Do open plan classrooms work?
From my experience, no. There isn’t much work going on inside either.
The first school I ever inspected was a school with an open plan environment which troubled me the moment I stepped into the classroom(s).
This was just one gigantic room that housed all the classes and it was just plain stupid noisy with teachers having to strain their voices to be heard. Talking was an effort in this environment and a sea of lost faces looked on. I think there were 200 children in this room and so you can imagine the problems.
There was some separation between them, hip-height bookcases with potted plants on top. But it was the noise. I was down to observe a couple of teachers but the distractions elsewhere kept grabbing my attention. I wasn’t the only one either.
Half the children weren’t really paying attention to what was going on in their space but eager to find out what the giggles were further down the room. Can you blame them?
This was a school I would hate to work in and after speaking to the staff, very few enjoyed it either but they were there because it “was close to home” or “I’ve got a mortgage to pay”. A number of staff had left and trainees found it the most challenging placement. Staff were basically putting up with it.
And what about the most important people there – what did the children think? Unsurprisingly, they said they struggled to hear what their teachers were saying.
Several classes sharing the same space without any physical separation to insulate them from neighbouring noises is mad.
Open planned environments are supposed to somehow facilitate group work and social development. They are also the type of environment that teachers can share their skills, ideas and ‘team-teach’.
This all sounds great except it isn’t. Open plan does not work and interferes with children’s learning – it is a huge barrier to their listening skills. Some children might be able to tune in and out and block out the noises that aren’t relevant to them but blimey, only a few.
What is supposed to create a more cooperative and supportive atmosphere in fact doesn’t – it creates tension and anxiety which for learning is about the last two things you need.
Don’t just take my word for it either – a study by Mealings et al (2014) found that open plan classrooms were “not appropriate learning spaces for young listeners” during critical listening periods (e.g. whole class teaching). They say,
Acoustically treated enclosed classrooms are much better listening environments.
Open plan classrooms are about as effective as open plan offices. Both suffer the same insanity of constant interruptions and the inhabitants of both are overwhelmed by stimuli and cannot escape them. These environments are disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome.
They need closing down as learning and working spaces.
Eudamonia is the Greek concept for “a state in which you’re achieving your full human potential.”
You won’t find eudamonia in an open plan classroom that’s for sure. A space with four walls and a door that shuts means we can focus on our own learning as a class, not what everyone else is doing.