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Learning at its Best

Why the Open Schools of Phoenix Failed

I talked to someone who went to a local high school in the early seventies. It was built as an “open school,” meaning it didn’t have walls between rooms. She describes it as a place that felt scary, confusing and disorienting. She felt like she couldn’t learn and she felt like the teachers had to pretend that they liked it when they didn’t.

It had me thinking about the failure in Phoenix’s experiment with open schools. I think these are a few reasons the schools failed:

  1. The technology wasn’t very advanced. They had overhead projectors and that was pretty much it. So, the potential for open information was limited, at best.
  2. The space changed, but the instruction was still stand and deliver. Teachers were trying to lecture over one another. Students still sat in rows – just without walls.
  3. The social structures hadn’t been disrupted enough. The collective belief about what made something a learning environment hadn’t changed. So, the space no longer matched the social structures, creating tons of conflict with little hope for resolution.
  4. Students weren’t asked their input. When they re-imagined the school as an open space, they never consulted the students on what they were looking for.
  5. There was no paradox. There were no half-walls creating standing spaces. There was no differentiation of space created by smaller rooms with large windows. There was no sense that maybe walls can play a role in some places and spaces.

For what it’s worth, I think open spaces could work: spaces with gardens, exploratory science spaces, places with empty canvases, comfortable seating spread around with the potential to work online, small study group spaces, spaces in the community for service learning. However, it has to include variety, with the potential for some walls (physically and socially). It has to include input from students. It has to be holistically open.

In other words, it has to mean democracy, not just by knocking out walls, but by knocking down rigid hierarchies. And it has to allow for paradox and redefinition by the whole community so the democracy can be both free and safe.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


3 thoughts on “Why the Open Schools of Phoenix Failed

  1. Reading your post about open classrooms took me back to those days when I was part of a team of teachers that opened a new school specifically designed for that model. There were movable walls between each classroom in a circular space with four teachers’ desks in the center and students’ desks arranged outward from that. When the walls were closed, each classroom was shaped as pieces of a pie. Our team observed a local elementary school that had successfully (not sure how it was measured) created one open classroom of 50 students. We took copious notes on what we observed and shared that information with the rest of the staff of our new full school with open classrooms. It took a year to plan for this school while it was being built. I was all of 24 years old, green but full of energy, excitement and hope. It was a risky decision that the district made to offer an open classroom school in a wealthy, traditional neighborhood in Scottsdale, Az. From day one, we teachers felt overwhelmed, insecure and plain confused about how to manage this new space. We reverted back to stand and deliver and never quite pulled it off. The walls were back up permanently by Christmas break. Today, I think it would work, thanks to access to information via technology and the belief that inquiry-based learning is doable and desirable. Education needs a facelift. I retired this year but would step back into the classroom if I could have that kind of autonomy and hand-picked team of teachers with which collaboration would be feasible. By the way, the team of teachers hired at that new school back in 1975 were specifically chosen. It was just way too early for that kind of approach. Now, it is a perfect model for the 21st century. I sense that what students experience today is far removed from a relevant learning experience. To be confined within a learning space must drive today’s kids crazy since their instincts probably cry out for something more meaningful. The status quo is not working. It’s tired, irrelevant, outdated and uninteresting to today’s savvy students. They must get quite a giggle out of watching teachers continue to stand and deliver, lecture and test all day long. Insane. But, the big wigs in suits continue to push what’s old hoping it will be new again. Too bad. No wonder parents search for something else, just as they’ve always done when the typical schools fail to moniter and adjust to the real needs of students. Corporate leaders think that learning is a competitive endeavor while teachers and students understand it’s an individual experience shared with others that knocks down the ceiling and walls that restricts learning possibilities. It will take a lot more trust of the human condition of students to pull it off, but it is definitely possible.

    Posted by Sandy | August 29, 2012, 8:33 am
  2. John, your five points summarizing the reasons for failure are spot on. I wonder if teachers were asked for their input. Too often, that is a failure as well. Our school jurisdiction has imposed (that is the right word) a new vision, mission, beliefs, and values. It was written in one day (supposedly) by 85 people. That represents less than 1% of our enrollment and employee population. I won’t even get into the language used which monetized the values rather than naming them, but this echoes your point of a lack of disruption of social structures or status quo.

    Thank you for an excellent post.


    Posted by ivonprefontaine | August 30, 2012, 9:30 am
  3. In reflecting on your suggestions, John, I’d guess that an open classroom that opens into the world would inspire teachers and students in ways that a closed open classroom cannot. Given the technological and material worlds of today, as Sandy suggests, it’s past time to try something new again.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 12, 2012, 8:25 am

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