In this post I want to revisit the topic of open plan classrooms. I have written about this topic before, but since then, I have learned that a comprehensive research project is being undertaken to try and determine the impact of open plan classrooms on learning outcomes for students. According to the lead researcher, Dr Imms, the focus of the research is to study the practices teachers could use to make the most of flexible learning environments*. Dr Imms says the research can “help us to learn how we can optimise these spaces and how can we make sure teachers are getting the support they need to be able to utilise the spaces they’ve been given as best they possibly can.”
My first response to this was “Say What?” The implication seems to be that these new learning environments are being built first and then an effort is being made to 1). find out how good they actually are and 2). try to work out how these spaces could be used most effectively. And you can be assured that open plan classrooms are going to have an impact on a growing number of people. That’s because as new schools are being built or refurbished, some element of an open plan environment is going to be incorporated into the design. It is inevitable that over time, the traditional single cell classroom will be making way to an open and bigger teaching space. It sounds like a case of when, not if. It seems to me that the intent behind these kinds of teaching spaces is honourable but the reality is far more complex and uncertain than we are led to believe.
So with an eye on this new and ongoing research project, I want to look further into the implications of this move towards open plan classrooms. In my original post on the topic, I reiterated what Hattie’s research says (and which I have come to support through my personal experience in the classroom) that, unless teacher pedagogy is adapted to innovations such as open plan classrooms, there are no benefits to be gained. Dr Imms’ research project contradicts that position to a certain degree. While he concludes that high quality teaching can also occur in traditional classrooms, there is a greater incidence of poor-quality teaching in those rooms. I think this is an important point. That is, effective learning can take place in single cell classrooms. But nonetheless, he believes there is evidence to suggest a strong correlation between open plan teaching environments and high-quality teaching and learning.
I think there may be a simple explanation for the correlation that he describes. Imagine you have a single cell classroom operating with a really ineffective teacher and put that teacher into a shared space with a more effective teacher, then it is quite possible that the learning outcomes for children of the ineffective teacher will rise. That’s going to be a likely outcome because outlier teachers at the extreme end of the bell curve will be pulled towards the middle of the curve. That’s got to be a good thing. The problem I see though, is that the converse could quite easily happen as well. I think it’s possible that in such a scenario, a very effective teacher could lose their effectiveness. It’s a case of those teachers being pulled back towards the middle of the curve. Ideally, the entire shape of the curve needs to move. So while some correlation between open plan classrooms and improvements in learning may have been identified, it has a “by luck rather by design” feel to it.
Which once again, brings us to the key point. Hattie’s research asks us to consider the question; “what is the best pedagogy that teachers can use to get the best learning outcomes for all their students, regardless of the style of their classrooms?” Which leads us to conclude that, in terms of creating the most desirable learning outcomes for all students, it is not the type of space that matters. But unfortunately, that question is still not being asked with any real conviction. The focus needs to be on identifying the teachers who know what makes leaning effective and empowering them to up-skill their colleagues. It’s as though open plan spaces are being offered as the next best thing. It is likely that these spaces will improve the outcomes for the students most seriously effected by poor quality teaching. But for the rest, it’s business as usual.
Compared to trying to change the way teachers teach, building new learning spaces is a doddle. Implementing desperately needed changes to a system that is so resistant to change is always going to be hard. It would require teachers working collaboratively and sharing their expertise. However, genuine collaboration is incredibly difficult to achieve. But that’s not a teaching problem. It’s a people problem. We need to be having a conversation about how teachers teach, not where they teach. After all, children completing photocopied worksheets is the exact same activity whether it’s taking place in a traditional classroom or in an open plan classroom.
*The terms flexible learning environment (FLE), modern learning environment (MLE) and innovative learning environment (ILE) are all synonymous with the term open plan classroom (OPC). These terms are interchangeable. To keep things simple, I will simply refer to these learning spaces as open plan classrooms.
Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.
You can find links to media articles relating to Dr Imms’ research below.