Sunday, July 31, 2011

Finmere School: Landmark of open-plan

Pamela Woolner’s book, The Design of Learning Spaces (2010) sets out to consider current issues in the design of new learning environments from an educational rather than architectural perspective. It’s an interesting starting point for me to begin looking into the emergence of the open plan school movement as it provides some concrete examples of early adopting schools in the UK. The four schools she uses as examples were all, for one reason or other, considered landmark buildings. What Woolner has set out to analyse more thoroughly is how these schools have stood the test of time as the relationship between education and architecture changes.

One of these schools, Finmere School in rural Oxfordshire was built in 1959. It was the first to utilize folding partitions to divide and open space, with the classroom itself divided into areas for different learning activities (Woolner, 2010). Although only a two classroom and hall school it was, according to Pearson (1972) one that would “set the course of primary school design for at least a decade”, and one that is referred to frequently in open plan literature (Bennett et al. 1980).

Finmere School was designed less with architectural aims and more with educational influences in mind (Woolner, 2010). Teaching and learning had seen considerable changes since pre war school buildings were constructed and there was a need for designs to alter. Bennett et al (1980) reflects on the fact that the early 1960s had seen increased emphasis on project learning, creativity, centres of interest and of arrangements in the environment that allowed children to work on their own or in small groups. This put new demands on the classroom and teachers were requiring more flexible environments that traditional spaces were unable to offer. “Open planning was simply a natural response to the way primary teachers were already organising their classrooms (p. 19).

The design of Finmere was based on thinking aimed at supporting this more child-centred approach to teaching and learning and was clearly progressive at the time. Being a rural school teaching a population of fifty children from five to eleven meant that there was a real need to be able to group and regroup children and at times to have children of different age groups learning together (Woolner, 1980). The design therefore represented a practical solution to the learning needs of the children and also the teachers’ needs.

How well has it stood the test of time? Woolner collected information from the current head teacher who commented that they “no longer open up the concertina doors and work in an ‘open-plan’ way. Teachers found the noise level too high when working in this way and also behaviour issues increased” (p.8.) Notable too was a more recent move back towards whole-class teaching in UK primary schools and the need to find wall space for interactive white boards.

Finmere School was clearly revolutionary at the time and was partially responsible for setting the trend for open-plan classroom spaces in the 1960s. It’s a valuable exercise to dig back into the literature on schools such as this one in order to understand the thinking of the time that was influencing school design.


Bennett, N., Andreae, J. et al. (1980). Open Plan Schools. Windsor: Schools Council
Pearson, E. (1972). Trends in school design. Macmillan (for the Anglo-American Primary Education Project)
Woolner, P (2010). The design of Learning Spaces. London: Continuum

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Whatever happened to all the open-plan schools?

Whatever happened to all the ‘open plan’ schools in New Zealand? Why is it that when you visit schools that used to be well known for open spaces they look so different now? Often spaces have been completely remodeled or just had so many partitions and barriers put back up that they little resemble their former selves.
What caused this to happen, essentially recreating what presumably they’d tried so hard to replace? Was it just a trend that saw the building of open plan spaces in the first place, and who’s to say that these new open learning spaces don’t go the same way?

In conversations with teachers who used to teach in these spaces I get the impression that in many cases teachers still had their own class, still occupied a part of the wider space and would operate there in exactly the same way as if they’d been in a single cell classroom. Although there were no physical walls there were certainly invisible ones. There was little movement of learners between learning areas and even less of the teachers. I realize that not all schools operated like this though and I’m keen to touch base with teachers who’ve worked in these spaces. I think there are some great narratives out there that can help us understand what did and didn’t work.

Monday, July 25, 2011

What makes the difference: The teacher or the space?

Having my head stuck into John Hattie’s Visible Learning has given me time to consider what we do in our open learning spaces in a slightly different way. In looking through Hattie’s highest ranking effect sizes, there are none related to how classrooms are set out or the architecture of the school. In fact Hattie argues that the school effects that he analyses, whilst still being important, don’t actually define the differences in student achievement. It’s very much what happens inside the classrooms that makes the key difference.

His big message is that “what teachers do matters” (Hattie, 2009, p.22). So it’s factors like formative assessment, feedback, clarity of teaching, teacher-student relationships and meta-cognitive strategies that actually make the difference to student achievement. It’s also factors from the student themselves such as prior achievement and self-reported grades. It’s about learners knowing, “Where am I going?”, “How am I going?”, and “Where to next?”.

None of Hattie's top ranking meta-analyses in fact are space dependent, They could happen in any classroom setting, whether open or more traditional. So does the space matter?

Good design clearly will never replace good teaching in terms of student outcomes but the question remains as to whether design can enhance learning? Can teachers working collaboratively in a space to design and cause learning, where there is open access to e-learning tools and furniture that is fit for purpose, promote learning for children? Can the environment really be the third teacher?


Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Open Learning Spaces: Where's the evidence?

Underlying the whole purpose or this blog is really to ascertain the evidence that supports and challenges the use of open learning spaces.

The challenges of teaching in open learning spaces raised during the recent PLG related to factors such as parental expectations of what a classroom should look like; to ensuring that students don’t slip through the gap; and to maintaining rigour in teaching and learning.

The biggest challenge though came down to evidence. We’re used to working with evidence to support approaches to learning in our schools when it comes to curriculum delivery and we strive to be working at a level of best practice. But what evidence can we collect that will ascertain whether or not working in an open learning space with, for example, two teachers and 60 learners, is any better than learning in a single cell classroom? Are the differences actually measurable and in which case, what should we be looking for?

One of the schools present was taking part in an NZCER engagement survey this year so will be able to compare data from learners in a shared space with those from more traditional classroom set ups. The comparison will be interesting. But what other sources of evidence are there?

A good place to begin looking for measurable outcomes is John Hattie’s Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. But it returns very little by way of studies related specifically to open learning spaces and what is there is somewhat dated.

The closest match is where Hattie pulls together reviews of the open education programs of the 1970s and 80s, where open learning spaces were considered at the time an essential, if only one feature of good practice. Other features included a greater emphasis on the child guiding their own learning, diagnostic evaluation to guide instruction, the use of manipulative materials to stimulate student exploration, individualized instruction, multi-age grouping and team teaching.

Giaconia and Hedges (1982) study found “that open education programs can aid in producing greater self-concept, creativity and a positive attitude towards school.” (Hattie, p. 89) They also found that multi-age grouping, open space and team teaching were not factors that distinguished the effective open learning programs from the less effective. These later factors Giacania and Hedges termed administrative or organisational features, and suggested that any effect was purely indirect. “Open space may be conducive to the child's self-initiation of activities and learning. But the effects of open space per se are probably less direct in this regard than the effects of an open education program where the role of the child as self-initiator of learning is an explicit part of the program” (Giaccania & Hedges, 1982, p. 599). The space itself wasn’t so much as a factor as what was happening in it.

According to this evidence therefore the open nature of the space in these situations didn’t make a huge difference. It’s an interesting starting place in a search for evidence. With Hattie’s book open at the moment though I’m intrigued to view his high ranking interventions and practices and see which if any are space dependent.


Giaconia, R.M., and Hedges, L.V. (1982) Identifying features of effective open education. Review of Educational Research, 52(4), 579-602
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge

Sunday, July 3, 2011

It might get loud in here

Ok so the title’s not an original, in fact borrowed from a gem of a documentary screened on Rialto the other night. But not to be flippant, it’s a sentiment shared by teachers and parents alike. And certainly in an open plan space with upwards of 120 children in it noise could most certainly be an issue. It came up in the recent PLG meeting. Parents, when entering a new open learning space for the first time asked, “How are my children going to learn with the noise level?” The children in question had come from a traditional ‘single cell’ classroom setting and the assumption was that given the space and the quantity of children in it, that it would most certainly be a loud one. It’s certainly a question worth addressing.

A first foray into the research brings up a fairy new read. Pamela Woolner in The Design of Learning Spaces draws attention to the concerns of poor acoustics in schools and the interference of noise. She refers to a number of studies, some focused on internal noise and others on external, with both laboratory and field based research. In looking at schools with a lot of external noise, for example those in close proximity to motorways or on a flight path, the detrimental effect it can have on children’s memory (Hygge, 2003) and cognitive functioning (Lercher et al, 2003), certainly seems tangible. One study suggested that in the situation when teachers have to pause due to bursts of external noise, the loss in teaching time could be as high as 11% (Rivlin & Weinstein, 1984).

In terms of open learning spaces it’s more likely the noise within that is of primary concern as it was for some of the parents walking through the door of my colleague’s brand new open space. Woolner (2010) cites research suggesting that for children in noisy environments, reading, speech perception and language acquisition can be impaired by noisy surroundings (Evans & Maxwell, 1997). ‘Noise annoyance’ and links to people’s mood is also raised as a concern (Boman & Enmarker, 2004).

It’s not only in classrooms that it’s a concern either. The Daily Mail ran a story in March 2010 reporting that excessive noise, constant distractions and lack of privacy was contributing to a 20% drop in productivity in poorly designed open plan office spaces. Yet a recent walk I took around a downtown Auckland bank’s new open office space suggested that it was the ability to ‘hot seat’, to interact and to collaborate with colleagues that made the space such a success. When asked about noise the message was clear; when you’re working in an open office environment people self-moderate their talking and the noise they’re making. Do children have the same self awareness in a classroom space?
Excessive noise then, according to Woolner’s review certainly does have a detrimental effect on learning, whether it’s external or internal, whether it’s directly effecting thinking or just being plain annoying or distracting.

For me there are obvious implications in terms of the design and acoustic design process when planning a new open learning space.  I wonder too though if we need to think in terms of the cultural norms that are set up within them. What are the expectations of noise in functioning open learning spaces? Do children learning in them self-moderate their own noise level?

I’m interested in how teachers working in open learning spaces have addressed the noise issue. Are parental and teacher concerns about noise levels really warranted? Does it really get loud in here?


Boman, E & Enmarker, I. (2004). ‘Factors affecting pupils’ noise annoyance in schools: the building and testing of models. Environment and Behavior, 36(2), 207-228
Hygge, S. (2003) Classroom experiments on the effects of different noise sources and sound levels on long-term recall and recognition in children. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17, 895-914
Lercher, P., Evans, G.W. and Meis, M (2003) Ambient noise and cognitoev process among primary schoolchildren. Environment and Behavior, 35(6), 725-735
Rivlin, L.G. and Weinstein, C.S. (1984) Educational issues, school settings, and environmental psychology. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 4, 347-364
Woolner, P (2010). The design of Learning Spaces. London: Continuum