The negative effect of “open-plan” classes on reading development in primary education

A couple of days ago, I reposted a blog post by Larry Cuban on open classrooms. Today I want to share this new study I found via my good friend Tim Surma published in Nature’s NPJ. Gary Rance and colleagues ingeniously examined the difference between more traditional classrooms and multiple class groups within one physical space. The same teachers taught in the same way alternatively for a term in one condition and in the other condition.

And what are the results?

 In this study, we explored the potential impact of learning environment on academic progress comparing the effect of open- and enclosed-plan classrooms on normally developing children aged 7–10 years. Overall, reading fluency development was greater in the enclosed classroom and the children who showed the greatest environment effect (i.e. bias towards the enclosed classroom) were those with the poorest attention and listening skills.

No shit, Sherlock. Who could have guessed…

Classroom configuration had a significant effect on rate of literacy development. Day-to-day teaching pedagogies were not prescribed as part of the study, but as many environmental factors as possible (teaching staff, class groups, curricula etc) were held constant through the test period while the only change to the physical classroom environment was the term-by-term deployment of the portable, sound-treated dividing wall. Manipulation of this single variable was associated with clear differences in academic progress with 64% of students showing a higher rate of reading fluency development in the enclosed-classroom condition. Mean ΔWARP fluency score was 6.8 words/min lower for each school term spent in the open-plan condition. When extrapolated across a whole year this corresponds to a 27 word/min delay which is approaching a 1 standard deviation difference in overall reading performance for children in this age group. What the long-term impact of delays of this order may be, and whether they would resolve spontanteously after a period in a more conducive learning environment is unclear, but it is well established that reading and academic deficits in primary school can persist into adolescence/adulthood and can cause psychosocial and behavioural issues as children become disengaged at school

Probably noise could be one of the reasons causing this result.

Do read the full article, from which this is the abstract:

The physical characteristics of a child’s learning environment can affect health, wellbeing and educational progress. Here we investigate the effect of classroom setting on academic progress in 7–10-year-old students comparing reading development in “open-plan” (multiple class groups located within one physical space) and “enclosed-plan” (one class group per space) environments. All learning conditions (class group, teaching personnel, etc.) were held constant throughout, while physical environment was alternated term-by-term using a portable, sound-treated dividing wall. One hundred and ninety-six students underwent academic, cognitive and auditory assessment at baseline and 146 of these were available for repeat assessment at the completion of 3 school terms, allowing within-child changes across an academic year to be calculated. Reading fluency development (change in words read-per-minute) was greater for the enclosed-classroom phases (P < 0.001; 95%CI 3.7, 10.0) and the children who showed the greatest condition difference (i.e. slower rate of development in the open-plan) were those with the worst speech perception in noise and/or poorest attention skills. These findings highlight the important role classroom setting plays in the academic development of young students.

2 thoughts on “The negative effect of “open-plan” classes on reading development in primary education

  1. This matches my experience in an open classroom in 8th grade in 1973. It was chaotic and frustrating, especially when trying to learn my favorite subject, math, over all the background noise. My younger brothers were more badly affected by attending an open-plan private school, in their grades K-3. It was mayhem in the large room, and they all suffered throughout life from their lack of reading and study skills. It makes me crazy that people still fall for magical-thinking in education.

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