needed to be very large.  If the school system budgeted on the basis of one teacher for every twenty students, this room needed to be able to house a couple hundred students, so that our hypothetical student would be able to have a fourth grade math teacher, a sixth grade reading teacher, an eighth grade science teacher, and a ninth grade history teacher.  Obviously, teachers could teach at more than one level, but that was still a lot of kids in a single space – however large it may have been.  More students made more noise – noise that some students were able to deal with, but that some others weren’t.

Second, not all students at the same grade level were at the same place within that grade level.  To make this truly individualized, each student had to be at a different place in each of the several subjects’ curricula.  The record-keeping and evaluation that were necessary to insure that each of those couple hundred students were learning at the optimum rate was all but impossible.

Third, with teachers bouncing back and forth from student to student and subject to subject, it was impossible to design engaging lessons for all of them and have those lessons available at a moment’s notice.  The teachers had to make one of two choices, either teach the students in groups – which defeated the whole open school concept – or develop a series of self-taught lessons in folders through which the student worked at their own speed.  Under such a system, the actual amount of time that any particular student spent with ANY teacher face-to-face shrank to almost nothing.

Fourth, such a system actually increased the learning gap that it was supposed to decrease.  Highly motivated students got the majority of a teacher’s time because they demanded it.  Misbehaving students got plenty of attention because a higher amount of order must be maintained in a room with so many students.  The quiet and unmotivated students lost out.

Fifth, multiage classrooms increased the potential for bullying and other unacceptable behaviors.  With all of the teachers working with individuals or small groups, those students not actually working with a teacher at any given time rapidly got bored and turned to talking, passing notes, and/or bothering the other students around them.  It was not unusual to have ten-year-old students in the same classroom with fourteen-year-old students – who were clearly at a different point developmentally.  Then and now, misbehaving students are much more interesting to other students than a manila folder full of photocopies.  The amount of student “down-time” went up sharply.

Teachers caught in the mess adapted as best they could.  Often, the teachers themselves re-divided the classes and recreated the classroom by building barriers out of furniture, portable chalkboards, and so on.   Within a couple years, most school systems abandoned the concept.

By the early 1980s, the open school concept was largely abandoned.

However, in the world of ‘progressive’ education, no idea is so bad that it can’t be resurrected.  A Canadian firm led by Randy Fielding and Prakesh Nair are actively trying to revive the idea.  The language sounds eerily familiar.

“The new Open Concept Schools touted by Fielding Nair International are based explicitly upon “education design principles for tomorrow’s schools.”  Classroom-based schools are considered a “relic” of the Industrial Revolution, and they are seeking to re-invent schools to promote critical thinking, collaboration, and flexibility among students. The first six of the dozen underlying principles reaffirm the return of “progressive education” ideas in a new guise: “1) personalized; 2) safe and secure, 3) inquiry-based, 4) student-centered, 5) collaborative, and 6) interdisciplinary.”  Grafted onto the list are: “7) rigorous and hands-on, 8) embodying a culture of excellence and high expectations, 9) environmentally conscious, 10) connected to the community, 11) globally networked, and 12) setting the stage for lifelong learning.”[2]

How can ‘progressive educators’ keep a straight face when they assert that the open classroom works?  Simple, most of them are too young to remember when it was tried the first time.  They drank the progressive Kool-Aid in teacher’s college, and the old verbiage has not lost its appeal.  In the world of ‘progressive’ education good intentions trump inconvenient facts every time.

Traditionalist Teacher would like to close with one last point, this one more personal.  The school in which TT teaches is in the middle of a technology initiative in which the students are expected to provide the devices themselves (BYOT – Bring Your Own Technology).  One of the advantages that was cited to those of us who were doubters was, “It will help you open up your classroom.”  Being a high school graduate of the mid-1970s, all TT could do was inwardly groan.

[1]  Other articles from the time can be found on-line at and

[2] (emphasis in the original)

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3 comments on “TT #22 – The Open School Concept
  1. Would you be interested by exchanging links?

    • Ed says:

      Perhaps. Tell me a little more about your site and what you do. If it seems to be useful to readers of my site, I will consider it.

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