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"Open Education" Revisited: Promise and Problems in American Educational Reform (1967-1976)

by Lydia A. H. Smith - 1997

Between 1967 and 1976, that period of social/political protest and reform, the ideas and practices of “open education” spread rapidly across this country. Educators were caught up in a kind of education that seemed to answer the many strident criticisms of American public schools. News of successful English informal schools fanned the flames. It was a time of excitement, progress, and optimism that schools could make a positive difference in the lives of children, contribute to the search for alternatives to existing social institutions, and promote the liberation of the human mind and spirit, so long desired and so seldom achieved. This informal, nontraditional style of education seemed to promise much, but it brought serious problems with it because it would require fundamental changes, both in institutional practices and policies and in basic assumptions about children, teaching and learning, and the role of schools in the American society. Support was gradually withdrawn and America went “bask to basics.” However, contemporary educational research seems now to bear out the basic notion of the open classroom, namely, that children can and should be taught in the ways they learn best. It is time for another look at “open education.”

Between 1967 and 1976, that period of social/political protest and reform, the ideas and practices of “open education” spread rapidly across this country. Educators were caught up in a kind of education that seemed to answer the many strident criticisms of American public schools. News of successful English informal schools fanned the flames. It was a time of excitement, progress, and optimism that schools could make a positive difference in the lives of children, contribute to the search for alternatives to existing social institutions, and promote the liberation of the human mind and spirit, so long desired and so seldom achieved.

This informal, nontraditional style of education seemed to promise much, but it brought serious problems with it because it would require fundamental changes, both in institutional practices and policies and in basic assumptions about children, teaching and learning, and the role of schools in the American society.

Support was gradually withdrawn and America went “bask to basics.” However, contemporary educational research seems now to bear out the basic notion of the open classroom, namely, that children can and should be taught in the ways they learn best. It is time for another look at “open education.”


Remember “open education”? I have asked many people that question, and generally they remember it negatively. They speak of classrooms that seemed chaotic, noisy, and permissive, where teachers seemed to have abdicated their responsibility to teach, and where children just fooled around and learned next to nothing. But there are—and have long been—other views.

Between 1967 and 1976, the ideas and practices of open education spread rapidly across this country.

During the past several years, American interest in open education has grown tremendously. While five years ago (1966) knowledge of this classroom was practically nonexistent, now nearly every American teacher has read at least one article, somewhere, that describes its operational features.1

Educators at all levels were caught up in a kind of education that seemed to answer the criticisms of schools that were then rampant. One remembers Kozol’s Death at an Early Age, Holt’s How Children Fail, and Illich’s Deschooling Society, among many others.2

Catching on to the possibilities of developing other ways of educating a pluralistic student body, many teachers, parents . . . swarmed to workshops on open education. Hundreds of open classrooms have sprung up across the nation.3

News of successful English informal schools fanned the flames. A vigorous exchange of ideas and practices sprang up, with Americans visiting English schools and English educators coming here to share their experiences in a variety of ways; teachers’ centers, summer workshops, and advisory centers were set up to help teachers try out new methods; foundations made large grants; publications of every kind poured out; new “open” schools were built, and so on. Yet by about 1976, the political and economic climate had altered considerably, and the pendulum of change was moving in a more conservative direction. Open classrooms seemed too permissive, lacking in discipline and training in the basic skills, impossible to evaluate in any standardized way, and altogether misguided and miseducative.

But open education was part of a lively and invigorating period of American reform—educational, political, social, economic—and as such it is of real historical importance.

Schools based on informal, child-centered ideas have never been mainstream in the American or any other system of education, but they have always been there. In the United States, they were much discussed and eagerly implemented during the progressive era of the 1920s and 1930s. In particular, private schools were set up specifically to embody progressive ideas, for example, the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Hawken School in Cleveland, The School in Rose Valley near Philadelphia, the Ethical Culture Schools in New York, among others. The period of the 1960s and 1970s, especially for those closely involved, is similarly remembered as a heady time, a time of excitement, progress, optimism, a sense of possibilities and new options for children. It seemed possible that schools —public and private alike—could actually make a positive difference in the lives of children and contribute to the search for alternatives to existing social institutions.4 Some educators even used words like mission and the word 5 for the ideas and practices they were trying to spread.

To me it is no coincidence that open education should become a significant movement in American education in the mid-’60’s. The American public had reached a higher level of consciousness about our social system as it affects individuals, as it reflects social justice, and as it exercises social control through its educational practices. I believe that open education is part and parcel of the social spirit and impulse for liberation. . . . The major thrusts of those persons reaching for social justice are toward (1) participation, (2) pluralism, and (3) liberation.6

This informal, nontraditional style of education, then, seemed to promise much, but it brought serious problems with it:

Open education was embraced by people from many points of view, well illustrated by the variety of terms they used to describe it. Especially, promoters of a liberal agenda found open classrooms congenial places, although their desire for social reform sometimes took center stage, and the teaching of children lost ground.

Because of the many differing points of view about just what open education was and could do, even those who saw its possibilities and took readily to it did not necessarily share the same assumptions about child growth and development and about teaching, or the role of the school in society. So there were confusions and failures: These were publicized and noticed, especially as times changed and became harder and more conservative.

There were many descriptions and analyses of the open classroom and its methods, written in a way intended to be understandable by educational professionals and by the lay public alike. Since most people who were involved in setting educational policy could not spend long periods of time observing in schools, they were eager to know what “it” was. What did the children do? What did teachers do? And what were the implications for change in the schools? But even at their best—and there were some very good ones—written accounts were no substitute for firsthand, long experience of open classrooms.

The “British infant school” model of informal schools seemed to some the way to develop freer American classrooms. When it came, news of the wonders to be seen in British classrooms swept the country, as many commentators noted at the time. But British schools had developed in a quite different culture, over a long period of time, and could not simply be transplanted. Also, Americans had their own vigorous history of progressive education to build on, so they tended not to simply accept English practices wholesale, but to be more eclectic.

Closely connected with all of this was the important question of evaluating the results of open classroom practices: How can you “prove” that open education “works”? And what does that mean? What yardstick or descriptors might one use that are familiar enough to be understandable, usable, and yet also consonant with open classroom principles? Supporting educational change is expensive, and this movement was no different. For school committees, parents, and others concerned, what would tax money be spent for and with what prediction of success? For teachers, why change tried-and-true methods for ways as yet neither tried nor clearly true? This was a problem faced by evaluators at every level of the educational hierarchy.

Among teachers who wanted to change, the most effective progress was made when they had access to expert advisers, teachers’ centers, practical how-to workshops, support groups of other teachers, and publications of effective practices and relevant theory that added perspective to their own classroom experience. When foundation and government support was gradually withdrawn, these opportunities had to be ended, drastically reduced, or made purely voluntary. Yet the problem remained—how to train interested teachers in attitudes and skills that were (often) new and strange to them.

Part of this problem was tackled by researchers who studied the development of children’s thinking in less formal settings. If they could describe the kind of intellectual and social growth that occurred there, perhaps both teacher training (pre-service and in-service) and evaluation could proceed on a basis that was relevant to open, nontraditional classrooms.

For, taken seriously, open education would mean that some very basic institutional changes would be needed in schools, classrooms, teaching methods, curricula, evaluation of children’s work, schedules, routines, teacher preparation programs, even legislation7—not to mention adult attitudes. Few schools and school systems at the time reflected the philosophy of open education.

Here I consider open education as an important period of American educational reform, with all its promise and problems. It is the result of a two-part study of the period 1967-1976, comprising over sixty interviews with educators who were involved professionally during that time, and study of the plentiful documentation of their work that still exists. I discuss, first, the various descriptive terms or labels that were used and the educational priorities each one expressed, then the salient characteristics of open classrooms, and open classroom teachers’ assumptions about the work they were doing, in particular how they managed basic skills and the mastery of subject matter. I look at the development of the British infant school and its important influence on American educational reform at the time. And then I discuss the enduring problem of evaluating work in the open classroom, and present four models that were used to reach evaluations that were both informative and appropriate. The final section draws some conclusions, based on the study itself and some other sources as well, namely, a new look at the old traditional versus nontraditional controversy, social changes in accepted child-rearing practices over time and their effect on teachers, and research from both that period and from contemporary studies about the learning process itself.8


The term open was a new one, arrived at quite serendipitously. Once upon a time (1967), two students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, working with a faculty adviser, were writing a proposal to the U.S. Office of Education to develop a different approach to elementary school teacher preparation.9 What to call it? After a good deal of brainstorming, they finally settled on the term open. “This unpublished, unfunded proposal . . . marked the first use, to my knowledge, of the term, ‘open education.’ ”10 It seemed to catch the temper of the times, with its emphasis on openness of many kinds: openness of opportunity, of relationships, of government, of information sharing, of manifold possibilities beyond the hierarchical, authoritarian institutions of our society—including the schools.

In the spate of pamphlets, articles, doctoral theses, lectures, programs, films, brochures, reports, teachers’ centers, conferences, workshops, funding proposals, and books that streamed out in the 1960s and 1970s, many used this word, open. Harold Howe II, then at the Ford Foundation, called it, Openness: The New Kick in Education. He wrote:

The open classroom is much more than a challenge to the old rigidities. It is an effort to enlist the student in the cause of his own education, to turn situations he creates for himself and the personal interests he expresses to the purposes of learning. It tries to find in play situations and in activities that come naturally to children opportunities to implant important lessons. It is an attempt to organize the class so that students can learn from each other, to change the teacher’s role from that of performer to that of a guide and diagnostician of learning problems, and to bring into the class as sources of stimulation to learning anything that interests children from the world outside. Properly run by a capable teacher, the open classroom is a beehive of differentiated activities, each with a purpose. But it can also be a nightmare.11

So the term open education caught on,12 even if its “nightmares” are sometimes better remembered than its successes.

There were many similar terms, each used to highlight a set of educational priorities or a particular classroom focus while basically agreeing on long-term goals. “Diversity of practice within a broad framework of agreement of goals is very apparent.”13 Terms like the integrated day, family or vertical grouping, child-centered, environmental education, the materials-rich environment, activity-based, experiential learning, centers of interest—these all focused on particular classroom procedures and arrangements, such as grouping, scheduling, provision of materials, concrete experiences, and the like.

Other terms focused attention beyond the classroom to the role of the school in society. The older term, progressive education,14 added larger political and social concerns, namely, the possibility that the school could best serve both children and the larger democratic society by becoming a microcosm of such a society itself. Here we find child-centered ideas about children and their learning joining with the liberal social goals that were surfacing afresh.

The legacy of the progressive education movement . . . is extremely important in considering open education, and the following ideas reflect some of the distilled and Americanized spirit of our historical antecedents: (1) the school as a community, (2) the school in the community, (3) the person and his moral right to freedom and choice, (4) concern for individual differences, (5) the method of intelligence (problem solving), (6) building curriculum through and with the students, (7) seeing the disciplines as potential end points rather than starting points for pedagogy.15

The term alternative schools stressed the need for public educational opportunities other than the established system.

The notion that there are a variety of ways in which children learn and can be taught is certainly not new. What is new is the thought that it could be made operational in the schools—not by chance but by choice. In the private sector, . . . families could select from prep schools, academies, Montessori schools and the like. Alternatives and choices are available, but not in the publicsector.16

Community schools, free schools, and store-front schools were set up by people who wanted schools for their children to reflect their community and its priorities better, and to be

free from the ponderous bureaucracy of the massive public schools. They gained their momentum from the dedication of staff and parents. The important point is that there is a flexibility about these schools that represents a refreshing departure from the uniformity of public schools.17

Freedom schools were explicitly political:

The purpose of freedom schools is to provide an educational experience for students that will make it possible for them to challenge the myths of our society, to perceive more clearly its realities, and to find alternatives and, ultimately, new directions for action.18

Most radical of all was the proposal for “deschooling society.”19 For Illich, “schooling” is not education. A child is “schooled” to accept teaching for learning, smiley faces for achievement, grade advancement for progress, a diploma for mastery, and school values as his own. Therefore, society must be “deschooled,” beginning with the school itself, since it does little more than train or socialize children in the accepted values and mores of society.

“Froebelian” was an important term in England. It stressed the great contribution made in Europe by Friedrich Froebel (1781-1852) and then by his followers who brought his ideas to England after 1848. They established the Froebel Educational Institute (F.E.I.), a leading teacher training college in South London that included a model school, Ibstock Place. Later came the National Froebel Society, The Froebel Journal, and several other teacher training colleges around the country, all based on the Froebelian principles.20 The society became the first professional body chartered by the government to evaluate and certify schools and teachers (Code of 1892), and was for many years a leading publisher of Froebelian theory and practices. Many of the teachers, heads, advisors, and Inspectors (HMIs)21 whom I interviewed about their work said, “Well, of course, I was Froebel-trained.” Such teachers simply used the term good education. All these terms and the principles and practices they refer to cover a very wide spectrum. But at the core was a concern for all children and the best ways to help them learn and grow, and to contribute to society, perhaps even a newly democratic society. Open education, especially in elementary schools, took its place among all these reform efforts.


After 1967, as the American movement toward less formal and more democratic education rapidly gained steam, interest spread and curiosity was aroused. Here is one rather careful summary description of what one would expect to see in an open classroom, written by David Armington, a teacher and administrator with wide experience both in England and in the United States. It is noteworthy that he uses no specific term—open, child-centered, informal, or any other—“Although it is difficult to know what a child is learning at any moment, one can describe some of the characteristics of a classroom for young children where good learning is likely to occur.”22 He goes on to describe these characteristics:

1. There is a rich environment of materials for children to explore, and there are abundant opportunities for learning through experience.

2. Children’s responses to the environment provide many of the starting points for learning. Activities most often arise from the needs and interests of the group rather than from a prescribed curriculum. When commercial materials and programs are used, they must be made available in ways that protect the children’s responsibility for their own learning.

3. With guidance from the teacher the children plan their own activities, drawing from a range of relevant choices.

4. Each child is free to explore an interest deeply and is also free to disengage when an activity no longer seems appropriate.

5. Typically, there is a variety of activities going on simultaneously, each child working in ways best suited to his interests, talents, and style.

6. There are few obvious barriers between subjects, and much of the children’s work is, in fact, interdisciplinary.

7. There is minimum dictation by the clock. A flexible schedule permits children to learn according to their individual rhythms of engagement and disengagement.

8. The children talk with each other about their work and often work together. Their learning is frequently a cooperative enterprise marked by dialogue.

9. All forms of expressive representation—in the arts and in movement as well as in language—are considered valid and important.

10. Groupings are not based on fixed criteria such as IQ or reading level, but are kept flexible, shifting with the changing needs and interests of the children.

11. The teacher serves in a supportive rather than a didactic role, guiding the children, provisioning and structuring the environment. She is both a sensitive observer of and an active participant in the life of the classroom.23

He adds, “Where there is encouragement from the system, and appropriate support, . . . such teachers . . . are the potential growth points for the internal transformation of the schools.”24

A more general description, written by another experienced teacher, reads as follows:

Open education is an approach to education that is open to change, to new ideas, to curriculum, to scheduling, to use of space, to honest expressions of feelings between teacher and pupil and between pupil and pupil, and open to children’s participation in significant decision-making in the classroom. . . . It is characterized by a classroom environment in which there is a minimum of teaching to the class as a whole, in which provision is made for children to pursue individual interests and to be actively involved with materials, and in which children are trusted to direct many aspects of their own learning.25

To this description one might add a lack of emphasis on competition, since individual work or cooperation (in the literal sense of the word) was much more the order of the day. Standardized tests were used diagnostically, if at all. Children recorded their work in work-journals or wordbooks, checked and commented on by the teacher; additional written notes and records were kept by the teacher, who also regularly observed the children, talked with each one individually while others were busy with their own projects, and collected their work in many areas throughout the year and sometimes longer.26

Thus the open classroom was not random or unstructured—far from it: It was carefully prepared and monitored by a teacher who knew his or her children and their interests and needs well. He or she would change or add to the classroom environment as the need arose for some fresh stimulation or the pursuit of inquiries. Obviously, all this meant a radically different approach for teachers. Except for school assemblies, meals, or specifically planned activities for everyone, teachers were free from whole-class instruction (and discipline). Teachers could take the time for careful observation of children at work and decide when to intervene—or not to intervene. They could circulate around the room, encouraging, questioning, suggesting further resources, hearing individuals read, teaching skills or concepts needed for a particular project, or simply watching and evaluating the use of the materials they had arranged for the children.

However, materials alone have no magic. One frequent misuse of the open classroom was to fill it with all sorts of materials and then stand back and expect wonderful things to happen. On the contrary, teachers were the active organizers of classroom materials and resources (including space, time, and schedule), carefully planned to stimulate children’s interest and activities. Thus, although the room may have seemed disorderly, there was an underlying and highly functional plan, based on the teacher’s estimate of what the needs were at any given time. Teachers were also responsible for teaching orderly and cooperative behavior, since open classrooms were busy, crowded places, and since children needed to be taught to take some responsibility for promoting a good working environment. Decisions about topics or projects to be undertaken were largely made by the children, in consultation with the teacher, so as to obtain additional materials and other resources, to ask questions or to make suggestions, to plan time for field trips for small groups, or for special gatherings for presenting their work to the rest of the class—providing a very natural opportunity for discussion and evaluation. Basic skills had to be mastered as necessary tools to complete a chosen project. If you are studying railways, you visit the station master, and then write a neat thank you letter afterward, and a report (illustrated) for your work folder to show your teacher and parents. If you are making a display about the differences between grasses and rushes, you must make accurate charts and drawings, with clear captions for each. If a small group puts on a play, all the trappings of drama are needed, including written parts for each actor, programs, and so on. Teaching basic skills is done with such purposes in mind.

In such a system, the teacher was more a facilitator than a director, and his or her experience and judgment were critical for the classroom’s effective functioning. To be sure, every teacher brings his or her own personal assumptions about teaching and learning into the classroom, based on his or her own background, interests, skills, and experiences, and these assumptions naturally influence his or her work with children. Molly Watt wrote hers down in this way, during the course of a day’s work:

I assumed I could learn to teach from the children as I had learned to parent from my daughters.

I assumed everybody can learn, everybody can be a scientist [and] make interesting projects from which to learn.

Education is being a writer, doer, builder, scientist, or mathematician, not just studying about.

Never do anything for a child he/she can do for themselves [sic] because they learn by doing and learn by my confidence in their doing that they are capable.

I assumed that helping or teaching someone else is a way to learn and not a giving up by the teacher. Therefore children could benefit by teaching each other.

I assumed that children will tell the truth as they see it to someone really interested, and there is a logic to all they do. It was my task to understand their logic.

I assumed that there are things a group can do better than an individual and school should bring these things forth—areas on to be in a group.

I assumed that the process of learning, writing, science, cleaning up were all part of the curriculum.

I assumed that everyone in the class has something to teach. Every thing in a class was part of the curriculum. I assumed parents, visitors, and other school staff would be “teachers” to my students.

I wanted the class to feel like a family with the respect and curiosity a family should have for and about each other.

I assumed each year I taught would evolve differently, uniquely, because of the particular individuals in my class.

She continued: “I think these thoughts, scribbled in the midst of other work, show that I believed the theory was to be found in some negotiation between my own valuing of individuals and groups and respect for the process. The ‘theory’ emerged from my teaching practice; it grew from my life.”27

But what about subject matter, content, the traditional, organized bodies of knowledge that are every child’s cultural heritage? Deborah Meier calls it “stuff”:

There’s got to be stuff in the classroom. We’re not just talking about relationships or loving kids, but talking about stuff, something that is absorbing, the work of the world is interesting, the way it works is interesting.28

Here she points to one of the common criticisms of open education. In the hands of a teacher with a more social/political and less educational agenda in mind, “relationships or loving kids” was the central concern. David Hawkins put it this way: “An environment of loving adults who are themselves alienated from the world around them is an educational vacuum.”29

But, in one sense, the open classroom was more traditional: “There’s got to be stuff in the classroom.” Books, magazines, maps, how-to manuals, blocks, charts, diagrams, plants, globes, special displays, animal cages, pictures, films, mathematical equipment, paints, costumes, and on and on— these are “stuff,” chosen and made available by the teacher who knew the uses to which they could be put, but is not able to predict the exact consequences.

Macdonald states that open education also reflected “the method of intelligence (problem solving), building the curriculum through and with the students, and seeing the disciplines as potential end points rather than starting points for pedagogy.”30 From this point of view, it was not a question of sugar-coating the pill of curriculum, not too distasteful to swallow but nonetheless required of children by others. The idea of “building the curriculum through and with the students,” and the disciplines understood as “end points” reached after a period of exploration and experimentation—such an idea went far beyond sugar-coating. It displayed a radical trust in children’s natural abilities and intentions as growing young human beings encountering the “absorbing work of the world.”31

In an apt metaphor reminiscent of the philosopher Martin Buber, David Hawkins describes the classroom as an equilateral triangle: “I, thou, and it.” The three points are the teacher, the student, and the content. “I,” the teacher in the classroom, brings all he or she knows and understands, both personally and professionally; “thou,” the student, similarly brings his or her own personality, curiosity and interests, learning style, level of achievement, and so on. And “it,” the materials, the content, is the topic or source of contact between them. This triangle is equilateral—no one point is more or less important than the other two, and they are therefore evenly and powerfully linked together.32

Two of my English interviewees called attention to the difference between the “offered curriculum” and the “received curriculum.” “An offered curriculum is one thing, but a received curriculum in terms of a child’s own thinking—whether the offered curriculum will be received as it is supposed to be received—that’s another story.”33 Here is the nub of the problem with prepackaged curriculum units. For open educators, the route to thorough understanding and critical thinking lay in using the child’s natural powers and abilities. And that meant beginning with concrete, experiential, personal learning, using resources of all kinds to stimulate interest and inquiry. A prominent naturalist cites his own childhood experiences:

Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming. Rachel Carson, who understood this principle well, used different words to the same effect in The Sense of Wonder in 1965: “If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of childhood are the time to prepare the soil.” She wisely took children to the edge of the sea.34


An important influence on open education in the United States was the change that had been gradually taking place in English schools. American educational reform was well under way in the 1950s, especially after Sputnik in 1957, although it chiefly focused on changing the schools’ curricula, in physics, math, and social studies.35 But, beginning in 1961, American educators began to hear of some remarkable work in mathematics being done in England, and some went to visit and observe schools, first in Leicestershire.36 They were quite unprepared for what they saw. They saw much more than just mathematics, and very soon found themselves interested in the whole school environment—the children, teachers, and classroom pedagogy; the head teacher’s leadership role in establishing the climate of the school; the use of materials and the quality of the children’s work on display. Fortunately, those who went first were teachers themselves. Bill Hull was a teacher who also had a background in clinical psychology, and he said that he had “developed an eye that I would never have had, had I not been teaching.”37 His ability to observe and then to describe what he had seen was enormously helpful later to those who wanted to know about the schools he had seen. Others began making contacts in England in other counties, since the move toward less formal schooling was not limited to Leicestershire, and there was much to see in Oxfordshire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Bristol, Inner London, Birmingham, and elsewhere, in cities and countryside alike.

In the United States, progressive, reform-minded educators had been working along similar lines for years. They heard the news about English schools and thought, “Of course!” Of course this is how children should be taught! Of course this is the appropriate environment for future citizens of a democratic society! Others, however, found the news from England a fresh revelation, an inspiration. And so began the long and fruitful exchange among English and American educators at every level.38

In England, the development of less formal methods had been moving along in primary schools for some time.

A large share of the credit [for American open education] . . . must go to the infant schools [children aged 5-7]. Throughout England, these schools for the youngest children had discovered long ago that children learn by manipulating objects of many kinds, and that ideas derived from such immediate experience are apt to be more accessible than those which come through verbal channels only.39

Before World War II, the educational focus in England had been primarily on individual schools and teaching the children, since schools were relatively independent from central management, and were led by head teachers—chosen for their teaching abilities—rather than by administrators as such. But after the war, many service men and women went into teaching with a broader social agenda as well: to make the world a better place for the children to grow up in. One English teacher, fresh from the service, said he felt a kind of “quest” to work with children and give them a better kind of experience in schools than he remembered.40

The watershed year was 1967. In England, an important government report was published: Children and Their Primary Schools. The committee responsible for it was chaired by Lady Bridget Plowden, and it was soon called “The Plowden Report.” It described the “best practices” being used in primary schools and made a series of recommendations for their wider use. It opened with the now-famous words, “At the heart of the educational process lies the child,” and continued:

Children need to be themselves, to live with other children and grownups, to learn from their environment, to enjoy the present, to get ready for the future, to create and to love, to learn to face adversity, to behave responsibly, in a word, to be human beings.41

The Plowden Report attracted a great deal of attention (and criticism) in England, and also in the United States when Americans became familiar with it. In the United States another 1967 publication had a major impact. Joseph Featherstone published in the New Republic his own eye-witness accounts of what was happening in English primary schools. He reported:

My wife [herself a teacher] and I have just spent a month in England visiting classes in primary schools, talking to children and teachers. Friends told us about good things happening in British classrooms, but we were scarcely prepared for what we found; in recent decades there has been a profound and sweeping revolution in English primary education, involving new ways of thinking about how children learn, classroom organization, the curriculum and the role of the teachers.42

What was going on? How had the English schools developed as he described? Could they really be as amazing as reported? What results were they achieving? What could Americans learn from their British counterparts? The word was out and interest spread rapidly, so that by 1971, Featherstone reported further:

By now the American interest in British primary schools is one distinct and powerful stream in a growing, turbulent, movement for “open” informal schools. . . . What good British practitioners have to offer is the fairly widespread and promising beginnings of an alternative approach to teaching, an approach which for all its drawbacks—and there are many—seems closer than conventional, formal methods to what we know about children and the nature of the learning process.43

Curious about the historical sources of English informal education, I went over in 1972 to search for them myself.44 After interviewing many then-retired educators, I found I could trace the sources back at least to the late nineteenth century. Also, official position statements about what schools should be doing and what teachers should be doing in them had been published by His (or Her) Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO) ever since 1905 by consultative committees like Lady Plowden’s.

The only uniformity of practice that the Board of Education [in 1918] desire to see in the teaching of Public Elementary Schools is that each teacher shall think for himself, and work out for himself such methods of teaching as may use his powers to the best advantage and be best suited to the particular needs and conditions of the school. Uniformity in details of practice (except in the mere routine of school management) is not desirable even if it were attainable. But freedom implies a corresponding responsibility in its use.45

Note that this was only a handbook of suggestions for the consideration of teachers, not a set of fiats from above. Another HMSO publication, in 1931, “The Hadow Report,” continues the theme:

The curriculum is to be thought of in terms of activity and experience rather than of knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored. Its aims should be to develop in a child the fundamental interests of civilized life so far as these powers and interests lie within the compass of childhood, to encourage him to attain gradually to which control and orderly management of his energies, impulses, and emotions, which is the essence of moral and intellectual discipline, and to help him to discover the idea of duty and to ensue it, and to open out his imagination and his sympathies in such a way that he may be prepared to understand and to follow in later years the highest examples of excellence in life and conduct.46

Members of Lady Plowden’s committee could have been no strangers to such ideas.

Some personal anecdotes give an indication of how long these ideas and practices had been in use. One of my interviewees wrote to me that when she was working in London in the 1920s, she asked a well-known infant-school head teacher how she had been able to devise a system of individual children’s work within the framework of “centers of interest.” The latter replied that she had learned it as a young teacher herself from her headmistress sometime in the 1890s.

Another famous head teacher described her similar experience as a first year teacher:

When I left college and started my teaching life with a class of sixty five-year-olds, I felt fairly confident and happy, realizing I had been well trained in the teaching of reading, writing, and number. This was in 1914—during my first week the head teacher asked me, “How have you been trained to teach reading and number?” After my explanations, she answered, “We do not teach it that way here, our methods are quite different.”

I was not told what the methods were, I was left to discover for myself my own methods. Our work was based on the children’s expressive work, following stories, rhymes and poetry, using all materials. Projects based on stories and rhymes were developed, using many materials, especially waste materials of all kinds.

In this free expression of work the children were interested and absorbed in a completely different way from when they worked formally.47

Surely if her head teacher had been appointed in 1914, she must have developed her own methods of teaching as a young teacher before the turn of the century, and her work must have met with approval.

From Oxfordshire, a village schoolteacher describes her own breakthrough to less formal methods:

The fact that there was such a wide range [of ages and abilities] emphasized the differences between individuals. I had of necessity to break away from class teaching, though I had been trained in a training college of good repute from 1926 to ’28 to teach in a formal way. I remember being in one school in which I had a very big class of 10-12 year-olds. The headmaster used to love to talk to me about his war experiences. Once he started and went right through playtime and I hadn’t been able to make adequate preparation for my next lesson, which was nature study, and I was going to be faced with more than 50 children when the bell rang. So on the spur of the moment, I said to them, “We are going into the field to see how many different kinds of grasses you can find.” This collecting, identifying, and mounting of the grasses proved to be one of the most thrilling lessons we had. It was incidents like this that helped me to realize that children who were uninterested in hearing me talk and who were unable to read fluently enough to find out for themselves could be really interested if they were involved in a practical learning situation. So in those early years, the thirties, through trial and error and experimenting in situations, I geared more and more learning to the exploration of the school environment because I found that this was a way through to children of all abilities.48

Many teachers had the willingness to step back and “leave the children to invent” in their own ways. They aimed to build a child’s confidence as he “gets command over something that has eluded him perhaps, and may come in any field, and this achievement is vitalizing. I can, therefore I am.”49 Thus the focus was on what the child could do, not on failures that needed remediation.

A local education officer in the West Riding of Yorkshire described one useful method that teachers used in his area:

Our good teachers are constantly putting back to the children the questions they ask, but in a different form, so that it is the children who find the answer and the teacher who puts before them the means of finding the answer. This technique is valuable in helping a child to think through and try and sort out how a thing works. It is this thinking and problem solving that is more important than the finished product.50

So successful were these methods in infant schools, indeed, that one county advisor reported that in the West Riding “after the war there was no criticism. The infant battle was won.”51

I myself came away from my first visit to England with the clear understanding that child-centered teaching was not a new method or a special curriculum design, and certainly not an easily packaged product. As I wrote at the time:

It proceeds from a deeply felt set of attitudes toward children. By now, ideas about the growth of children are based firmly on research done on child development. Earlier, however, they were only the result of intuition and observation about how children could be made happy, what would help them concentrate on a chosen task, and how they could be kept working at their best and most satisfying level. “Children can reveal a quality of looking and seeing that adults so readily lose.”52 I often heard teachers say they were “simply staggered” at the extraordinarily beautiful or thoughtful work children could produce, quite unexpectedly but clearly in response to the challenge of an environment that met and extended their interests. These teachers trust the children, they trust their curiosity and inventiveness, and they trust their good sense about themselves. They are willing to be led by children and to learn from them; they observe as carefully as possible what a child is doing and saying about himself in the way he works with materials provided, with the aim of taking him to the next step and the next and the next, to the highest standard he can achieve. They are concerned with the all-around growth of the child—physical, intellectual, social, and emotional—believing that good health in any one area helps all the rest. They are anxious to help children develop a sense of their own powers and a sense of mastery over their environment, which build a self-confident approach to all the tasks that life may offer, both present and future.53

But it had taken a while. One English educator likened progress in education to the motion of a worm: The head is far ahead of the tail, which gets there later, but the two are connected along the long body.54 The dislocations caused by World War II and the readiness for new and better ways of educating children stimulated change. An informal network already existed of like-minded educators in responsible positions all over the country: head teachers, local education officers, county advisors, architects, organizers of teachers’ centers, HMIs, heads of teacher training institutions and of the Emergency Training Colleges that were set up for returning veterans. In 1947, an important conference was held in Bingley, Yorkshire, bringing together some of the leaders in the informal education movement—Basil Rock, Diana Jordan, Robin Tanner, A. L. Stone, and others under the leadership of the Chief Education Officer, Sir Alec Clegg. There they discussed their own work, the progress they had made, and what practical efforts were needed for the future.

In addition, a sizable body of basic theory was already in place: Froebelian ideas were well established; Piaget had been read in England since the 1920s and 1930s, as had John Dewey. Susan Isaacs’s work stems from that same prewar period;55 psychoanalysis was making its appearance and the study of child growth and development was well under way. The Froebelians were actively at work, and advanced programs were available for experienced teachers at the University of London’s Institute of Education and Goldsmiths’ College and elsewhere. So there had been continued movement on many fronts toward informal schools in England, and the results were what the American visitors encountered when they came over.

But one must make a caveat here, lest all this sound too good to be true, as if a great wave of reform had swept over England and spread to American shores, eagerly scooped up by reformers and carried across the country. While there is no doubt that the English influence on American practice was real and exciting, and while American progressive education was much invigorated by it, everything was not simply smooth sailing.

The [English] teachers and heads who participated in the evolution of the modern Infant School did not set out with our present formulations in front of them. They had the freedom and the courage to make changes in the system as they saw it and it took them a great many years to arrive at their present achievement. Their accomplishment was praised and supported by people who were very aware of the shortcomings of traditional schools. The change was not a small one.56

The “freedom and courage” of English teachers came largely from a generally held respect for their professionalism and expertise, and also from English children’s customary deference to authority. Neither was characteristic of schools in the United States, as the accounts of numerous authors show.

Some of the Americans who went to visit the fabled British infant schools were themselves teachers and serious students of child growth and development. Some of them were able to spend long periods of time in England, observing and working with teachers on a day-to-day, long-term basis. These visitors benefited from their in-depth experience in England in a fuller way than others who could not stay as long and who perhaps had not had long experience with children.57 Indeed, English educators often truly enjoyed the opportunity to discuss their work with colleagues from overseas, feeling that it was helpful to try to explain why they did what they did, and articulate the assumptions they were working from.

First-time visitors to England are usually impressed with the vitality and the freedom of children in classes where the teacher is not a dominating and continually controlling figure. They are apt to miss the complex patterns of constraints and expectations that have been established by the skill and the artistry of a teacher whose own intellectual activity is very high, whether or not she can express in words how she operates.58

American visitors were numerous, and English educators did their best to accommodate them, but sometimes had to limit the numbers. Visiting a British infant school had become a “fad,”59 the thing to do, to the point where, as one English teacher and adviser ruefully put it, “They would say to me, ‘Could you show us a British infant school this morning, please, because we want to spend this afternoon at Harrod’s.’”60 Obviously, most visitors were not so casual, but many simply did not have enough time or experience to benefit from their time in England as they might have.

Further, snapshots or films about open classrooms, enthusiastic accounts of them, theoretical analyses, even actual children’s work were necessarily second-hand at best. They showed the product of this long period of development, but not the process by which it had become reality. Still, it was only too tempting to say that British infant schools are so clearly successful that we should transplant their practices right into our own classrooms. They have lots of materials, so we should, too. Their schedules are freer, so ours should be. Their classrooms are not in rows, so we should do away with ours. They have multi-age grouping, so we should too. Their children seem to learn on their own, so our teachers should get out of the way, and so forth. That is, “we would be able to have the same approach in the elementary grades by a simple process of extension. [But] it is not that easy!”61

Still another aspect of this attitude was the American tendency in school architecture to build literally “open” schools, that is, schools with large, open spaces without walls, and often on several levels, all visible at once. At least in one such situation, an addition was put onto an older building, a large, fan-shaped, open room, with the library at the point of it.62 All grades were meant to work within that space, with only portable blackboards and a few low bookshelves as any sort of division of spaces or work areas. None of the teachers was involved in the planning for this addition. To help them prepare for using it, Philip Best63 came over for a two-week summer workshop, and then they were on their own. It was not a success.

On the other hand, in the same town, in a large, old, high-ceilinged brick schoolhouse a single kindergarten and first grade room was created out of two, with big windows and doors leading outdoors, under the leadership of two very experienced teachers who had done a good deal of observation and research into open settings, with both their possibilities and hazards clearly in mind. A highly successful K-1 program was established.64

There were other situations when an enthusiastic teacher or nonprofessional did not have the background or experience to understand what the challenges of open education really were, aside from his or her commitment to freedom and nonauthoritarian ways of dealing with children. Some of these classrooms turned out to be the “nightmares” Howe referred to.65

So the larger challenge was deeper than simply to copy English informal arrangements, or to adopt the appearance of openness in a school or classroom. It was to become truly a student of teaching and learning in less formal settings, in England or America, making eclectic use of only what seemed to be helpful and applicable. Actually, the challenge was to discern the basic ideas, plans, structure, and principles that underlay both American and English informal schools, and to use them in ways that were comfortable for teachers and functional in terms of children’s learning. It was a formidable challenge.

Descriptions, lists of assumptions, theoretical analyses, workshops, advisories, and all the rest might help, but what about the daily pressure on the teacher to (1) teach children a set curriculum, however humanely he or she might do so; (2) manage his or her classroom in an orderly way; (3) find needed resources, both material and personal; (4) persuade both children and parents that less formal methods produced good results; (5) satisfy the school principal and others in authority that he or she was not being incompetent, irresponsible, or both. Or, if there was support for open education, how did one do it? Was this just the latest hot idea to come along, as others had before? A single quotation gives a feeling for the anxieties many teachers faced:

[I was] invited to sit in on an afternoon workshop given for the staff of a small elementary school. One of a series designed to help the teachers “open up” the education in their school. . . . We met in the school library, the workshop leader up front before a blackboard, the rest of us sitting in a semi-circle facing him. The distinctive feel of “It’s after-school, I’m exhausted and worried about tomorrow” hung in the air. . . . I saw on the teachers’ faces . . . a look compounded of dreadful anxiety and a desperate desire to please.

These teachers knew that they were expected to have “open classrooms.” Their building was supposedly built for “open education,” their supervisor was in favor of it. Perhaps some of them even wanted to “do it.” But they had only the vaguest idea of what “it” was and only a strange melange of images from films, articles, and lectures to guide them. What did those teachers sitting nervously on that hot afternoon in a small Vermont school library hear most strongly? They heard that “open education” was something they needed to import from outside their own experience.66

Here was and still is the knottiest problem of all: how to bring about the desired changes in teaching and learning in a lasting way. During the heyday of open education, there were ample funds available from many sources for expert advisors, teachers’ centers, hands-on workshops, visits to England, college courses with an experiential focus, seminars on children’s thinking, in-depth anecdotal descriptions, theoretical studies, and all the rest. Opportunities for teachers’ professional development were set up all over the country. For example, Devaney and Thorn’s book listed some forty teachers’ centers established by 1975, whose purpose was to provide an alternative form of continuing education for practicing teachers.67 The most successful were those that provided teachers (and often parents and administrators also) a chance to learn for themselves in this new way, to talk with each other about what they were experiencing as they did so, and about what they were trying out in their own classrooms—that is, to become self-aware learners, even researchers, themselves. “This type of education has to be experienced. . . . One of the recurring themes of that workshop was the necessity for first-hand experience, for active personal involvement.”68 What happened in that and similar workshops and advisories was that teachers were encouraged and supported in learning new things and reflecting on what they had experienced in exactly the way they were to help children to learn and reflect later on. They could take it from there. Such workshops (and other similar experiences) gave teachers a chance to learn in their own way, thereby validating their personal experiences, drawing on the insights or interests they developed along the way. Put another way, teachers were treated in the same way that children in an open classroom were treated: There was the same need to begin where they are, to support their sense of self-worth, to provide resources, to discuss ongoing projects, and so on.

The participants in both workshops were interested in the pursuit of successful patterns of elementary education now variously called open classrooms, informal methods, or integrated day. They were and are the new progressives.69

The notion behind this way of working with teachers was that they should be seen as professionals who had the right and ability to make sound decisions about the education of children, just as, at their own level, children do. Provided with “box-breaking” experiences, they could be trusted to use their own judgment about how to apply the results to the classroom. As one workshop participant put it, “As I was walking home last night, I thought to myself—No matter how long I live I should have to do a hundred years penance for what I did to my class this past year.”70

But that vital element in successful open education, namely, teachers’ education and reeducation, was seriously undermined as funding sources dried up, school systems could not continue their support, voluntary efforts failed, and the whole social climate of educational thinking changed.


Evaluation of results, careful and convincing proof about the successes (or failures) of open education, was always necessary for it to have any chance of becoming truly grafted onto the American school system. Without it, any changes made would be just “tinkering”with the existing system, and very little lasting progress would be made. It had happened before.71 Unfortunately, evaluation of the outcomes of open classroom was difficult, but of the greatest importance in responding to the natural demand for accountability. For whatever evaluation may be used, then as now, has great influence on schools, especially where there is a strong reliance on standardized tests. But reliance on tests assumes a cause-and-effect, one-toone connection between the “offered” and the “received” curriculum, between instruction and learning. Beyond the level of simple decoding or rote learning, however, open educators did not assume that that connection could be validly assumed.72 But what did they assume was the product they were working toward, especially since, in general, they were as concerned with process as with product? What could they say for themselves?

There was the natural tendency to say, simply, “Come and see! Isn’t it wonderful?” If children are absorbed and happy, if busy activities seem to be going on, if wall displays show good quality work in art, graphs, charts, building plans, drawings, poems, written accounts of group projects, and so on, isn’t that enough? Especially if the teacher can show you records for each child and how his or her individual work has developed over time? Not really, for those considering a change to open classrooms or for whom this was an entirely new approach. Nor was it enough for those concerned about what would happen to children when they graduated from an open classroom into the next, probably more formal stage of schooling. In short, did open education really “work”—and what did that mean? Or was it all really just mere playing around for the children before they got down to business? It was argued that well-to-do suburban children perhaps could afford such education, whether private or public, since they had plenty of background resources and opportunities for success later. But inner-city, “culturally disadvantaged” children could not: They needed “structure.”

Effective evaluation necessarily meant that a simple label like open or any other could not describe a classroom sufficiently, any more than it could guide a school architect. What was needed was a complete rethinking of the evaluation of teaching and learning. “Open educators are involved in ‘opening up’ the schools, introducing to children and to adults new possibilities and responsibilities for learning and for teaching.”73

Evaluation not only demands such a rethinking, but the results of that rethinking depend on the aim for education espoused by those evaluating. Simply put, what is expected of the school and the children and how well are they meeting expectations? The design of any evaluation system depends on an answer to that question.

Four models of evaluation that were used at the time are worth noting, although evaluation was never a strong point of open education. One model was the Prospect School in Vermont. Its prospectus described the evaluation procedures in use at the school, and they clearly imply the aims underlying the educative process, aims that open educators in general shared.

The school does not use grades, standardized tests or other external standards, because we are committed to more comprehensive ways of evaluating children’s progress. Prospect has developed thorough and detailed record keeping procedures, deliberately responsive and flexible, as is appropriate to the purpose of evaluation, which is to support and strengthen the learning process.74

Each child received a “staff review,” a careful procedure that involved a teacher presenting to the whole staff a review of the child’s experiences and progress within the school. A key component of that review was the child’s folder full of his or her work over a long period of time.75 The very best work was kept, in all curricular areas, including the creative arts, to demonstrate to the child, parents, and teachers alike not only progress in academic work but also the quality of the child’s developing interests and personality as he or she grew up. The purpose of evaluation was to support and strengthen the learning process in every aspect of a child’s growth— this particular school’s clear and articulate response to the question posed about expectations of schools and children. But it was a private school, and although it made valiant attempts to admit any children whose parents wanted them to come, as well as those who could pay the tuition, it was not able to continue that commitment, and eventually closed, although the Prospect Archive of children’s work is still in operation.76

A second approach to evaluation was the North Dakota Study Group on Evaluation. It was founded in 1972 by a group of educators from all over the United States who met in North Dakota, under the leadership of Vito Perrone. They were concerned that careful evaluative practices were less well developed in open classrooms than were the day-to-day practices. The Study Group’s plan was to meet regularly to study and discuss such common problems as a “too narrow accountability ethos” in schools, to share effective means of “both documenting and assessing children’s learning,” and to encourage a widespread “re-examination of a range of evaluation issues and perspectives about schools and schooling.”77 They were searching for valid forms of evaluation of open education that could be expressed and adopted in actual practice. They published a series of monographs in order to disseminate both their own progress and that of others working along similar lines. A long list of publications has resulted, focusing on one aspect or another of this important and difficult topic, and the group still meets yearly and continues to publish monographs.

A third and somewhat different model for evaluation was conducted under a U.S. Office of Education (USOE) grant to study teachers’ personal understandings about open education in the classrooms where they were teaching.78 Researchers at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton began with the premise, discussed earlier, that classroom decisions made by teachers are inevitably affected by their assumptions about child development and the nature of teaching and learning. And they knew that open education emphasized

the central role of both teacher and child in decisions that determine the nature and course of learning. Unlike other conceptions of instruction in which the teacher’s decisions are based largely on criteria and information external to individual children, open education clearly espouses an interactive view of teaching and learning. . . . Research on the understandings of practitioners working in open classrooms was a logical undertaking.79

Using a pre-designed research model80 as the basis for this study, the authors conducted in-depth interviews with some sixty teachers. All were associated with a teacher center or advisory program that espoused an “open education” approach, so they were already sympathetic to it. A method of analyzing these teachers’ understandings about open education was developed and inferences were drawn as to how classroom decisions were affected by them. While this study was not planned to cover every aspect of the classroom, nonetheless, “the many interviews . . . capture insights, skepticisms, enthusiasms, and frustrations that are likely to accompany any teacher’s efforts to change in a more open direction.”81

A fourth example of an approach to evaluating open classrooms was Bill Hull’s Seminar on Children’s Thinking. It was based on the premise that teachers should think of themselves as researchers, as students of children’s thinking as it develops in less formal classrooms. Teachers were not used to thinking of themselves in this way, having long been used to listening to others’ research results presented at professional conferences or by university faculty. For a teacher to do active research in his or her own classroom was a new idea—yet it made sense for open educators looking for effective ways to assess their work and children’s progress in nontraditional classrooms.

Since the early 1970’s I have been exploring ways of encouraging classroom teachers to investigate children’s thinking in the classroom. . . . One form of personal research is represented by Teachers’ Seminars on Children’s Thinking, first organized according to our current guidelines in 1972. The continuing interest of teachers in these seminars has resulted in the formation of an informal network of people who continue to meet with each other and to share their insights through writing for members of other seminar groups. . . . It is a basic premise of the Seminars on Children’s Thinking that long-term growth is possible when able people have the right conditions of freedom, stimulation, and support to work on practical problems of vital importance to them in a style that is in accordance with their natural ways of functioning.82

The idea behind the group stemmed from Hull’s own personal research in his classroom (a classroom he shared for two years with John Holt). He took a characteristically process-oriented, long-view approach to studying children’s different thinking strategies:

My personal research was concerned with all kinds of mental activity because I knew that the style and the skill that children had developed had a continuity that could be observed in many of the things that they did, . . . [and] provided a good vantage point for observing, over time, the strategies children were using. The way they had been learning often determined the way they would go on learning in the future.83

That is a deceptively simple statement, for it contains several of the important considerations in teacher-as-researcher work: It is personal; it assumes that all kinds of mental activity go on in a classroom; it emphasizes style and skill—the idiosyncratic ways that children go about their work— as important aspects of mental activity; it makes ongoing observation of children at work as central to this kind of research; it predicts continuity of thinking style over the long term, not just the unit or semester; and it assumes that understanding children’s thinking is the foundation of further teaching and of evaluation. This approach also has profound implications for teacher education and professional development.

The goals of the Seminars on Children’s Thinking were as follows:

1.) promote deepening understanding of [teachers’] work, 2.) increase their skills and effectiveness, 3.) add to their knowledge of human development and the learning process in young children, and 4.) develop their skills of observation, documentation and research in the classroom.84

Molly Watt, an early member of the seminar, describes it:

The seminar is structured very simply. The subject is almost always an example of a child’s thinking with specific supporting data. One participant starts off with a verbal or written presentation describing what a child did or said, then other members contribute related examples from their own experiences in order to discover common themes and patterns. . . . The seminar is open to experienced teachers on a voluntary basis. Only one teacher may be from each school. We are expected to write about our experiences. We appreciate that this is a long process and the worth of our sharing is felt over the years.85

During the seminar, notes were taken and a tape recording made, and the next week “Notes and Commentary” by Bill and Sara Hull were handed out, based on these informal “minutes.” These provided an ongoing record as well as food for thought and further discussion.

Molly Watt’s evaluation of her experience in the seminar was:

For myself, the group has had many ramifications. The most important has been the personal nourishment that comes from stepping outside my daily experience and reflecting on it. I am aware of no other structure which allows the kind of deep thinking mixed with the idealism that lured me into teaching. No matter how hassled I may feel from my teaching just prior to the seminar, I return to a state of wholeness and optimism. Even when I have been feeling most stuck, I regain a sense of resiliency, and, yes, HUMOR, about my role as a facilitator of children’s thinking.86

Unlike academic research studies, this personal research was not aimed at presentation or publication, but at the professional growth of teachers and, thereby, of their students. Adults and children could share in a learning environment that included them all. Soon other seminars were set up in the Greater Boston area and across the country, with similar expectations and ground rules. They provided an opportunity to concentrate on everyday details and concrete activities, and allowed patterns or formulations to emerge from shared discussion and experience with like-minded group members. But the participants did not see themselves as professional research teams. Molly Watt was optimistic about their future:

I think that the seminars will continue to multiply in their existing forms. I see the teachers in the future becoming more vocal about their knowledge. The seminars can serve as a training ground for us to learn to present our material. With a greater sense of professionalism, we will begin to conduct our own research projects, to write our own articles and books. We will begin to shoulder more responsibility for in-service training programs and staff development. As we, the practitioners, develop our own ability to organize our knowledge, we can look forward to our schools reflecting that knowledge.87

Some models were more successful than others, but the evaluation of open classrooms—proving convincing results—was always a tough nut to crack.


By the mid-1970s, the social, economic, and political climate had changed, and there was less and less support for open or any other nontraditional kind of education on both sides of the Atlantic. There were serious (and some captious) criticisms and some widely publicized failures; support was withdrawn or moved to other projects, and a broad change occurred in priorities for education. All of these took their toll, and “open education” came to be seen more as a romantic aberration from the true role of schools in society than as a liberation from it: a laissez-faire approach run amok, a fad that would soon pass.88 “Back to basics,” standardized tests, concern for effective job training, assessment by measurable outcomes, and a common, more textbook-centered curriculum took center stage.

So what do we make of the period of open education, so exciting and so brief? Was it an impossible dream, passing away when it seemed impractical, expensive, unrealistic, and unsatisfactory? Just one more period of educational reform that heated up and went away when cooler heads prevailed? I think not. I have been persuaded that real progress has been made, progress that goes beyond faddism or cyclical reform patterns, progress that has changed educational thinking. David Hawkins’s equilateral triangle is a useful analytical metaphor for rethinking the whole educational process, since it focuses equally on each of the three participants in any educational encounter: the child, the teacher, and the content.89 And I am also convinced that the teacher, as the key to maintaining the balance and harmony the triangle represents, is primus inter pares.

I draw these conclusions from four lines of thought or sources that I have found helpful: (1) a new look at the old controversy of traditional versus nontraditional views of education; (2) social changes over time in accepted child-rearing practices; (3) the information still readily available about implementing open education, which this study has reported; and (4) theoretical research about human growth and development, together with serious contemporary attempts to work out in practical detail how that research affects the daily work of the classroom.

First, there is the controversy between traditional and formal versus nontraditional and less formal modes of schooling. It is an argument of long standing and yet still familiar to us, and therefore of continuing concern. Taking the long view, one might first ask just how education has been defined at any given period of time. Sometimes, it was seen as primarily the verbal training of the intellect, discipline and set standards, book learning and tradition. Such learning has usually been in the possession of the elite in any society, those who held the keys to the kingdom of knowledge, with all its accompanying power and prestige.

Sometimes, on the other hand, education was understood as growth from within the child, a natural tendency to find out about and understand the world. It is then a matter of providing an appropriate environment for that endeavor, and not only for cognitive functioning but also for the all-around growth of the child—creative powers, imagination, feelings—all that makes up the human being, not just the mind.

The controversy has gone on for a long time, in one form or another.

The story of education is not a simple one. It ebbs and flows. Times ofenlightenment, often most remarkably modern in their thought and practice, alternate with long periods of dark conformity and sterility. There is a constant breaking off and starting again. The influence of progressive thinkers was not continuous. Most experiments, successful in themselves, had little influence on other writers and practitioners. But a thread, nevertheless, runs through; a spark grows, glows, and then fades away; the same theme appears, disappears, and reappears in differing forms from age to age, and slowly the light grows steadier.90

Cycles of reform, on this view, are not necessarily “here-we-go-again” phenomena. In fact, traditionalists and nontraditionalists have fundamentally different views of the nature of growing children and how they learn, and the role of the school in preparing them for their role in the larger society. But as John Dewey has pointed out, the two camps are not—or do not need to be—basically in conflict.91 As he put it: “I believe that in the ideal school we have the reconciliation of the individualistic and the institutional ideals.”92

Here are two sides of the same pedagogical coin. For, as Dewey argued elsewhere, a deep and genuine concern for individual growth and fulfillment not only is compatible with but indeed demands an equally genuine concern for cognitive growth and intellectual discipline and for transmitting the cultural heritage of the society in the form of organized knowledge.93 Differences arise as to the nature of the child and the educational methods best suited to him or her, about the knowledge that is most worth having, and the role of the school in a democratic society. But my conclusion is that open education, thoroughly understood and wisely practiced, meets the demands of both sides of the argument, that is, that it is basically a means-ends affair, with each side complementing the other—each is the necessary but not sufficient condition for the other.

It is not, then, a question of either-or, but rather of both-and. The growing child and the organized body of knowledge called the curriculum stand at two ends of a continuum. By their evolutionary, genetic heritage, children want to reach out and grasp, take hold, find out, share, express, understand—for it is in their best survival interests to do so, like Wilson’s “untutored savage” wondering how the world works.94

“Wondering” is just the word, for it also speaks of motivation. Why does something happen just the way it does? Let’s find out! Let’s go look! Evolutionary heritage includes the well-developed human readiness to enjoy learning, for it brings a deep satisfaction and sense of mastery.

For the only motivation of learning that is really important is the motivation intrinsic to learning itself. And the only satisfaction, the only reinforcement that counts importantly is that which accrues from discovery, from finding structure and order in our own individual and unique experience. [Here] structure . . . means the order, coherence, unity which relate phenomena to each other in our understanding.95

Therefore, systematic knowledge must to be made available to children in ways that call forth their natural interests and abilities. Then the world seems like a meaningful place to them, interests are stimulated, and projects or investigations can be undertaken to inquire into that meaningfulness. Teachers and schools provide the means, the skills, the resources to understand new problems and questions as time and change inevitably come along. Dewey spoke of the “psychologized” curriculum.96 And, of course, this is the way systematic knowledge was built up by other discoverers long ago.

The content of individual development not only recapitulates the stabilized achievements of others, but also in its variance and regressions from the pattern of those achievements . . . adds to them or alters them.97

This is the sense in which traditional and nontraditional come together: The child needs to get into the world of “the stabilized achievements of others” by going through them himself or herself, in his or her own way. And he or she may well develop them even further; that is the way organized knowledge grows year by year.

However, all this cannot occur without the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, the essential keys to opening that world of discovery. Natural human curiosity and intelligence direct their use, in analyzing data, testing ideas, searching for patterns, and so on. Deborah Meier believes that every child needs to develop certain “habits of mind” in order to use the data that experience provides and to make sense of them. Five critical questions are posted on the walls of the Central Park East Schools in New York, for all passersby to see and ponder.

How do you know what you know?

What’s your evidence?

How and where does what you’ve learned “fit in”?

Could things have been otherwise?

Who cares, what difference does it make?98

Her questions suggest the habits of mind that schools need to help children develop conceptually, but, again, they cannot do so without the “basic skills”—not as ends in themselves, but as the necessary means, the tools for developing those vital habits of mind.

Second, two very influential books about the history of childhood and of child-rearing practices were written, Philippe Aries’s Centuries of Childhood in 1962, and Lloyd DeMause’s The History of Childhood in 1974.99 They provide some interesting insights into the broader topic of changes over time in adult-child relationships, in the home and, by extension, in the classroom, where adults and children also meet. I would argue that the fundamental problem with implementing open education practices lay not just in social, political, and economic swings, but also in the accepted social consensus at any given time about the nature of the child and appropriate adult-child relationships, at home or at school, particularly with regard to the nature and exercise of adult authority. There have been improvements over time in child-rearing practices, looking both at changes in these practices in general and specifically at the role of the adult, parent or teacher— educators all.

The enduring goal of raising responsible, informed adults for their appropriate roles in society did not change during the 1960s and 1970s, and never has. It had been redefined, with more emphasis on children’s individual potential and the kind of adult-child interaction that would aid its development. What had changed was the view of the child and of childhood itself.

The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused. . . . The history of childhood is a series of closer approaches between adult and child. . . . There would be a point back in history where most children were what we would consider abused . . . children were not uncommonly looked upon as a real burden, and often called forth resentment and hostility.100

Child-rearing practices form the basis for adult personality, as psychology has accepted ever since Freud, if with different, later interpretations. DeMause claims that, over time, changes in practices have come about as adults found themselves able to deal more and more comfortably with their children:

The central force for change in history is neither technology nor economics, but the “psychogenic” changes in personality occurring because of successive generations of parent-child interactions. . . . Because psychic structure must always be passed from generation to generation through the narrow funnel of childhood, a society’s child-rearing practices are not just one item in a list of cultural traits. They are the very condition for the transmission and development of all other cultural elements, and place definite limits on what can be achieved in all other spheres of history. Specific childhood experiences must occur to sustain specific cultural traits, and once these experiences no longer occur, the trait disappears.101

DeMause’s analysis of changes in child-rearing practices shows that, as a society, we have become less punitive and more accepting of childlike behavior, more flexible and less rigid in the schedules and rules imposed on children. There is widespread concern and publicity now about domestic violence and child abuse is a crime. This is progress.

Aries, in defining the “idea of the family,” takes a similar view. He believes that the picture of the family with the child at the center is a recent development, dating only to the nineteenth century, and that this idea of what “family” means has produced what DeMause would call a “specific cultural trait” with regard to attitudes toward and about children.

In the tenth century, artists were unable to depict a child except as a man on a smaller scale. How did we come from that ignorance of childhood to the centering of the family around the child in the nineteenth century? How far does this evolution correspond to the parallel evolution of the concept people have of the family, the feeling they entertain towards it, the value they attribute to it? . . . These questions take us to the very heart of the great problems of civilization.102

“Family values” is an idea now firmly embedded in our contemporary civilization, although variously defined. And family values, that is, how adults and children live with and relate to each other at home, carry over to the school, where the relationship between adult and child is expected to be similar to each one’s own childhood experiences. That is, in general, children naturally expect to be treated in school as they have been at home. And by the same token, adults (teachers and all the others in the school) expect, consciously or not, to treat children as they themselves were treated as children. I think that there lies the cultural link—for good or ill—of child-adult relationships and expectations. I suggest that some adults, perhaps because of painful early experiences, are less able to deal equably with children, and need to retain a hierarchical, authoritarian posture that maintains firm control. I suspect this is especially dependent on their experience with children: Certainly teachers who had worked with children for years often felt more comfortable and secure in loosening the controls and easing up. At the opposite extreme, other adults who went into teaching, often with little or no preparation or experience with children, wanted to throw away the trappings of authority in the classroom altogether. One response was to identify with adult authority and use it;the other was to rebel against it. In either case, experiences as young children with surrounding adults was critical.

Changes in child-rearing practices are not, obviously, a universal social phenomenon. For example, with regard to how children were dressed in portraits of them, Aries states that until the sixteenth century, children were depicted in paintings dressed as small adults and treated as such. The change from adult-style dress to clothes suited for children came slowly and not uniformly.

What is certain is that it occurred solely in middle-class or aristocratic families. The children of the lower classes, the offspring of the peasants and the artisans, those who played on the village greens, in the city streets, in the craftsmen’s workshops, in the tavern taprooms and in the kitchens of great houses, went on wearing the same clothes as adults. . . . They kept up the old way of life which made no distinction between children and adults, in dress or in work or in play.103

Naturally, portraits of children were painted of upper-class children whose parents could afford to have portraits painted. But what was true of children’s clothes was true of the way they were treated in general, and there was a clear class distinction between children who were increasingly treated and dressed as children, and those for whom there was “no distinction between children and adults,” except that of size and strength. The larger and stronger the child became, the more he or she could contribute to the economic well-being of the family. For the more leisured, educated upper classes, such pressure was less, and “a new family attitude, oriented around the child and his education, appeared.”104

Generalizations are treacherous, of course. And one does not have to go back into history to know that there have always been parents who are kind and supportive of their children in the midst of poverty and deprivation, just as there were and are upper-class parents who are not, despite their easier circumstances. There have always been child-lovers as well as child-haters, Bob Cratchits and Scrooges. Nonetheless, Dr. Spock’s easygoing approach to motherhood and today’s parenting manuals, support groups, and birthing practices are a very long way from separate nurseries and nannies, regular whipping, or swaddling clothes. And Dick and Jane is also a long way from Foxe’s Boke of Martyrs. The concept of family life and the image of the child have changed.

Third, given these general changes in child-rearing practices, the period discussed in this study can be seen as no mere blip on the screen of educational reform. Rather it represents progress, that “spark” that has always shone somewhere, growing stronger from time to time. And thanks in part to this period of reform, we know a lot more about what really does work and how to achieve it. Many of the actors of that time are still with us to share their reminiscences, publications are still available that attest to their earlier work, and similar work does in fact continue and develop. I suggest that this time, the spark was not only stronger than before, but that it illuminated both child-rearing and classroom practices, especially with regard to how adults work and play with children.

The teacher is the adult in any school who plays both a parental and a professional role. Different child-rearing patterns apply to the classroom, in the sense that what a teacher brings to the classroom as appropriate ways to deal with children stems largely from his or her own early experiences. The model of evaluation discussed earlier, which looked at teachers’ personal understandings of open education, is relevant here. For some teachers took to it as ducks to water, while others found it more difficult. Teachers who were comfortable with a less directive role, with less formal procedures, with friendly relationships with children, with allowing materials and time for investigations, in short, with playing a supportive, nonauthoritarian role, seemed better able to adapt to open education practices.

Looking at the energetic and extensive efforts made to help teachers change to less formal practices, then, one might well ask, what made the difference between successful and less successful changes?

Most people would agree that the most deadening teacher is the teacher who has stopped learning. Year after year that teacher repeats the old routines and lessons and adds buffer after buffer between himself and the material he is supposedly teaching. His sympathy for the student as learner must necessarily diminish.105

For the attitude of the teacher toward his or her students is clearly and inescapably linked to the attitude of the children toward their work and toward one another. Learning means changing, and changing means taking risks, trying out things that may fail, figuring out how to solve a problem, and being willing to let go of old patterns of thought and action and try new ones. All that can happen only in a safe environment, where the child knows he or she is valued for what he or she is, and for what he or she does at any particular moment.

Further, children come to value people who value them, and want to learn what they have to teach. Thus, not only must a teacher sincerely love children and create an atmosphere that bespeaks his or her feelings, but he or she must also have something of value to teach them. When there is a good relationship between child and teacher, the teacher’s adult mind is open to the child’s, and there can be a genuine “companionship in thinking”106 from which a child learns much—as does the adult.

The effective open classroom teacher, then, cared a great deal about children, and about his or her subject specialty. He or she was a student of the children, willing to study them, to know them, and to be constantly learning from them. He or she kept up with his or her field, especially as it applied to possible experiences for the children. He or she also had to be willing to work very hard—moving furniture; planning how to encourage an interest or talent; devising ways to move beyond the classroom into the corridor, the next room, or out of doors if need be; collecting and preparing materials; mastering a new skill before teaching it to the children; planning displays; keeping ongoing records; talking with parents; attending meetings; and so on.

Any teacher trying to move toward less formal methods often had to do battle with authorities or curriculum specialists or superintendents who did not approve of freer methods, who were slow to provide the needed materials, or who demanded rapid and demonstrable progress, especially in reading and math scores.

On the other hand, there were authorities who thought that open education was a panacea for all school problems, and mandated it, but who may well have been quite unclear as to what teachers needed in order to “do it.” All these demands and many more meant that a teacher who opted for this kind of teaching was undertaking a very big job, both professionally and personally. “It is very demanding and one’s powers are constantly at full stretch.”107

Such teachers also made good use of the resources offered them by their school system for personal enrichment and professional development, and lost no opportunity to further their own education. In their view, the more they learned and grew, the more resources they had available for teaching the children.

In short, effective open classroom teachers tended to be lively people with many interests and alert, curious minds, open to and excited about sharing new ideas and experiences, and full of ambition and energy to convey all this to the children in their charge. These attributes were naturally contagious to the children whom they taught.

I continue to believe that teachers—not programs—make the critical difference in schools. The higher the quality of teachers—intellectually, socially, academically and morally—the greater the potential for schools to be successful with children and young people.

I was especially encouraged by the young people who entered education in the ’60’s, individuals who genuinely believed that within the schools there would be support for creative attention to the social and intellectual needs of children and young people, room for significant integration of academic and community interests, education in the broadest sense rather than schooling as it is often defined. . . . [Most were] bright, articulate, energetic young people with high ideals and considerable commitments—symbols of a new interest in diversity and educational reform. That very few were left in schools in 1980 was . . . a visible sign that schools had little, if any, significant intellectual base. . . . Parents wrote [to me] eloquently about their children being abandoned by too many of the best and brightest, faced by an increasing number of technicians who appeared uninterested in their struggles.108

In fairness, one must add that all the teachers who were successful at open education were not young, although they did share these other characteristics. But it was often older, experienced teachers who felt secure enough in their own professionalism to be willing to try something new— and also many who were dissatisfied with the ordinary routine being meted out for them to follow, and saw in open education a chance to do better for the children. And there were also older teachers who had gone into the profession as a deliberate change from another one, saying “I’ve crunched numbers long enough! I want to be with kids and I miss using my French!”109

Fourth, research about the process of learning does provide a solid basis for the ideas and practices of child-centered education, validating in theory what teachers had been doing in practice and still are.

Piaget’s work has been, of course, of great importance ever since translations began to appear in the 1920s and 1930s. Although he was not an educator as such, teachers and researchers soon recognized that his discoveries had considerable relevance to classroom situations. Experimental studies were carried out based on his work, under a general rubric that might be called “Piaget in the classroom.” The focus changed to thinking carefully about the conceptual constructs that a child develops as he or she grows older, and how best to respond to and foster intellectual growth. Although Piaget’s work has been criticized and questioned, his basic focus—what he called “genetic epistemology”—is still of considerable value because it draws attention to the growing child as a participant, not just a receiver, in the teaching-learning process.110

Another tack was taken by Bill Hull in his “personal research” agenda, mentioned above. It developed into his Seminars on Children’s Thinking—teachers talking with other teachers, searching for patterns and continuities in the thinking of their children, and for appropriate practices to enhance them in the classroom. He also wrote about children’s thinking in a variety of essays.111 Nor was he alone.

The research monographs published by the North Dakota Study Group on Evaluation include some by authors whose professional interest was the study of children’s thinking. Outlook also published many articles dealing with how children think and how to go about helping them. These often included David Hawkins’s philosophical/mathematical/educational writings.112 Patricia Carini, at the Prospect School in Vermont, produced long-range studies of children’s work over time, focusing especially on children’s whole developmental process, not just its cognitive aspect.113

In more recent years, there has been a resurgence of work in the study of the human mind and how it learns. Some researchers study the physiological functioning of the brain itself. Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligence is by now a classic.114 Here he considers what is meant by “an intelligence,” that is, what does it mean to say that a given person’s response to the world is intelligent? He builds up a careful definition that distinguishes “multiple intelligences,” and the biological/physiological sources of them. His point is that human beings’ different ways of being intelligent are badly served by schools as they are currently conducted. He has added to this research both in publications115 and in programs around the country planned to implement his theory of multiple intelligences.

Another look at how the mind functions is that of Bernice McCarthy, herself a teacher. In her 4MAT System: Teaching to Learning Styles with Right/Left Mode Techniques, she reviews the work done to date on learning styles, and the four different ones she herself has discerned in her work with children and teachers.116 She delineates the characteristics of each type of learner, that is, how they go about their work, what is important to them, how they handle material and ideas, and so on. She even goes on to provide actual, tested lesson plans that address all four modes of learning, at every level of schooling and in every subject area. Her aim is not simply to teach to any one learning style, but to address each one in turn in the hope that learners can move beyond their most dominant style to use more of the modes of learning that are potentially theirs—that is, to use more of their brains.

These two programs for the use of brain theory to improve teaching and learning practice have been criticized as being too classificatory, seeming to lock children and even adults into only the type of intelligence they display most naturally. Neither author, however, would agree with that; rather, while each identifies natural, separate mental capacities, the goal is to encourage learners to branch out and broaden the use of the mind, more of the whole brain. Each category of intelligence or learning style is only a beginning point—and a challenge to teachers.117

In addition to basic research in brain functioning, there are now implementation programs designed to shape the experience of school so as to fit the characteristics of childhood as we know them better.118 There are also far-flung individual classrooms where teachers continue to work along the lines of open education, although with less fanfare than earlier, a change that many find a relief!

There are two other quite remarkable studies of early influences on children’s learning that should be noted as well, one published in England and the other in the United States. The first is Chris Athey’s Extending Thought in Young Children: A Parent-Teacher Relationship.119 Although not well known in the United States, it is an important contribution to our understanding of the mental development of children in the two-to-five age range, and ways to enrich and extend that development at each stage. It is a longitudinal study of preschool children, conducted at the Froebel Educational Institute120 over five years. The children were from varied backgrounds, economically and culturally, and therefore so were their parents. And parents were significantly involved as home teachers, interacting with their children as their schoolteachers were, to develop a consistent environment between home and school.

Athey used a basically Piagetian conceptual framework to study the relationship between spontaneous action and conceptual thought, and the role of language in their development. Piaget had claimed that thought is internalized action, that concepts are based on experiences. Athey went further to posit an age-related sequence in that forms or concepts of thought (“schemas”) develop in young children, outwardly expressed in action, and she asked what effect appropriate verbal intervention by adults might have. The teachers and parents in the project:

endeavour to increase children’s consciousness of the transformations they make on materials [in spontaneous activity]. They do this by talking with the children about what they are doing. This intervention is positive in that it elaborates verbally on what the child is doing. [The study included] a detailed analysis and documentation of over 5,000 observations collected by professionals, parents and students from twenty children during a two-year teaching programmed. Each child in the experimental group was studied daily in order to:

1. identify developments in each child’s thinking;

2. describe the development of symbolic representation from early motor and perceptual behaviours; and

3. identify curriculum content assimilated to developing forms of thought.

The analyses of the observations show that systematic advances in “forms” of thought (schemas or concepts) were made by all project children. [and] highly significant gains in test scores . . . were sustained during the first two years of primary education.121

The findings of the project show that in the early years, the role of the adult is most helpful when he or she is an active and interested listener, attending to and commenting on what the child is doing when the child is able and wants to talk.

The glee shown by the younger children when adults gave running commentaries on their actions [shows that this was] a welcome and appropriate form of adult support. . . . Given the opportunity, children like to talk about what they are doing or what they have done [with] an interested and active listener.122

Language, then, appropriately used, could and did enrich a child’s thinking about experience, and also his or her enjoyment of learning. The role of the adult here is that of the open classroom teacher.

The second study of early influences on the development of thought is Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind, by Mary Field Belenky and others. This is a qualitative study of women of different classes, backgrounds, ages, and cultures, not just in schools and colleges, but also in the many less formal settings in which education takes place. Growing up, women search for ways to speak with their own voices and claim the powers of their own minds—and a positive self-concept is the basis for what success they achieve. The adult (mostly male) figures in their families and in later life promote or hamper the healthy development of a positive self-concept, as they exert authority in various ways.

Every woman, regardless of age, social class, ethnicity, and academic achievement needs to know that she is capable of intelligent thought, and she needs to know it right away. . . . Educators can help women develop their own authentic voices if they emphasize connection over separation, understanding and acceptance over assessment, and collaboration over debate; if they accord respect to and allow time for the knowledge that emerges from firsthand experience; if instead of imposing their own expectations and arbitrary requirements, they encourage students to evolve their own patterns of work based on the problems they are pursuing.123

This calls for what the authors call “connected teaching,” and its benefits are certainly not limited to women, but are felt by everyone. Too often, education is either authoritarian (“learn the facts and spit ’em back”) or adversarial (“ask a question and I’ll show you how stupid it was”). These models are wrong for women. They are wrong for everyone.

What the authors describe at the end of the study is what they call “connected teaching.”

Connected teachers use a technique similar to the “participant-observer” method anthropologists use. . . . The student is treated from the start not as subordinate or as object but as “independent, a subject.” [Teachers] act as partners who give [their students] a chance to be heard and provide feedback to them. [They] meet on common turf.124

Connected teachers engage with both the students and the subject under discussion because of their own personal and serious involvement in both. This leads me back to David Hawkins’s equilateral triangle—“I, thou, and it”125—for it both connects and balances all three.


This is a paradigm worth attending to. The triangle has the child at the top—“At the heart of the educational process lies the child,” and the teacher—“I continue to believe that teachers . . . make the difference in schools”—and the content—“There has to be stuff in the classroom”— at the two points below.

We now know much more about child growth and development, especially in less formal, restrictive environments. We know something about what it takes to teach an open classroom. We know how to support teachers successfully, with teachers’ centers, advisors, peer discussion groups, relevant theory, and administrative support. We know it is necessary to develop “psychologized” curriculum and experiences, and to make them available to children on their terms so they can develop mastery of their personal abilities and their cultural heritage. “Connected teaching” may well be the link that joins all three points of that harmonious pedagogical triangle.


This study has attempted to show that effective open classrooms were based both on the developmental needs and interests of children and on the enduring values of a democratic society, in a variety of settings—urban, suburban, and rural, private and public. Perhaps today’s educators may find some useful ideas from the story of open education; perhaps not. However, it is worth noting again that contemporary educational research and practices are sounding some of the same themes, best summed up by saying that all children need to be taught in the ways that they can learn best. That is not a new idea, however difficult to achieve, but now there are better, keener tools to work with. And, most especially, there is evidence that teachers, well-trained, well-supported, well-rewarded, and well respected, are the indispensable key to the construction of Hawkins’s equilateral triangle of good education, linking teacher, student, and content together in a natural balance. Balance, perhaps, but also understanding that “where there is encouragement from the system, and appropriate support. . . . teachers are the potential growth points for the internal transformation of the schools.”126

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 99 Number 2, 1997, p. 371-415
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10259, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 10:59:49 PM

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  • Lydia Smith
    Simmons College

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