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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.