What’s Missing From Education Reform in America?

The Seventies: The Open Classroom

 “I do my thing, and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.” —1970s mantra by Frederick E. Perl

Dictionary.com defines the open classroom as a school “structured to encourage the child to become actively involved in the learning process. . . . Children proceed from one step to another at their own rate of development. . . . Talking and moving about are not forbidden; in fact, physical activity and conversation are necessary to this type of learning.”

In reality, the theory from in-service presenters was that if children had the freedom to pursue their own interests, they would be motivated to acquire the skills required to take them to the far horizons of their minds. New schools were often built without walls. Where redesigning older buildings wasn’t possible, classrooms became free-flowing spaces with beanbag chairs, pillows, mood lighting, and music.

Panel discussions were very popular. A group of students would choose a book with a topic selected from a list compiled by the teacher. Each student then chose a second book on the topic and reported to the class on the relationship of the two books. For example, a group might choose The Feminine Mystique, with individual presentations on The Awakening, A Room of One’s Own, Trifles, and Tell Me a Riddle. The next project could be a comparison of Jesus as portrayed in each Gospel with the Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. Skills were taught casually or on a need-to-know basis; and whole areas of study were investigated out of context or ignored.

While the open classroom promoted innovation and inclusiveness, teachers schooled in traditional methodology received scant training in the new. As a result, offering students freedom often amounted to an abdication of authority. Some teachers resisted the change so that students experienced no discipline one period but were slapped with rules the next.

Meanwhile, the growing number of district administrators required to apply for grants and oversee the new programs now worked in district offices, removed from teachers, students, and the total collapse of academic standards and discipline. By 1979, test scores showed a precipitous decline in achievement.