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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.

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    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.

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