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Open Education

The Classroom, Philosophical Underpinnings, English Beginnings, The American Experience, Controversies Questions and Criticisms

Open education refers to a philosophy, a set of practices, and a reform movement in early childhood and elementary education that flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States. It received support from similar work that had been developing for many years in England, where it was simply termed modern education. Its development in both countries relied upon the long tradition of Progressive education.

Known for its spirited, child-centered classrooms, open education was viewed by proponents as a humane, liberating alternative to the more formal classrooms of its day. To detractors, its informalities represented an abdication by teachers of their duty to instruct, an indulgence that failed to hold students or teachers accountable. Where adherents saw independent, individualized learning, critics saw chaos. At the height of its popularity, the ideas of open education influenced at most 20 percent of infant (ages 5–7) or junior (ages 8–11) schools in England and perhaps half that number of comparable schools in the United States.

The Classroom

The open classroom, at its best, is a busy laboratory, richly provisioned with materials for learning. Alone or in small groups, children move from one work area to another, using balance beams, colored beads, blocks, and other hands-on material in the mathematics corner; working on art projects in paint, clay, or construction scraps; reading quietly or aloud to others from books or from their own illustrated reports. The room itself is arranged into several separate learning centers, a functional organization that invites choice of participation in a variety of activities. The school day is flexibly scheduled, allowing students to determine for themselves when an activity merits more time and when it is completed. Class meetings often start and end each day, providing time to give announcements and news, negotiate assignments, and share projects. The teacher rarely calls the entire class together for group instruction. Classes are composed of mixed ages, a vertical group setting in which children encounter points of view and abilities other than their own. This "family grouping" also encourages cooperative learning and social responsibility, with older students helping younger ones. Within the classroom, the teacher circulates among students, extending their learning by commenting and responding to their work, asking leading questions, and suggesting further directions for them to explore. The curriculum is necessarily flexible, responsive, and organic.

Philosophical Underpinnings

Open education believes in the following tenets:

  • Children's fundamental desire and capacity to conduct their own inquiries and to learn in their own way from direct experience
  • The right of children to take significant responsibility for their own education
  • A "whole child" approach that includes the emotional and social aspects of learning
  • A reciprocal relationship between school and community
  • School as an environment for personal choice and fulfillment, not as mere training ground for pre-selected social roles
  • The curriculum as better learned through direct experience than from textbook formulation
  • Teachers functioning as observers, guides, and providers of resources, materials, and experiences suited to the needs and interests of students

A general optimism prevails, both about children's capacity to respond positively to freedom and independence, and about school as a miniature democracy preparing a self-motivated, responsible citizenry.

These ideas are grounded in the Progressive philosophy of American educator John Dewey (1859–1952), and in the developmental psychology of Swiss clinician and theoretician Jean Piaget (1896–1980). Dewey believed that learning results from the real-life experiences of a growing mind; it is the "process of learning to think through the solution of real problems" (Dworkin, p. 20) by means of active inquiry and experience, not by memorization and recitation. The school is a microcosm of society, not to be separated from the child's familiar context of family, community, social norms, daily life–all areas that children need to confront and comprehend. Education is a process of living in the here and now, not a preparation for future life. If each child is brought into "membership within a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with the instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious," Dewey wrote (Dworkin, p. 49). Throughout, he emphasized the value and importance of childhood and the influence of social environment upon individual development. All this reflects a long-standing American faith in the civilizing power of education via the common school.

As a "genetic psychologist," Piaget studied the quality, sequence, and development of mental concepts in children. Through exploration and interaction with things around them, children build structures that explain the world and how it works. New experience and deeper understanding force modification of earlier formulations, as the child's inner framework is reshaped and restructured to accommodate new realities. This process commences in very concrete ways when the child is small; later, at ages seven or eight, the mind begins to develop more structured thought, and in early adolescence moves on to abstract conceptualization. Every child goes through this process: the sequence is invariable, though the speed, style, and quality of growth vary. According to Piaget, children are the architects of their own individual intellectual growth, and this concept provides the link to Dewey and Progressive education: children are born with the natural ability to do their own learning, a capability that in part defines the evolutionary heritage of the human race.

English Beginnings

In England, the formative period of open education was protracted. Before 1900, some teachers had begun to work in less formal ways, often in isolated, one-room village schools, and with little official or administrative support. By 1931 the Consultative Committee on the Primary School proclaimed in the Hadow Report, "The curriculum is to be thought of in terms of activity and experience rather than of knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored" (p.1). World War II was also an influential factor, as children and their teachers were taken out of the cities into the countryside where they were left to improvise. But it was with the release of Children and Their Primary Schools (the Plowden Report) in 1967 that these "modern methods" received their most authoritative support. "At the heart of the educational process lies the child," began the Central Advisory for Education, "Children need to be themselves …. The child is the agent in his own learning" (paragraphs 2.6 and 2.7). Educators such as Sir Alec Clegg in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Edith Moorhouse and John Coe in Oxfordshire, and Stewart Mason in Leicestershire asserted strong personal leadership. In-service teacher centers, Her Majesty's Inspectorate, and key teacher training colleges, especially the Froebel Institute with its demonstration school and influential publications, and Goldsmiths' College at the University of London, provided institutional support.

The American Experience

By the mid-1960s many Americans were considering basic educational change. Motivated by the launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 and cold war competition, business leaders called for the revitalization of mathematics and science curricula. Meanwhile, rebellious youths challenged many social institutions for their fairness and "relevance." Schools were portrayed as racist, sexist, and oppressive. Teachers hoped to rekindle their sense of creativity and love of teaching by turning to less formal methods and materials. Parents responded both to the high quality of student work and to their children's obvious enthusiasm for school.

On learning that informal, child-centered classrooms were already established in Britain, Americans flocked to see for themselves. Some, like Joseph Featherstone, wrote about their experiences; others, such as Lillian Weber and Edward Yeomans, set about to educate or reeducate teachers. Soon open education took its place alongside schools without walls, schools within schools, storefront academies, community schools, and other alternative practices. Some new converts understood the underlying philosophy and recognized the enormous demands open education placed on the classroom teacher; others copied carelessly.

Controversies Questions and Criticisms

Criticism of open education was of two sorts. Some disagreed with its basic aims, finding the goals of self-actualization, independence, and social responsibility to be seriously misguided. This was a philosophical, ideological opposition that was part of a longstanding debate about the aims of education. Others questioned its effectiveness, especially in public schools. They challenged its appropriateness for all students; they queried whether its open structure produced discipline problems; they worried that school transfer would be complicated by the absence of a structured curriculum; they wondered whether students would really learn the "basics." They also perceived inefficiency, unclear objectives, and what seemed a lack of accountability.

In England, such questions had begun in the late 1960s; and, by 1971, a collection of "Black Papers" was published by a group of Oxford and Cambridge intellectuals. They were especially critical of Progressive assumptions about children's learning and about the absence of any agreed-upon common body of knowledge that all educated people should possess. Evaluation was the focus of intense debate. To adherents, proof of success was to be found in the children's enjoyment of school and the high quality of their work. To critics, however, neither this raw data, nor the potential of portfolio assessment, nor positive testimonials from school administrators sufficed: they required objective, quantifiable evidence.

In fact, for many reasons, open education defied empirical evaluation, as it favored:

  • Collaborative learning, where it is difficult to determine individual achievement
  • Student participation in planning and in setting goals
  • An evolving curriculum rather than the set scope- and-sequence chart of a more traditional school
  • Standardized testing to be used only as a diagnostic tool
  • Process over product, long-term goals over short, and affective as well as academic ends.

Because open education included a variety of similar but not identical classrooms, no standard measure of "openness" was ever established. For researchers, it proved impossible to establish clear experimental and control groups, a basic necessity for conventional studies.

Thus on the one hand, there was considerable misunderstanding of open education; on the other, there were some very real methodological problems in evaluating its effectiveness. Both left the movement vulnerable to attack. In the end, several factors account for the failure of open education to thrive:

  • Miscalculation of the demands of teaching in this manner
  • Failure to understand the centrality of teacher support services in the effort to reform schools
  • Institutional inertia.

The movement failed to develop sufficient political strength to override its critics' concerns, and the times simply changed, as the mid-1970s saw a general shift toward more conservative social policies, and, in education, a call for increased structure and formal accountability. Nonetheless, the influence of open education remains in American schools, the lasting legacy of a promising effort at Progressive educational reform.


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CENTRAL ADVISORY FOR EDUCATION. 1967. Children and Their Primary Schools, Vol. 1. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

CONSULTATIVE COMMITTEE ON THE PRIMARY SCHOOL. 1931. The Primary School. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

COX, C. B., and DYSON, A. E., eds. 1971. Black Papers. London: Davis-Poynter.

DWORKIN, MARTIN. 1959. Dewey on Education: Selections. New York: Teachers College Press.

FEATHERSTONE, JOSEPH. 1967. "The Primary School Revolution in Britain." The New Republic August 10, September 2, and September 9.

HAWKINS, DAVID. 1974. The Informed Vision. New York: Agathon.

NYQUIST, EWALD B., and HAWES, GENE R., eds. 1972. Open Education: A Sourcebook for Parents and Teachers. New York: Bantam.

RATHBONE, CHARLES H., ed. 1971. Open Education: The Informal Classroom. New York: Citation.

RATHBONE, CHARLES H. 1972. "Examining the Open Education Classroom." School Review 80:521–549.

SILBERMAN, CHARLES E., ed. 1973. The Open Classroom Reader. New York: Random House.

SMITH, LYDIA A. H. 1976. Activity and Experience: Sources of Informal Education in England. New York: Agathon.

SMITH, LYDIA A. H. 1997. "'Open Education' Revisited: Promise and Problems in American Educational Reform." Teachers College Record 99:371–415.

SPODEK, BERNARD, and WALBERG, HERBERT J., eds. 1975. Studies in Open Education. New York: Agathon.

WEBER, LILLIAN. 1971. The English Infant School and Informal Education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

YEOMANS, EDWARD. 1967. Education for Initiative and Responsibility. Boston: National Association of Independent Schools.



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