Open Plan Learning Environments – Learning From The Last Generation

Designing the ideal classroom environment is an age-old challenge. To create an environment that promotes innovation, and ultimately may be the most important space a child will inhabit throughout their academic career, is a hefty challenge; One PJHM Architects has not shied away from, and essentially is why we’ve made it our career.

Historical precedent has showed us classrooms, or ‘learning environments’ have gone through countless spatial iterations, and if we focus on those spatial conditions only, learning spaces can be distilled into two species; the open plan learning environments with shared common areas and the individual space/teacher model. There are many reasons for fluctuation between the two, economics, politics, scientific evidence-based analysis, but one thing remains apparent, there is a general 40-year generational swing from the push for individual enclosures and open plans. We now find ourselves at the beginning of this second wave of open plan learning environments.

Traditional Classroom Learning Space
Traditional Classroom Learning Space

Before the American government institutionalized school facilities, classes were run by communities and from home.  In these small learning communities grades were grouped together with one teacher, and mentoring and cross-germination of knowledge was encouraged. Once classrooms became formalized individual entities, students were broken by grade level and spaces began reflecting individual teaching style and curriculum of that period. Essentially government dictated learning spaces, and teachers fell in line. Ever since, learning environments have been primarily teacher to student within one space, if not for two distinct reactive movements, one in the late 1970’s and one currently underway.

Traditional vs. Open Plan Learning Environments

What if a classroom was perceived as a series of elements and flexible activities rather than compartments?
What if a classroom was perceived as a series of elements and flexible activities rather than compartments?


Traditional vs Open Plan Learning Environments
Traditional vs Open Plan Learning Environments

In the 70’s student centered spaces became increasingly popular, partly to promote more human interaction and real world learning situations, and partly a reaction to the growing need to compete internationally. This openness ranged from simply removing classroom walls and keeping close knit class groups to students freely seeking their own space to carry out their daily tasks. The trend of cross-germination slowly gave way to traditional individual classrooms both for economic reasons, and a push for quieter, more specific learning environments for individual curriculum needs. By the mid 1980’s, as Larry Cuban, author of Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice says, open plan learning environments was all but a footnote.

Teikyo Elementary School, Kengo Kuma
Teikyo Elementary School, Kengo Kuma. Image courtesy Kengo Kuma and Associates

So where are we currently, and where do we see classrooms going? In recent years, mainly due to remote based mobile learning devices, a push toward open plan layouts has once again taken hold. The argument is student and teacher can be virtually connected anywhere, so a traditional lecture based layout within a single room is not always ideal. Open, more flexible spaces or class-without-the-room has become an intriguing trend. Sounds good, although we cannot lose sight of one crucial difference between then and now.

There has to be SOMETHING we can learn from the 70’s…

Environment and interaction was the driver of the last trend, whereas individual mobility is the driver of today’s open space. The mobile device gives flexibility of proximity, yet still requires the student to look inward. It is essentially the individual desk spread out, and it’s not heavily based in collaboration. One cannot rely on the device alone. We cannot lose sight of basic human social interaction. Albeit a loose interpretation at the time, this is what the 70’s open space plan taught us.

Can architecture give teachers the flexibility of open plan learning environments within traditional curriculum? PJHM Architects would say yes, and recommends a hybrid approach. Wider central corridors are making way for informal, interactive learning spaces outside of the classroom, or wider stairs to accommodate informal seating are two examples. The goal is to create opportunities for quiet and loud learning, without history repeating itself. It doesn’t have to necessarily be one or the other, perhaps a sweet spot in the middle? Below are more examples of how either curriculum and/or space planning can promote open learning.

Telefonplan School in Sweden, run by Vittra, with cleverly named learning spaces such as “The Camp Fire” and “The Showoff”.
Telefonplan School in Sweden, run by Vittra, with cleverly named learning spaces such as “The Camp Fire” and “The Showoff”. Image courtesy KARMANTRENDZ
Telefonplan School, Sweden
Telefonplan School, Sweden. Image courtesy KARMANTRENDZ

To take from Vittra’s mantra, “The future is here today. We know that we learn in many different ways. We need to get together in larger and smaller groups, we need the space to focus, we need movement and working with our hands, voice and body. We need to be inspired and communicate with each other and the outside world. Our digital environment will support a creative way of working with different mediums.”

Open Magnet Charter School in Los Angeles, two grades, two teachers in one large space, or otherwise known as 1:1 classes.

What Canada’s up to in regard to open plan schools

The other side of Swedish open plans: Is history repeating itself?

Stay up to date on PJHM News! Follow us on FACEBOOKTWITTER, and GOOGLE+!