School & District Management

Open to Innovation

By Ann Bradley — April 21, 1999 8 min read

On May 3, 1971, Newsweek magazine’s cover story explored the “joy and excitement” of an educational movement that had burst into the national consciousness with the publication of Charles E. Silberman’s Crisis in the Classroom.

Like numerous other critics writing at the time, Silberman decried what he saw as the repressive, grim, and joyless character of many classrooms. The antidote, he believed, was to be found in “open education,” a relaxed style of elementary schooling imported from Britain that in the late 1960s had begun to capture the attention of American educators.

“In hundreds of grade schools, the familiar sight of children seated at measured rows of desks, studying from standardized textbooks and listening to a teacher’s precise directions, has disappeared,” Newsweek reported. " Instead, children wander through their classrooms like free souls—sprawling on the floor to read library books that they themselves have chosen, studying mathematics by learning how to cope with family food bills, chattering and painting and writing, writing, writing.”

Open education enjoyed the spotlight from 1967, when the writer Joseph Featherstone praised the practices of the British primary schools in The New Republic, until about 1975, when mounting criticism and declining SAT scores ushered in an era of attention to basic skills.

The 1970 publication of Silberman’s book—the product of years of research subsidized by the Carnegie Corporation of New York—catapulted open education into the mainstream. Architects began designing “open space” schools for suburbs across the nation, although the buildings’ configurations were not necessarily related to their pedagogical practices.

Never precisely defined, open education typically stressed giving children choices, and plenty of opportunities to experiment and get their hands dirty, in classrooms full of books, animals, and art supplies. Teachers monitored pupils’ work, rather than dictating what they should study and learn. Curriculum and adult authority were played down. The process of learning--rather than the knowledge acquired--was the goal.

As a movement, open education in the United States was clearly rooted in the political and social tumult of the times. It quickly became a cause for its adherents--many of them young teachers who had questioned authority in objecting to the Vietnam War, and who shared a reluctance to impose their wishes on students.

A number of open-style schools sprang up in minority communities in big cities, where educators and parents were looking for alternatives to the traditional schooling that left many children behind.

“It was a radical time, and a radical critique of U.S. society was emerging,” recalls Featherstone, today a professor of education at Michigan State University. “It was open education, the Beatles, peace, and civil rights.” Proponents of open education, or what Featherstone prefers to call " democratic education,” were somewhat mystified with architects’ embrace of open-space schools. Many of the cavernous buildings proved unpopular both with parents and with teachers, who promptly tried to erect private spaces with bookshelves.

The closest link between physical space and educational methods, in fact, was made by Lillian Weber, an influential New York City educator who used an “open corridor” arrangement to link a handful of elementary classrooms and a hallway in a Harlem school.

The biggest influence on open educators was Jean Piaget, the Swiss philosop her and psychologist, who wrote extensively starting in the 1920s until his death in 1980 about children’s thinking and the stages of their intellectual development. Open educators, like other advocates of p rogressive education before them, also drew on the writings of John Dewey to make the case for children’s active engagement in their own learning. ( See related story, Page 29.)

Science Study’s Impact

Many of the links between Britain and the United States were forged by educators involved with the Elementary Science Study, a federally funded p roject in the early 1960s that created a new science curriculum for elementary schools. Its 56 units on various topics were designed with the idea that children should “do” science with real materials, not just read about it in textbooks.

Part of the impetus for open education, in fact, stemmed from the science educators’ frustration that the new ESS curriculum was such a poor match for the typical classroom, which tended toward verbal and abstract instruction, the education historian Diane Ravitch writes in The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945-1980.

The federal government blessed open education with money for open-style p rograms in 10 cities; the initiative, called Follow Through, was for elementary children who had participated in the Head Start preschool p rogram. State education departments, among them those in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont, allocated money for open education. And teacher-training programs--such as those at Harvard University, Lesley College, and Wheelock College in Massachusetts--embraced its tenets.

In North Dakota, where just 41 percent of elementary teachers had bachelor’s degrees in 1968, the state launched an ambitious teacher education project based on the philosophy. The New School of Behavioral Studies in Education, housed at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, trained teachers in open-education methods while sending young faculty members out to take their places in schools.

The project’s goal, Newsweek said, was “to launch an all-out assault on educational convention by producing a radically new breed of elementary teachers.”

“The central idea was to have kids leave school believing they were historians, mathematicians, and scientists,” says Vito Perrone, now the director of teacher education at Harvard University, who ran the North Dakota program. “So that they had really internalized these subjects and internalized knowledge in a very large way and could actually do something with it.”

Political Agenda

As interest in open education grew, its proponents began to extrapolate its promise for young children to the upper grades and, indeed, to society at large.

Silberman of Crisis in the Classroom, an editor at Fortune magazine who left journalism to promote open education, elevated it from a pedagogical approach, Ravitch writes, “into an ideology about children, learning, and schooling that was intended to revive society and the quality of life in America.”

Open education was partially a “political agenda” aimed at making classrooms responsive to children of all races and income levels, agrees George E. Hein, a retired professor at Lesley College who worked on the Elementary Science Study.

But the movement fell prey to charges of excessive zeal among its true believers, which helped undermine its credibility. Eventually, it was blamed for a rise in youth crime and a drop in test scores, even though the number of schools that embraced open education was very small.

“It was very threatening to hierarchical, highly structured school systems to give more freedom and responsibility to teachers,” Hein says, “and, in turn, to children.”

As the principal of open-style schools in New Haven, Conn., and Newton, Mass., Roland S. Barth experienced both the promise and the pitfalls of op en education. Barth, now a retired Harvard professor of education, was fired from one school after the faculty bitterly divided over open education.

He wrote a doctoral dissertation attempting to define open education, which he calls a “polarizing concept” for parents and teachers. Parents, who had little choice over where to send their children, resisted change in the familiar institution of school. And some teachers balked at open education’s informality.

“I took over a school as principal where the previous principal had been run out of town over this issue, and the faculty and parents were badly divided over which side would win--workbooks or gerbils,” recalls Barth, who wrote the book Run School Run about that experience in Massachusetts. " It was a kind of either-or notion in a lot of schools.”

Influence Still Felt

In retrospect, Barth wishes open educators, who were opposed to giving students letter grades, had paid more attention to evaluating children’s work. The movement promoted written commentaries about students’ p erformance, which were too taxing on teachers, he argues.

Open education also exaggerated the failings of traditional classrooms, he says, while poorly executed open classrooms could degenerate into slopp iness or worse.

Despite its short life, open education’s legacy is still seen in schools.

Many primary-grade classrooms closely resemble the physical setup of open classrooms, with book corners and plenty of materials for exploring science and mathematics. Curriculum materials in all subjects give students the opportunity to get their hands, and not just their minds, around a topic.

In the past 25 years, Featherstone says, schools have made “astonishing” gains in encouraging children to write and in using good literature--two major features of open educators’ agenda.

And at the high school level, says Perrone, echoes of open education live on in the small high schools in New York City and other cities that attemp t to connect students to the community, to involve them in projects, and to foster understanding and not just factual recall.

But open education’s most significant contribution, Featherstone believes, was its promise of creating top-quality schools for low-income children.

“To me, the most exhilarating thing was the opening up of the possibility that schools for poor kids could start to be decent,” he says. “That was a vision that was hammered out in those years, and I don’t think it has disappeared.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 1999 edition of Education Week as Open to Innovation


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