Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Survivor: Open-plan

I’m not sure it’s going to make such compelling viewing as a group of competitors attempting to outwit, outplay and outlast each other on a isolated tropical island, but clearly some academics in the mid 1970s thought that teachers needed to think carefully before putting themselves into an open-plan situation. Survival was the key.

Beardsley, Bricker and Murray (1973), in a report for the Metropolitan Toronto School Board suggested that whilst there was much literature at the time exhorting the virtues of open-plan classrooms, there was in fact very little empirical research backing it up and certainly little by way of practical advice for teachers entering them. They suggested that criticism in the popular press focused on students not learning the basics, children needing more privacy, students having fun “but not learning to cope with the harsh realities of life” (p. 47), having too much freedom and missing out on the flexibility and spontaneity available in more traditional classrooms.

Staff relations, according to the report, were most critical for an open-plan environment to succeed. “The fact that teachers must work in full view of one another generally means that they must also interact with one another” (p. 48). In a traditional school, the report continues, teachers were able to close doors if they didn’t get along or want to work together but that wasn’t possible in an open-plan situation. There needed to be good communication, respect and trust in order for it all to work.

The report also addresses the issue of team teaching and suggests that working closely with colleagues in a team teaching situation requires “qualities that are quite different from those traditionally emphasized for teachers. In addition to organizational skills, successful team teaching requires flexibility, ability to cooperate and work effectively with other adults, consideration of others, ability to accept conventional criticism and to criticize constructively” (p. 50). The absence of a personal space defined by walls was seen as a real threat to teacher’s sense of territory and physical wellbeing. It’s interesting to reflect on the ‘qualities’ of teachers who are going to find success teaching in modern learning environments.

A second paper along the Survivor theme came out of Stanford University a few years later in 1976 suggesting that “teachers are convinced that their relationships with students, their instructional programs, their friendships with other teachers, and even their ‘sanity’ are at stake” (Roper and Nolan, 1976, p. 5). The paper was authored to help prepare teachers, administrators and students move into new open-space buildings and has a strong compliance focus in order to enable properly running schools. “It is intended to help teachers systematically plan to prevent chaos” (p. 8). I’m not sure what proportion of teachers who read it continued their move into open-plan.

What needed to be focused on, according to Roper and Nolan, by was of coordinated efforts from the teachers, things like enforcing standards for student behaviour, agreeing on movement patterns, scheduling activities to minimise noise, arranging furniture and equipment, and involving parents. So there is a strong emphasis on whole school rules- “Students cannot move to another teacher’s area without permission” (p. 9).

In fact, in the first week of one school opening their new building, all students were required to complete a behavior monitoring checklist each day and to retake it until they scored 100%: “I came in the correct door quietly, I completed my dictionary work, I found my seat easily, I quietly cleaned up my area, I remembered to put my chair in, I turned this checklist in at the correct door when leaving” (p. 11).

There is a strong sense from both of these papers of teachers insufficiently prepared for teaching in these open-plan environments and also a sense of some teachers being forced into these spaces. A strong sense too of it being a teacher’s environment rather than a learners. Beardsley et al do at least acknowledge that “what the open plan school can offer is the possibility of alternatives” (p. 50) and that any school is only going to be as successful as people make it.

Aside from the Survivor overtones, the language of coping, teacher’s sanity at stake, personal trauma and unlimited possibilities for chaos, there are perhaps some lessons we can learn here.

No, a modern open learning space is not for everyone and teachers do need to consider if it’s a good fit for them. Yes, teachers are more ‘on display’ to each other, but what opportunities that presents in terms of incidental professional development. Yes, teachers need to interact with each other but what opportunities that presents in terms of pedagogy and collaboration. And this I think is the key. It’s about collaboration, not competition.

It’s about the space belonging to the learners, not to the teachers. It’s about engaging with the environment rather than it being a barrier to learning. And its about thriving in a place designed for engaging, creative, fulfilling learning rather than simply surviving in it. I’m excited by the opportunities presented by modern open learning spaces and for me this is an island I don’t want to get voted off.


Beardsley, B., Bricker, K., & Murray, J. (1973). Hints for survival in open plan schools. Curriculum Theory Network(11 Spring, 1973), 47-64.

Roper, S. S., & Nolan, R. R. (1976). How to survive in the open-space school: Stanford University.

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