John Parker: Quiet learning is banished from open-plan classrooms

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Students need to be focused, mature and disciplined to make open-plan classrooms work. Photo / Thinkstock
Students need to be focused, mature and disciplined to make open-plan classrooms work. Photo / Thinkstock

John Parker, a writer of children's books, worries about one of the downsides of charter schools.

Charter schools are coming to New Zealand. And we learn that some may feature open-plan classrooms - big spaces with few walls, catering for large groups of children numbering perhaps 80 or more. Smaller spaces, enclosed or partitioned, would be used for specialist groups, remedial work, interest centres and so on.

Open-plan proponents list the advantages: more opportunity for flexible learning; more individualised student-led discovery; gains in positive student self-concept; closer teacher collaboration and support of inexperienced teachers. And, for the accountant, maybe they are cheaper than conventional single-cell classrooms with four walls. Yet the number of open-plan classrooms has steadily, almost inexorably, declined since the idea was in vogue in the 1970s.

Why is this? I suspect it's because they are noisy and distracting for the children. As a writer of books for children, I've talked about writing and read my stories and verse for more than 20 years, visiting classes in close to 300 New Zealand schools from the Hokianga down to Bluff.

I found that plying my trade in open-plan classrooms was tough stuff. The spoken word inevitably competed against the sound of teachers, peripheral movement of small groups, and visual distraction.

I admired the commitment and enthusiasm of the teachers in these classrooms. I admired their hard work and the ingenuity of their planning and preparation. I admired their zeal and energy. They did the Minister of Education proud - but nonetheless open-plans in my view are difficult places in which to gain and retain attention, especially for primary-age students.

And I've talked to adults who remember their open-plan classroom days when they were 8-year-olds, sitting in open-plans with 70 other kids. They, in turn, found it hard to be and remain attentive. One talked about his experience with regret, if not anger.

A wasted year, he recalled.

At secondary level, and with the use of modern technologies such as sound-absorbing acoustic materials and flexible walling, open-plan spaces work better - but the students still need to be focused, mature and disciplined.

As we all know, extraneous or intrusive noise is the enemy of focus. It puts people off - hence the home crowd whistling and booing when the away team's kicker tries to boot it between the uprights.

I once read a book of mine to a class of around 25 boys and girls of many ethnicities in a school in the Mt Roskill district. It concerned a boy called Dan who had been washed out to sea by a vicious rip tide and who had to struggle back to shore, assisted only by his courage and determination, plus a loyal if aged Labrador called Putty, the family pet. Within sight of the beach - you've guessed it - a hammerhead shark appears.

I had managed my narration so well to the best of my modest abilities that the entire class was silent with the tension so loved by the story-teller. They were there in the palm of my hand. We were in the enchanted Palace of Story and magic was afoot. Mouths were open. Eyes were wide. It was just five minutes to morning play but my listeners cared only for the boy and his dog. Would Dan make it to sand and safety? Would Putty? As I drew breath for the final chapter, I felt that a falling pin would have thundered, maybe dented the universe. What was going to happen next?

What happened next was unscripted - a belch of smoke and a gut-shaking clatter as the caretaker pulled the starter cord on his two-stroke and dealt to the grass just outside the classroom. It dealt to my story, too. We stumbled to the finish as best we could - and, no, I'm not going to tell you how it all ended up. You'll have to read the book. But all the glass in the windows of the magic palace was shattered. I reckon that mower would have shattered the last chapter of a Harry Potter book read by J.K. Rowling herself.

Our world is full of noise that is neither wanted nor needed: planes and helicopters and motorway traffic, cellphone talk from the person at the table beside yours at the restaurant, Sunday afternoon chainsaws and motor-mowers, thumping speakers at 2am from the party three houses away, the constant barking and wailing next door of the bored dog whose owners are at work.

We need less indiscriminate noise, not more. I'm not debating the merits of charter schools - but I am saying that if they go for open-plan classrooms, the attendant distractions may well make learning harder rather than easier. And it will make instilling a love of literature - which all starts with reading, writing and listening to crafted words - harder, too. And when literature teaches us so much about ourselves, that's more than a pity. It's harm done.

- NZ Herald

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