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Who Thought ‘Open Classrooms’ Were a Good Idea?

The flexible, spacious school rooms of the 1960s and ‘70s often failed miserably. Why are some designers and educators trying to bring them back?
Students work in an open classroom at Douglas Park elementary school in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Students work in an open classroom at Douglas Park elementary school in Regina, Saskatchewan.Courtesy of Fielding Nair International

When Johns Hopkins University and its nonprofit and government partners opened East Baltimore’s Henderson-Hopkins school in 2014, it billed the K-8 facility as a national model for urban education. The $43 million facility—the first new school built on the city’s east side in more than two decades—would not only boast a cutting-edge curriculum devised by Hopkins School of Education experts, it would provide a physical space far superior to the city’s aging public schools.

In lieu of traditional classrooms, the architecture and urban design firm Rogers Partners built the facility around five separate areas, or “houses,” featuring open, airy spaces and generous windows. “Each house has its own central meeting area and adjacent ‘servery,’ or cafeteria,” a university publication reported upon the school’s opening. “The communal rooms, with their soaring, wood-lattice ceilings, ceiling fans, and large windows, look more like high-end office building lobbies than something you'd find in a public school.” The school’s audacious design (which also included a rooftop deck) received awards, including the prestigious American Institute of Architects Institute Honor Award.