Walking around Australian schools today, it is hard to miss the large, barn-like rooms housing hundreds of students.
We were promised ‘agile learning areas’, built on collaboration, flexibility and student-centred learning. What we got was far from a conducive learning environment.
It seems, however, that we may finally be waking up to the failure of another progressive educational fad, with The Age reporting that while schools ‘knocked down walls to revolutionise learning‘, they are now putting them back up to reduce the noise, distractions and disruptions.
On a teaching placement, I regularly observed a class of more than 50 students in an open-plan environment. Chaos is the only word that could be used to describe it. Students routinely went missing, noise levels were extremely high with conversation rarely on-task, and concentration and focus was almost non-existent. One student even flat-out refused to do work at all, declaring ‘my home is my learning environment; school is my play environment’.
Student complaints included that it is ‘so noisy I can’t even feel myself think!’, ‘you can never hear the teacher even if you try’, and ‘I don’t even bother listening because no one is quiet while the teachers are talking’. The negative impact of noise is supported by recent research showing that 50-70 per cent of children learning in open-plan classrooms were unable to hear their teacher very well, or at all, when the other classes were doing activities.
Research shows that children learn best when their environment is orderly and engaging. The establishment and enforcement of clear rules, expectations and boundaries help children build a sense of self-control, responsibility and accountability for their actions.
Open-plan classrooms fail this test. They are an environment more synonymous with chaos than with learning, and the sooner we recognise this, the better.