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Building Walls and Closing Spaces


The 30-year-old classrooms without walls experiment might be coming to an end in Maryland, The Baltimore Sun reports. Born out of the progressive cultural shifts of the 1970s, classrooms without walls were part of a movement to rethink the traditional structure of schools and to encourage collaboration and interdisciplinary learning.

But today the experiment is being looked at as a "failed relic" out of keeping with new academic objectives and mandates. Many teachers and students simply find the open space loud and distracting.

Several Maryland counties are advocating an end to the program and are allocating funds for the major renovations needed for that to happen. "The bottom line is: They're not, in my opinion, a good environment for learning," said one county school board member. "“We tried that experiment. It didn't work."

Despite the frustrations with the lack of walls, however, there is no strong correlation between open spaces classrooms and poor student performance. According the Sun, "more than 90 percent of the students at Crofton Elementary [an open space school in Anne Arundel County] have consistently performed as either proficient or advanced on the annual Maryland School Assessment."


Why is this worth writing about? Things come and things go ....

48 yr experiment? Was everyone sleeping? South Florida tried this in the 70's and after about 5 years the walls went up. Wake up already!

I am working in a school with classroom walls going half way up. I am looking forward to reading more comments on this topic from people in all regions of the country.

I grew up in those classrooms without walls and I loved them. It was great to have an open feel and interesting place to be. Going from grades 1-6 in open classrooms (K was in the old school) to Jr. High was like going to prison. It was a dark depressing closed in place.

It works for some people and not for others, why not have it as an option.

Cindy Fox
Linthicum Elementary, Linthicum, MD

I'm surprised that there are still open space classrooms. I was actively involved in the late 60's and early 70's in preparing teachers to work in these environments. The problem than, as now, is that it requires a different approach to teaching. You use the same approach as in a self-contained classroom. In those places where attention was paid to the advantages offered by teams of teachers and the use of flexible grouping, these schools were exciting to see and student achievment and motivation was high. However, like so many other movements, most school boards did not allocate sufficient resources for teacher preparation. These teachers soon became frustrated and started erecting barriers so that the advantages of these environments was lost and the disadvantages multiplied. Add this movement to the long list of changes that failed because of tradition and inattention to basic principles of teaching and learning.

A long time ago I worked for a social service agency that operated after-school and other kinds of programs. We moved from a raggedy and traditional building (with lots of separate rooms) into a newly designed building that expressed our belief in interdependance in the linked and open spaces. It was, and still is, a beautiful building, full of all kinds of possibilities.

The transition to working differently, as Tom pointed out, was difficult. Not only did we have to deal with things like the ease with which kids ran off from group, or we were intruded on by runaways from other groups, but we moved about a block from our original location--and our population changed. Even though we were very conscious about recruiting to maintain a racially diverse program (indicative of the community at large), the move took us from the black to the white side of what one of my co-workers termed the DMZ.

Nobody gave us any special professional development--but we did have weekly staff meetings in which we were able to share common problems and workable strategies. In essence, we had to shift from a reliance on closed doors to engagement to hold our groups together and focused on activities. The fact that a group cooking in the kitchen could hear the group playing kickball in the gym became far less important. And frequently we had to figure out things like how to share space, or greet visitors to the building who came walking by, lost. And we were enriched by the exposure.

Like many of the things that are adopted in education, open spaces is a valuable tool only if understood and put to use. Otherwise it either has no effect, or is harmful.

I was one of those victims of weird ideas in the 60's and 70's. The reality is that kids are easily distracted, and all the great lessons get lost in maintaining discipline. The noise level became outrageous, no effort was made to pay attention to accoustics. There is some fantasy that kids take turns talking, and will sit in their seats quietly doing their lessons. Haha. The thin accordian walls didn't do anything for the noise. The funny thing is the building my school is building NOW has 2 areas that will be set up just the same...with a thin accordian wall separating 2 rooms. YIKES. No amount of professional development will help. Trust me the noise level between concrete is still too much.

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Recent Comments

  • MFB: I was one of those victims of weird ideas in read more
  • Margo/Mom: A long time ago I worked for a social service read more
  • Tom: I'm surprised that there are still open space classrooms. read more
  • Cindy Fox: I grew up in those classrooms without walls and I read more
  • Lyfu Vang: I am working in a school with classroom walls going read more




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