209. Open Or Structured?

I’m challenging another dichotomy. The open classroom, according to one of my professors, started in England during World War II. Many teachers went off to war, and they were replaced in classrooms by adults who had no idea how to run a classroom. So they gave lots of responsibility to children – put them in charge of their own learning. It worked. The rest is history.
Here, we tried to learn from the success of the British primary schools, and because we’re different people with a different history and different thinking, we had trouble. “Open classroom” came to have many meanings. It could be modelled carefully on the British open classroom. It could be a style of architecture – build a school without so many internal walls, and learning will happen.
Parents and teachers who didn’t like what was happening missed what they remembered as “structure.” They remembered knowing what to expect in school, and they wanted to make sure children could continue to know what to expect.
And so a dichotomy was born. There were “open schools” and “structured schools.” Or within a school, there were “open classrooms” and “structured classrooms.” As I taught, I often found myself cast in roles. There were usually two teachers per grade level where I taught, and depending on who the other teacher was, I was either the “open” teacher or the “structured” one. Usually, the “open” one.
I really believe that it’s a false dichotomy. Asking whether a teacher is “open” or “structured” is like asking whether a person is a Methodist or a Democrat. One can very easily be both. A well-run open classroom has a structure that can be far more profound and effective than many classrooms that have desks bolted down to the floor. Children are busy learning – much too busy to throw spitballs, or dip pigtails in inkwells. The teacher’s presence blends in smoothly.
For some teachers, order and predictability are easier if all the children are doing the same thing at the same time. Some children like it when that happens. In spite of my belief that children learn best when they learn in their own ways, it was usually easier for me, as a teacher, if they were all involved in the same kind of activity. And so I never quite had an open classroom, by my standards.
But I’ve seen teachers who have run what I’ve considered excellent open classrooms, and “structured” is totally inappropriate as an antonym for what they were doing.

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