Early Childhood Education

Open Education


The term open education began to be widely used among preschool and elementary school educators in the United States toward the end of the 1960s, and generally referred to a set of practices exemplified in the infant schools (children from five to seven years old) in Great Britain, where it was most often referred to as “the integrated day.”


Problems of Definition

The practices alluded to by the term open education are difficult to define, although the literature attempting to do so is quite extensive. The formulation of an operational definition is not only difficult, but was strongly resisted by adherents at the time fearing the development of orthodoxies, doctrines, and rigidities. One widely cited definition is “a set of shared attitudes and convictions about the nature of childhood, learning and schooling” (attributed to Charles Silberman, Flurry, 1972, p. 102). The British Infant Schools were brought to the attention of Americans in a series of three articles by Joseph Featherstone that appeared in the monthly publication The New Republic in 1967 and later republished in a book titled Schools Where Children Learn. Many American educators referred to the practices encompassed by “open education” as “British Infant School,” some used labels such as “activity-centered,” “humanistic,” “child- centered,” and “progressive” education. Agreement upon which of these many terms best conveyed the desired connotations of open education was not achieved before the movement itself faded away.

An overview of the many reports and discussions of practices associated with the open education movement suggests that the term mainly served to distinguish it from the formal or closed conventional teacher-centered practices most typical of elementary education at the time. In much of the literature on open education, a strong theme is the quality of relationships among the children and between children and their teachers and the way this quality influences the climate or openness of the classroom. The relationships attributed to open classrooms were characterized by honesty, respect, warmth, trust, and humaneness.

Another source of difficulty encountered in establishing a reliable definition is the great variety of forms in which open education was implemented in the United States. Some classes were organized for mixed age groups, some were open throughout the whole day, and others only partially; still others used the term open to describe large spaces shared by several different classes, typically of the same age/grade level. No idea or single version of the open classroom was advocated, endorsed, or adopted by any professional group or association.

The literature on the open education movement that accumulated during the early 1970s clearly indicates that it was stimulated by the impressive developments in British infant education during the 1950s and 1960s and was given strong support in the so-called Plowden Report (Central Advisory Council for Education, 1967).


General Features of Open Education

A review of the literature focused on open education suggests that it varies from formal teacher-centered education on the following six major dimensions: the use of space and time; sources, type, and content of children’s activities; and the teacher-child relationship: 1 2 3 4 5

1. Use of Space. In varying degrees, the use of space and the movement of children, materials and equipment within it, were less routinized, fixed, or invariable in the open than in the traditional formal classrooms. In open informal classrooms, the movement of children also included locations outside of the classrooms and the school itself more frequently than in the formal classrooms.

2. Activities of the Children. In varying degrees, the range of encouraged and permitted activities was wider, less confined or fixed, and more open-ended in open than in formal classrooms. Activities in open-informal classes transcended the classroom itself.

3. Source of Activity Selection. The more open or informal the classroom, the more likely that the children’s activities were pursuits, extensions, or elaborations of their own spontaneous interests, rather than activities selected solely by the teachers or a prescribed curriculum or set of standards.

4. Content and Topics. In varying degrees, the range of topics or content to which the children’s attention and energy were guided was wider, and more open-ended than in formal teacher-centered classrooms. Content went beyond classroom, and included field studies now referred to as investigations or projects in which children study first-hand and in depth phenomena in their own environments.

5. Time. In varying degrees, the assignment of time for specified categories of classroom activities was more flexible in open and informal than in teacher-centered classrooms.

6. Teacher-Child Relationships.

a) In the open classrooms, teacher-child interactions were likely to be initiated as often by the children as they were by the teachers.

b) In the open classroom, the teacher was more likely to work with individual children than with large groups or all children in the class at one time. The more open the classroom the less often the teacher addressed the whole class as an instructional unit.

c) In the open informal classroom, the teacher was more likely to be seen giving suggestions, guidance, encouragement, information, directions, feedback, clarification, and/or posing questions, (primarily during individual teacher-child encounters).

d) In the open classroom, the teacher’s response to undesirable behavior was likely to be to offer the child an interpretation of his actions in terms of the classroom group’s life and its moral as well as functional implications. The teacher was unlikely to ignore the behavior or to exact punishment.

e) In the open-informal classroom, teachers were likely to emphasize appropriately high standards of work as in the formal traditional classroom.

In much of the literature concerning open education, there is strong emphasis on achieving an open “climate.” The specific cues by which observers judge a classroom climate are not clear. They appear to be related to the wide variety of activities to be seen; the “project-oriented” organization of the room, the active involvement of children with each other and the teacher’s constant guidance, and to the encouragement and stimulation of individual and small group work.

The characteristics of open classrooms as outlined earlier could enable teachers to be more responsive to individual children’s learning needs and interests. The management of time, space, and materials could provide for the individual and collaborative work that enabled children to be engaged in different activities in the same classroom. The classroom organization could indeed be flexible but was also inevitably complex. Unfortunately, teachers frequently tended to underestimate the demands of this way of teaching; such tendencies to oversimplify these demands led to ineffective educational practice. In turn, critics of open classroom practices were able to show examples of poor teaching where teachers had misunderstood the nature of the challenges and complexity of this way of working with children.

Open education gained in popularity as a set of ideals and practices during the 1960s and early 1970s. This coincided with the social optimism accompanying the civil rights movement, the establishment of the nationwide program for young children called Project Head Start, and the promises of increased prosperity and equality of educational opportunity. In the 1960s, there was generally a high level of confidence in national institutions, educational, financial, business, and political. However, the open education movement was relatively short-lived and at least three main factors contributed to its demise by the late 1970s: problems with accountability, teacher education, and research.

The lack of clarity in the descriptions of open classroom management and the nature of the demands on the teacher made open education practices less amenable to control and oversight by school administrators. The different ways in which the ideals of open education were exemplified and the practices were implemented made the training of teachers more difficult for those providing courses to prepare teachers to teach this way. The variations in practice also defied any scientific research and evaluation that might have supported its continuation.

In the social context of education at the time, there was general suspicion that teachers were not taking full responsibility for actively teaching children what they should know and do. It is noteworthy in relation to public perceptions of education that schools operate within and reflect the wider society of which they are a microcosm. Societies are moved by successive waves of social, political, and national optimism and pessimism. Within the United States and the United Kingdom as well, the decline and disappearance of open education coincided with a political shift to the right, a perceived decline in educational standards, a disillusionment with the power of education to improve economic prosperity, and a move away from seeing the role of education as primarily concerned with the development of children as individuals.

In the 1980s, national opinion polls marked a considerable loss of confidence in institutions both public and private including education (Tyack and Cuban, 1995). Public confidence in the nation’s schools declined sharply with repeated calls for increased accountability, an emphasis on higher achievement, and “back to basics.” Confidence in schools was further undermined by the report of a policy commission on education entitled A Nation at Risk. The report blamed the perceived national educational and economic decline on falling standards in school achievement.

Although it was influential only for a few years in the 1960s and early ’70s, the open education movement left its mark on a generation of teachers and schools. Many of the same ideals are echoed in recent educational developments in early childhood education influenced by the popularity of practice in the schools of Reggio Emilia, the emergent and creative curriculum, inquiry-based and project approaches at the beginning of the twenty-first century. However, challenging the demands of its implementation, as a set of educational practices, open education belongs to an enduring tradition of progressive educational ideals that remain as a backdrop to American educational innovation.

Further Readings: Central Advisory Council for Education (1967). Children and their primary schools (Plowden Report). 2 vols. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office; Flurry, Ruth C. (1972). Open education. “What is it?” In Ewald B. Nyquist and Gene R. Hawkes, eds., Open education. A sourcebook for parents and teachers. New York: Bantam Books, pp. 102-108; National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for education reform; Tyack, D. and L. Cuban (1995). Tinkering towards utopia: A century of school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lilian G. Katz and Sylvia Chard