Latest News

Remember ‘Open Schools’? Probably Not, And Here’s Why

It’s a perennial debate in American education: Do kids learn best when they’re sitting in rows at their desks? Or moving around, exploring on their own?

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, that debate led to a brand new school design: Small classrooms were out. Wide-open spaces were in. The Open Education movement was born.

Across the U.S., schools were designed and built along these new ideas, with a new approach to the learning that would take place inside them.

It was a response, historians say, to fears that the U.S. was falling behind in key subjects like science and math. The approach “resonated with those who believed that America’s formal, teacher-led classrooms were crushing students’ creativity,” Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, wrote in 2004.

“No whole-class lessons, no standardized tests, and no detailed curriculum,” he wrote. “The best of the open classrooms had planned settings where children came in contact with things, books, and one another at ‘interest centers’ and learned at their own pace with the help of the teacher.”

Sounds great, right? But within just a few years — by the late 1970s — the open schools movement had faded. A backlash set in. “Traditional schools sprang up in suburbs and cities,” Cuban wrote. “This time the call was not for open education but for a return to the basics.”