Failed Education Fads Should be Buried, not Resurrected

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

The 1970s was a memorable decade. Judging by yearbook pictures from that era, it seems like everyone wore polyester, bell bottoms, platform shoes, and long hair. And while it may be a fun way to dress up at Halloween costume parties, virtually everyone recognizes that fashions from the past belong in the past.

And while poor fashion choices from the ‘70s have been mercifully retired, the same cannot be said of failed education fads. In fact, open area classrooms, one of the worst education fads from that era, are making a comeback in schools across North America.

The theory behind open area classrooms is relatively simple—schools should have as few walls as possible in order to facilitate collaboration among teachers and students. By making school designs open, students are exposed to learning all around them. The buzz of learning would permeate throughout the school as students eagerly construct new knowledge and work together to build a collaborative professional learning community.

However, things didn’t quite work out that way in real life. Open area classrooms proved to be an unmitigated disaster. They were too noisy and distracting. Teachers and students alike found it impossible to function effectively in an environment that prevented them from getting some peace and quiet. By the 1980s, most open area schools were retrofitted with classroom walls and the failed experiment seemed to come to an end.

It seems that in the field of education, however, fads never actually die out. Rather, they disappear for awhile and reappear later under new names. When they do, school administrators jump on the “new” idea and seek to impose it on as many schools as possible. As more schools adopt the latest fad, it gains the appearance of inevitability. Eventually, after it acquires near-total dominance, the fad comes crashing down when everyone finally realizes it doesn’t work. It then lies low or dormant until it is once again re-invented and foisted on an unsuspecting new generation of students and teachers.

The reappearance of open area classrooms under the new label of open concept schools is the newest example. Fielding Nair International, an architecture firm that specializes in this approach, has designed more than 400 schools around the world, along with approximately a dozen in Western Canada. About half of those schools are located in Regina, where the public school board appears to have put all its eggs in the open concept basket.

Earlier this month, Douglas Park Elementary School opened with great fanfare in suburban Regina. As proof of its fidelity to an open concept layout, this school has huge open spaces, lots of windows, and movable walls. During the opening ceremonies, the school’s principal praised the random abstract layout of the building as “innovative.” Director of education Julie MacRae dutifully added that the new school was not merely a building, but rather a “community of learners.” If only the guests had thought to bring their bell bottoms and platform shoes, the trip back to the ‘70s would have been complete.

It’s remarkable that any school board would invest so heavily in an approach that lacks supporting evidence. When Prakash Nair, one of the lead architects with Fielding Nair International, makes grandiose claims about classrooms being obsolete in the 21st century, many educators rightly view his work with skepticism.

Nair’s design has ideological motivations. As he himself acknowledges in his writings, his advocacy of open concept schools is closely linked to his belief in the constructivist approach to teaching.

Constructivism holds that, instead of passing on a defined body of knowledge, teachers should help students construct their own understanding of the world around them. Open concept schools go hand-in-hand with this approach. Interestingly, whole language and the “new math” are examples of two other failed fads that also stem from constructivism. Considering its dismal track record, there are good reasons to be skeptical of any approach based on constructivism.

To cap it all off, there is no empirical research establishing that open concept schools lead to improved student achievement. However, there is a lot of evidence that students and teachers alike find it difficult to function when their learning environment is noisy and filled with distractions.

Far from being on the cutting edge of innovation, open concept schools merely recycle a failed fad from the past. School boards should leave this concept in the ‘70s, where it truly belongs.