Do Schools Have to Be Boring?


by Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor
London: Reaktion, 208 pp., $27.00 (paper; distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press)

The Open Classroom: A Practical Guide to a New Way of Teaching

by Herbert R. Kohl
New York Review, 116 pp. (1969)

Social Design: Creating Buildings with People in Mind

by Robert Sommer
Prentice-Hall, 198 pp. (1983)

Big Box Reuse

by Julia Christensen
MIT Press, 231 pp., $29.95

Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory

by Jonathan Zimmerman
Yale University Press, 217 pp. (to be published in June 2009)

Children’s Spaces

edited by Mark Dudek
Elsevier/Architectural Press, 281 pp., $57.95 (paper)

Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America into a Nation of Children

by David Harsanyi
Broadway, 291 pp., $24.95

Our view of what childhood is has always influenced how children are educated and what schools look like. Until the mid-eighteenth century boys and girls were often seen as miniature adults, as uncivilized imps of Satan, or, with John Locke, as blank sheets of paper on which a parent or teacher could inscribe knowledge and morality. The Romantic movement of the late eighteenth century cast the child as a Wordsworthian innocent, naturally good and eager to learn; it also had important and lasting, though far from universal, effects on the physical form of schools.

One of the earliest fictional manifestations of these new ideas occurs in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Both books take place at Plumfield, the boarding school run by Jo and her husband, which was based largely on the radical educational theories of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his friend Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father, who once ran a short-lived day school in Boston on similar principles. At Plumfield it is assumed that all children are potentially good, and that if they are educated with kindness and according to their individual needs (as well as getting lots of exercise and fresh air and frequent moral lessons), they will grow up to be worthy citizens of a democracy. Plumfield looks like a large, comfortable family house, which it once was, and is surrounded by orchards and woods. The children have their own garden plots, keep pets, and go on educational nature walks, possibly inspired by the works of Henry Thoreau, on whom Louisa May Alcott once had a serious crush.

Over the last hundred years there have been many other Romantically inspired attempts to change the way traditional elementary schools look and operate. The Waldorf movement, founded in Europe in 1919 and based in part on the ideas of Rudolph Steiner, emphasized individuality and imagination not only in children but in architecture. Its schools today, in many parts of the world, still tend to be rambling, informal-looking buildings that sometimes recall Alpine chalets, with their steep overhanging roofs and peaked gables; a few look rather like the fantasy houses of Oz. Montessori schools, which also date from the early twentieth century, encourage self-directed learning and physical activity and stress the importance of a child’s relation to nature; they may refer to their staff members as “guides” rather than teachers. These schools, too, tend to look like large, comfortable houses surrounded by grass and trees. Inside, their classrooms are full of samples of the natural world—ant farms and chickens and white mice—and the walls are papered with the children’s drawings and paintings.

A related European movement, the open-air school of the 1920s and 1930s, emphasized the idea that students should spend as much time as possible outdoors. As Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor point out in School, many of these institutions were founded for children who either had or were seen as in danger of acquiring tuberculosis; they were the juvenile equivalent of the sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. Their walls often had folding glass doors so that each dormitory and classroom could be open to the elements on at least one side.

Occasionally this open-air movement crossed the ocean. My boarding school in Connecticut, whose directors were aristocratic European refugees, was partly built on these principles. Our daily assembly took place in a long, unheated open shed, and some of our classes were held outside even in the dead of winter: if it snowed or rained we merely moved under the shed roof. I vividly recall stamping my rubber boots on the frozen ground to keep my feet from going numb, and trying to take notes on European history in woolly green mittens.

The architecture of all these innovative systems, and the progressive school movement of the mid-twentieth century in general, suggested that children were innocent, unique, and valuable, and that the world was endlessly interesting. Children needed small classes, enthusiastic teachers, and healthy, comfortable, varied surroundings. Unfortunately, all these good things were expensive, and as a result most of the schools based on progressive principles, both in America and in Europe, were not free. Usually their message reached only children with prosperous parents.

In America in the late 1960s and early 1970s a new educational development, the open-classroom movement, had a significant though not always lasting effect on school design. One of its central texts was Herbert R. Kohl’s The Open Classroom (1969).1 Kohl criticized the hierarchal structure of contemporary schools, which, he believed, consciously or unconsciously taught obedience to authority and suppression of ideas and opinions. “Most of all they teach people to be silent about what they think and feel.” He complained that in the first school where he worked the whole staff “was obsessed by ‘control,’ and beneath the rhetoric of faculty meetings was the clear implication that students were a reckless, unpredictable, immoral, and dangerous enemy.”

Kohl wanted to give his students the freedom to think and speak, and to follow their own interests. To this end, he recommended replacing the standard classroom setup (in which rows of desks face the teacher’s larger desk and the chalkboard) with small, informal groupings of chairs and tables, and separate areas for reading, writing, discussion, and other activities. He also suggested moving the teacher’s desk into a corner and letting students choose their own seats, rather than having them assigned.

All this was in many ways a manifestation of the current countercultural revival of Romanticism, which included the belief that children and young people were naturally good, spontaneous, and free-spirited, and should not be closely confined and controlled. The most radical educational theorists, following earlier British experiments in “schools without walls,” recommended not only a change in individual classroom design, but the removal of fixed, separate classrooms in both schools and colleges. Some of the new open-space schools had few or no interior walls, while in less extreme versions these walls were replaced with movable partitions between classrooms.

Along with the campaign for open-space schools went demands for more comfortable learning areas. The sociologist Robert Sommer, for instance, criticized what he called “hard classrooms,” with tile floors, institutional furniture, dull colors, and overhead fluorescent lighting. He recommended instead a “soft classroom,” furnished with carpets, upholstered benches and hassocks, floor pillows, and spot lighting. In studies, even college students and teachers turned out to prefer this type of classroom, and to report that the amount of discussion increased. As a result of this and similar proposals, many open-classroom floors were carpeted and strewn with large, colorful pillows, mimicking the standard interior decor of an encounter group.

There were advantages to the open-space school: building, maintenance, and heating costs were greatly reduced, the environment could be altered to accommodate kids with diverse interests and abilities, and teachers could move easily from one group to another. Children of different ages could be brought together for a lesson that wouldn’t bore or discourage any of them. They could sit on the floor close to the teacher and at the same time interact with one another.

The movement of teachers between subject and skill groups also meant that no child was stuck for a whole year with an adult whose personality may have been antipathetic to theirs—or vice versa. Older children could work one-on-one with younger children, providing individual tutoring that, according to studies, kids of all ages enjoyed and benefited from. The overall message of the open-space school was that education (and also, by implication, life) was not only fun but a varied and interesting experience, involving association with people of different ages and personalities.

But just like the other innovative movements, the open-space school turned out to have serious disadvantages. As anyone knows who has ever furnished an apartment, comfort has a price: soft furniture, cushions, and carpets may be cheaper to begin with, but they are harder to keep clean and far less durable than metal, wooden, and hard plastic furniture and floors. According to many experienced teachers I have spoken to, order was difficult to maintain in an open-space school, and it was easy for children who became restless or bored to wander away from a group. The lack of walls also increased the noise level tremendously, and distracted both students and teachers. It could become impossible, for instance, to concentrate on multiplication tables when other kids a few feet away were singing or telling stories; and any kind of explosion, whether from a fifth-grade chemical experiment or a kindergarten temper tantrum, might draw the attention of everyone in the building.

Another problem was that there was no obvious limit on the number of students an open-space school could accommodate: all the school board had to do was add a few more pillows. Overcrowding became common, and groups of children could sometimes be seen huddling together around their teacher at the far end of a hallway in order to get away from the general hullabaloo.

Over the years studies have seemed to suggest that open-space education is most successful in the earliest grades, and that most teachers prefer a closed classroom. As a result, many former open-space schools have now installed interior walls, though kindergarten and first-grade classes often have a large carpeted play area, soft furniture, and sometimes even piles of pillows.

In Europe, the extreme innovations of the American 1970s were rarer and more short-lived. In some schools, particularly those designed by the architects David and Mary Medd, there was an attempt to make the environment look more like a home, with movable walls and furniture and areas for different activities, so that teachers could easily move from one group to another. But from the late 1970s on, most open-space schools were subdivided into separate classrooms.

The influence of the progressive movement of the 1920s and 1930s, however, can still be seen everywhere on both sides of the Atlantic. Today most elementary schools try to bring the natural world indoors, and classroom walls are decorated with juvenile artwork. The rooms contain plants and often also animals: tanks of fish, colonies of ants, cages of birds, and occasionally even hamsters, rabbits, or mice. In some cases children are allowed to bring their pets to school, or borrow a guinea pig for the weekend. Classes are taken on trips to museums and to local sights. When these kinds of activities are not possible, usually because of budget restrictions, drawings and paintings of animals, plants, and other objects outside the classroom are often encouraged and exhibited, silently implying that the children’s own experience of the world is valued.

Today, though the bare, traditional classroom with its rows of fixed desks can still be seen, it is becoming rare. In many modern American elementary schools, classrooms are now equipped with lightweight rectangular or hexagonal tables rather than desks. According to Burke and Grosvenor, the same thing is true in England, where the traditional oak and cast-iron double desks with attached seats have now often been replaced by tables and chairs made of plastic and tubular steel. In both countries children are assigned to work on projects at these tables in groups of three to six, while the teacher moves from one group to the next. This kind of classroom plan suggests that it is natural for teams or groups rather than individuals to compete, and that you will belong to different groups at different times. A similar unstable setup, of course, is more and more common in contemporary businesses and professions; whether as a result or a cause of the team approach in elementary school it is hard to say.

Another implied lesson appears to be that now and in the future outside oversight and correction will be intermittent but frequent, and also that you may have no permanent place to work or keep your possessions, since where there are no individually assigned desks, books and papers and lunchboxes are often stored in knapsacks or in labeled bins.

Movable furniture and group projects, however, are less common in understaffed and overcrowded schools. It is not easy to control twenty-five to thirty-five active children who are free to move about, and teachers who lack assistants may need all the help they can get from classroom design. They often prefer a more traditional classroom, along with the support for authority that it implies. The current emphasis on written exams and memorization encourages what is referred to bitterly by many educators as “teaching to the test.” Some of them point out that what is actually rewarded is not the general level of student achievement, but rather improvement of test scores from year to year; so that a very good school may receive a low rating because its students continue to do well. More than one teacher has complained to me recently that this system encourages deceit in frightened and harassed faculty and school administrators, since it is now no longer students or classes that are competing, but individual schools. As a result there is a new tendency to favor rote learning and nineteenth-century classroom design—and also sometimes to expel low-performing students or somehow ignore their scores so as to raise school averages.

The continuing problems of school design in America have led some experts to call for a return to an imagined past. As Jonathan Zimmerman reports in Small Wonder, by the 1950s most one-room schools had closed, but the “little red schoolhouse” had become a sentimental icon. Soon many of these deserted buildings began to be preserved as tourist destinations, and sometimes as “living museums” with imitation teachers and students in old-fashioned costumes. By the end of the 1990s there were over 450 restored one-room schoolhouses open to the public, most of them much cleaner, prettier, and redder than they had been in the past.

Meanwhile, perhaps partly as a result of the idealized rural schools portrayed in many memoirs and in popular children’s books like Carol Ryrie Brink’s Carrie Woodlawn (1935) and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937), both conservatives and liberals had begun to present the rural school of the past as an educational model. But as Zimmerman remarks, left-wingers and right-wingers emphasized different aspects of the nostalgic ideal. Liberals liked the small classes, the mixing of ages and skills, the informal scheduling, and the individual attention. Conservatives praised the one-room schoolhouse for its basic no-nonsense curriculum of “readin’, ritin’, and ‘rithmetic” and its emphasis on order, discipline, and obedience to the teacher; they also pointed out that in many one-room schools daily prayer and Bible reading were part of the curriculum.

Both liberals and conservatives, however, spoke with admiration of the rural school as a quaintly beautiful institution that encouraged individual initiative and self-reliance, drew local citizens together, and protected students from the confusion, corruption, and commercialism of the big city. But as Zimmerman says, “when conservatives imagine a schoolhouse of quiet obedience, they distort the past every bit as much as liberals who celebrate freedom and cooperative learning.” In fact, the history of the one-room schoolhouse is full of many run-down, disorganized classrooms and incompetent or overwhelmed teachers; the most common form of lessons was rote recitation.

Experts in school design and architecture today tend to write and speak as if their goal is to make school buildings as attractive and comfortable as possible, and education as much fun. But it has also been argued that school (and indeed childhood in general) should not be made too wonderful. (Some American private boarding schools based on the British “public school” model seem to have operated on this principle: bare dormitories, hard beds, cold showers, muddy playing fields, and monotonous food were seen as building character—and, of course, they also kept expenses down.) It is sometimes proposed even today that childhood should be presented as a lesser and more limited and uncomfortable state of being, while adulthood is shown to have far greater rewards and privileges. Otherwise, children will never want to grow up, and college students won’t want to graduate, take jobs, or sometimes even leave home. With the best intentions in the world, we will have created a population of sulky, disappointed adults who will long all their lives for the lost paradises of their youth that well-meaning but misguided school designers, educational experts, and parents created.

Today, two new developments are in the process of radically changing both school design and education in general. One is the computer, which is already beginning to crowd out both desks and books in many classrooms and school libraries. Potentially, the Internet can bring education into every home and make school buildings as we know them obsolete, as it has already done for members of the home-schooling movement. Some teachers welcome the amazing access to information that the Internet can give. Others hate and fear computers because they interfere with group learning and bonding, and make it all too easy to patch together school assignments out of other people’s words, or to access incorrect information. For them, a classroom full of computer terminals looks like a factory or a prison workshop in which workers are isolated and discouraged from speaking to one another, and competition replaces cooperation.

The other great contemporary change in school design is at least partly the result of the coming of a new kind of “Age of Anxiety” in which physical fear has replaced the metaphysical unease described in Auden’s poem of the same name. Today, not only are many of us afraid of all kinds of threats from without, we are afraid of one another. We feel vulnerable, and consider our children even more vulnerable. Some commentators attribute this to the attack on the World Trade Center, others to television, the Internet, and video games, which send a constant stream of images of violence and destruction into our homes.

In the past it was possible to walk right into almost any American public school while it was in session. Today, more and more schools, especially in big cities, have locked doors and gates with speakerphones, guards (sometimes armed), and even metal detectors and surveillance cameras. Both in America and in Britain the number of entrances and exits to many schools has been deliberately reduced, and walls around playgrounds have been erected or reinforced.

Separation from the dangerous outer world may also be increased by the blocking or elimination of windows. For centuries, even after the invention of electricity, schools customarily had large, tall windows to provide as much free natural light as possible. In every classroom the desks were arranged so that this light came from the left to minimize shadows on the papers for right-handed students. In some cases, however, windows were placed so high that children sitting down could see nothing but sky and trees or a blank wall. Occasionally a school would deliberately block the view from its windows with frosted glass, especially if it was thought to be ugly or distracting. More informally, classroom windows were often partially blocked by commercial decorations or the students’ own artwork: the rows of paper pumpkins and turkeys that appear every fall, and the flowers and butterflies of the spring.

Today new levels of windowlessness have been achieved in the United States with the conversion of abandoned big-box stores (usually Kmarts or Wal-Marts) into charter schools.2 As Julia Christensen explains in Big Box Reuse, many charter schools, whether nonprofit or for-profit, involve commercial real estate transactions. They may be constructed on vacant lots, or set up within unused or underused buildings, including actual public schools. A one-story building, the larger the better, will save money and avoid regulations for handicap access, and costs may be reduced by cutting only a few windows on the outside walls. When the original building was a big-box store, the implied message is that education is a kind of consumerism—a message reinforced by the fact that many charter schools actively market themselves or even advertise for students.3

For years the blocking or removal of windows was justified as a way to minimize distraction from lessons, and there seems to be some sense, though of a depressing sort, in this argument. After all, dozens of memoirs have reported how as a child the author would forget to listen to the teacher or work on an assignment, instead gazing idly out of the window at clouds, birds, trees, animals, or people. Later on, the walled-in, artificially lit school building was often explained as necessary to protect children from possible intruders.

Over the past decade, terrible events, in which violence has been committed by the students themselves, have cast doubt on this argument. The closing-in of the American school is now intended not only to keep out dangerous adult and juvenile trespassers, but to stop armed students from going on the sort of murderous rampages that have occurred over the past few years. Many schools in America now have a resident social worker or psychologist to watch out for possible internal catastrophes and provide counseling after they occur.

In England, though there have been fewer instances of violence inside schools, Burke and Grosvenor report the same sort of architectural developments: the reduction of entrances and exterior windows, the building of gates and security fences, and the suspicion of strangers. As a result, they write, “A recent poll of schoolchildren…returned a surprisingly large number of respondents who felt over-protected and that their schools were beginning to resemble prisons.” (Although I am an elderly white female of nonthreatening aspect, who asked only to look at empty rooms and speak to teachers about classroom design, I was recently denied entry to a London primary school.)

Whether or not walled-in education is safer, it always sends the message that there is danger outside. A room without a view tells students that school is and should be separate from the world. Also, as studies have shown, the completely locked-in school can have a depressing effect. The result may be alienation from or total rejection of education, which is seen as both oppressive and irrelevant to “real life,” with students increasingly staying away and perhaps eventually dropping out entirely.

In Children’s Spaces, Mark Dudek suggests that a climate of generalized fear has also changed the way their world looks to kids even when they are not in class. Most people over thirty can remember getting home from school, scarfing down milk and cookies, and then, if the weather was tolerable, going out to play unsupervised until suppertime. Now, if they are not ferried about to a series of lessons and organized athletic contests, many children are taken to supervised playgrounds in which nothing dangerous—and also nothing interesting—can possibly occur. As David Harsanyi puts it in Nanny State, these places are

nothing like the playgrounds I so fondly remember: towering jungle gyms with blacktop floors; sky-high slides that would burn your skin as you slid down; swings…that swung so high you felt like you might go all the way around.

It was not always like this. The progressive school movements of the mid-twentieth century saw children not only as naturally innocent and creative, but as free spirits who should be encouraged to explore the world on their own. As a result, in the countercultural 1960s and 1970s many old-fashioned parks, especially in cities, sprouted what were known as “adventure playgrounds.” Children were presented with inventive and original wooden structures to climb about in, augmented by piles of movable building material: boxes and boards of all sizes, logs and sticks, concrete blocks, and rubber tires. There were piles of pebbles and rocks, and dirt and sand to dig in. Often there was also a fountain or a stream of running water. The implication was that the world was full of possibility, and you could change it.

Today a few such playgrounds still exist, but they are becoming less common because of concerns about health and safety. Children are increasingly seen as vulnerable and apt to get hurt in an adventure playground; boards may have splinters and boxes can be piled too high; you can fall off an improvised tower or get cold and wet in a fountain. Experts have also begun to question the safety of traditional playground equipment: swings and slides and jungle gyms, they point out, sometimes cause serious injury, and therefore should be removed.

It is not clear why these fears for the dangers of both school and playground have become so intense lately. One explanation sometimes offered is that when both mothers and fathers work away from home, they often become more anxious, and possibly feel guilty because they do not really trust the substitute parents they have hired. As a result, they want to protect their kids from every real or imagined danger, and especially from strange adults. They are reassured by fenced-in, rubber-surfaced or shredded-bark-heaped playgrounds in which nothing heavy moves or can be moved, and there is no equipment that could possibly hurt anyone or get them dirty. Natural materials—sticks, stones, plants, grass, dirt—are replaced with manufactured plastic “play equipment,” and a grownup is always present to supervise and organize play.

Critics of these super-safe contemporary playgrounds, like Mark Dudek, remark that they are boring and unchallenging. These places also suggest to children who spend much time there that the world is dangerous, and that they themselves are fragile and vulnerable and need to be watched constantly. At times, these oversupervised children may be seriously affected by the lack of opportunity for active and creative play. This is especially true if at home you are given dolls and stuffed animals that talk, so that you do not have to invent dialogue for them; plastic figures that turn into other shapes, so that you do not have to imagine for yourself how they might change; and cars and planes with engines that you do not have to move but can control with a hand-held gadget.

Interaction with such toys eventually becomes repetitive and uninteresting, especially if an adult is constantly there overseeing your play. As a result, you may not only become soft and fat from lack of exercise, you may conclude that excitement, adventure, invention, and freedom from supervision are only available secondhand, on expensive little game-playing devices—a dismal lesson that unfortunately sometimes persists into adolescence and adulthood. After all, whether you are six or sixty, if you never leave the house or turn off your computer, nothing really bad will probably ever happen to you—and also, very likely, nothing really good.

—This is the second of two articles.

  1. 1

    A compilation of Kohl’s writing on education, The Herb Kohl Reader: Awakening the Heart of Teaching, will be published by the New Press in March 2009.

  2. 2

    The first charter schools, which appeared in the 1990s, were legally and financially autonomous, free public schools that operated like private businesses; they had to be certified by the state and their students had to meet local test standards. They might be established by local school districts, colleges and universities, or nonprofit corporations; today in Arizona, California, Michigan, and Wisconsin for-profit corporations are also eligible. The operating costs come largely from public funding, often supplemented by donations.

  3. 3

    Like many large retail operations, though they strive to attract customers, big-box charter schools do not encourage public investigation of their operations. As Christensen points out, because they have to conform to local regulations, and their students have to pass standardized tests, these schools “are under intense scrutiny at all times, and the charter may be revoked for a wide variety of policy infractions…So charter schools like to stay out of the spotlight.” The result is an educational climate that often discourages questions about how a school operates or what is actually taught or learned there.