The Open Classroom: A Perspective on Differentiated Instruction

Educational concepts ebb and flow into our pedagogy. Let's take a look at how science, math and social studies have experienced some of this shift since the 1960s, and how today's educational resources are able to enact some of these ideas.

by John Halpin / June 7, 2016

No other field of endeavor has taken such wild shifts in practice as the American public education system. In the 1960s, when America became frightened by the Soviets' rapid space advancements during the Cold War, educators pushed new approaches on how students should be taught and how they should learn. 

The first areas of concentration were science and math. "New math" pedagogy was introduced in the elementary schools in the early '60s with very sketchy results. Math rods and other visuals replaced rote learning seemingly overnight. We wanted students to know not only how math concepts operated, but why. Although the intentions were good, the execution was generally poor. Elementary teachers were ill-prepared to execute properly, which resulted in a decade or so of students who never "got it" in math.

Concurrently, high school sciences also were kicked up a notch. In the early 1960s, the National Science Foundation attacked Biology, Chemistry and Physics with new approaches and fervor. New curricula were developed, including "Physics Computer Support Center" Physics and "Chemical Bond Approach" Chemistry, both of which offered a different way to learn these subjects. And each concentrated on learning how things happened by connecting mathematics to physical phenomena. Although the earliest materials were crude and resources limited, they did have some success.  What the National Science Foundation did right was grant summer internships to teachers so they could learn how to teach these new courses effectively. Eventually, these concepts became mainstreamed as they were integrated into general science courses. 

However, what has made the biggest gains in the sciences has been the use of technology to better engage students and to give access to better materials.  We have seen this development accelerate over the past decade with virtual labs, learning collaboration tools and a differentiated curriculum tailored to the student and course requirements.

As a former social studies teacher in the 1970s, I too saw attempts to teach differently. Unfortunately, these efforts were far less successful.  The motivation was not in response to Sputnik, but to addressing the growing diversity in classroom composition and student numbers. This was the period where student populations were growing rapidly and mainstreaming students became the way to group classes. Along with that came newer educational models like the Open Classroom, led by education reformers such as John Holt, and other models inspired by Behavioral Scientist B.F. Skinner.  These theories were premised on the idea that each child should learn what they were inspired to learn and at the pace they wanted to learn. Good concept in theory, but the resources and space to enable this learning process were not available. 

I did my student teaching in a multi-age middle school Open Classroom. Five times a day, my conventional-sized classroom was filled with 35 students, each working on individualized courses of learning in 45-minute blocks of time.  There was no calibrated curriculum to refer to, there was no technology to access and there was only one teacher.  Furthermore, students represented all reading levels, English language capabilities and self-motivation qualities.  I had to create my own materials from books, magazines and whatever else I could get my hands on.  It was unworkable then.

Today, however, the story is much different. We can individualize and personalize learning. Curriculum advancements and enabling technologies make the Open Classroom concept doable. Pedagogies like the flipped classroom and collaborative learning also enable more personalized and inspired learning. We are quickly adopting the necessary tools to allow teachers to make the transformation from instructor to learning guide, and for students to take charge of their own learning. This was the promise of the Open Classroom.

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