Do open plan classrooms really benefit learning?

by Brett Henebery21 Oct 2015

Large, open-space learning areas are a signature feature of the 21st century school environment. However, how exactly are these ‘learning hubs’ benefitting students?
A study published last year concluded that “open plan classrooms are not appropriate learning spaces for young listeners” due to issues relating to noise and concentration levels.
Nonetheless, open-space collaborative learning areas are on the rise in Australian schools.
Tony Haydar, managing director at Portable Partitions, recently released a white paper on the growing demand for flexible classrooms and explained how his company’s products are helping meet that need.

Haydar told The Educator that while open-plan work spaces help students collaborate, they can also be disruptive when it comes to students trying to focus on individual learning tasks.

“We did some independent study into open plan education areas and found that over the last decade there has been a distinct move towards open plan learning areas,” Haydar told The Educator.

“However, a lot of teachers have been finding that, while collaboration is a real asset, it can also pose as an obstruction when it comes to students’ individual tasks.”
Other factors include teachers having to raise their voice over large groups of students, distracting classroom layout and the fact that such revolutionary learning spaces remain a largely experimental project when compared to the traditional classroom.
These issues are among the reasons why some of New Zealand’s top principals are reluctant to get on board with their government’s $517m plan that will see open-plan classrooms rolled out across the country.
Sandy Pasley, president of the Secondary Principals' Association New Zealand, told 3News that principals are not convinced there is enough research behind the idea to back it up.
"The big barn-like spaces haven't been researched as to whether they improve achievement. What principals are concerned about is the noise-factor, the focus, the [teachable] time when really students need to focus on what the teacher is saying," Pasley said.
Julie Podbury, president of the Australian Principals Federation, told The Educator that the issue is more about flexibility of spaces rather than open spaces.
“My experience as a school principal for nearly two decades indicates that the conservative teachers are uncomfortable in anything except the standard classroom, with four walls and limited visibility into the classroom,” Podbury said.
“The more creative and progressive teachers like to do things differently and are not keen on a fixed style of classroom, so they opt for a wide range of choices.”
Podbury said such teachers particularly “like areas with nooks and crannies” that allows them to break groups of students up into smaller working and discussion groups.

While admitting that noise can be an issue, Podbury said she has seen students working in very peaceful open-space learning areas – an observation she puts down to the trained communication styles of the overseeing teachers.
“I once stood on an overhead walkway in a British school and observed five classes working very quietly in an open space,” Podbury said.
“These were art classes and the teachers were clearly trained in their communication styles because for the hour I stood there I did not once see one class interfere with the operation of any other class.”
However, Podbury also recalled having observed teachers who “did nothing to change their teaching and communication style” and who make working in an open classroom “almost impossible for their colleagues and the students alike”. 

“I would expect principals to work with their teaching and learning specialists in schools and consult broadly about such planned changes,” Podbury said. 

HAVE YOUR SAY: Do open plan classrooms really benefit student learning?


  • by wasUK 21/10/2015 12:52:57 PM

    I worked in an Academy in the UK that had 6 big open plan areas. I had to teach in these areas and the noise could be problematic, particularly as our Academy had split lunchtimes. Within a year of opening we closed the open plan areas to make 15 additional classrooms.

    I found that some quiet areas worked fine, but open plan was an issue. At a Harris Academy the ICT Teachers taught in an open plan area at the bottom of a 3 story building. This was horrific for them as they had to wear a headset system for lessons just so student could hear them.

    It would be beneficial to see some studies conducted into this. The trend now is that open plan offices which were once the thing in the 90's are now found to be non-beneficial to work production, could it be that we are saying the same thing in 20 years about open plan classrooms?

  • by Neill 21/10/2015 1:26:53 PM

    The headlines tend to cloud the issue. First and for most we should talk about effective pedagogy (quality teaching and learning ) and designing spaces to meet the learning needs of all learners. This would include the opportunity to work with and learn from a range of teachers, some learning in very large, medium and small groups. It includes finding strategies to engage each and every learner with a range of learning experiences, it includes the ability to create different learning zones, some for creating, some for quiet study, some for direct instruction, some for coaching, some for independent learning... Try doing that in a traditional rectangle, one teacher 30 children! Any educator who is promoting a single mode of teaching and learning- teacher at the front dictating to the whole class or teaching the whole class the same thing has failed to take notice of the research of the last 50 years about quality teaching and learning, of neuroscience and in the potential and power of collaboration. The same advocates for traditional spaces, one teacher 30 children may well be most comfortable with groups of children copying notes from the whiteboard into their books, in 2015? Come on, time for education to move into the 21st century with technology, medicine, communication, design... Again I re iterate focus on quality teaching and learning first.

  • by Paul 22/10/2015 2:18:34 PM

    I have seen effective teaching and deep learning in a rectangular classroom with one teacher. I have seen one teacher in a rectangular classroom varying the working environments for children. I have seen one teacher in a rectangular classroom collaborate with other 'teachers' and have them involved with the children's learning. I have seen one teacher in a rectangular classroom running a democratic classroom where the children directed their learning. I saw some of that last century too and I can see today. Neill - you are right it's about the teacher not the space - the single cell or the newer style.