Cuban, 2004

Cuban, L. (2004). The Open Classroom. Education Next, 4(2). Retrieved from


Like automotive models, women’s hemlines, and children’s toys, pedagogical fads come and go, causing an immediate stir but rarely influencing teaching practice in any significant way. The notion that every innovation dreamed up by reformers inside and outside public schools makes its way into the nation’s classrooms is popular among those hunting for reasons to malign the schools. But it is crucial to distinguish between mere intellectual chatter and ideas that provoke substantive change.

Where on this spectrum does the idea of the “open classroom” lie? At first glance, it would seem to be just another fad. It burst onto the American education scene in the late 1960s, only to fade away by the late 1970s. Appearances, however, can be deceiving.


  • open education
  • open educational practices


Key Quotes

The open-classroom movement originated in British public elementary schools after World War II. The movement, known then as informal education, spread slowly to the United States. In 1967 a parliamentary commission headed by Lady Bridget Plowden published a report, Children and Their Primary Schools, that promoted open education in all British schools. (para. 3)

Open classrooms’ focus on students’ “learning by doing” resonated with those who believed that America’s formal, teacher-led classrooms were crushing students’ creativity. (para. 5)

In both Britain and the United States, open classrooms contained no whole-class lessons, no standardized tests, and no detailed curriculum. The best of the open classrooms had planned settings where children came in contact with things, books, and one another at “interest centers” and learned at their own pace with the help of the teacher. Teachers structured the classroom and activities for individual students and small work groups. They helped students negotiate each of the reading, math, science, art, and other interest centers on the principle that children learn best when they are interested and see the importance of what they are doing. (para. 6)

In his 1973 book The Open Classroom Reader, Charles Silberman warned enthusiastic teachers and parents:

By itself, dividing a classroom into interest areas does not constitute open education; creating large open spaces does not constitute open education; individualizing instruction does not constitute open education. . . . For the open classroom . . . is not a model or set of techniques, it is an approach to teaching and learning.

The artifacts of the open classroom–interest areas, concrete materials, wall displays–are not ends in themselves but rather means to other ends. . . . In addition, open classrooms are organized to encourage:

• Active learning rather than passive learning; • Learning and expression in a variety of media, rather than just pencil and paper and the spoken word; • Self-directed, student-initiated learning more than teacher-directed learning.