Embracing the Wall-less Classroom

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In 2009, when I began my first of teaching, I taught in a school without walls. I was at Malcolm X Elementary School (MXES), an imposing cement box centrally located in Washington DC’s most violent and poorest neighborhood. My classroom was in the far northeast corner of the building, demarcated by bookshelves and chalkboards that I had found in abandoned parts of the building and set up to serve as “walls.”

Why did a wall-less classroom even exist?

Whenever I recount this experience, I am asked why the school had classrooms without walls. It sounds like a mistake, but it was actually very intentional. In the 1970’s there was a movement called Open Classrooms. It began in Britain and its precepts may ring a bell with anyone familiar with student-centered learning. Advocates of this movement touted the value of classrooms without walls and envisioned an open-ended classroom format and structure, which was oriented around “interest centers”. In this re-imagined classroom, students would decide where and when to engage with the activities at each of the centers, and would learn at their own pace and be guided by their own interests.

When the movement came to the United States, schools were rebuilt in this open fashion, and that is how Malcolm X Elementary School came to exist as it is. But, just as bell-bottoms went out of fashion, so too did the open classrooms movement. By the early 1980s, everyone was re-building walls within their schools. Everyone, that is, except for MXES, because it didn’t have the funding to do so.

Initial chaos

When I taught in a classroom without walls, the reality of the situation was far from the idyllic picture of student-centered learning. It was chaos. The screams of teachers trying to be heard ricocheted off the linoleum floor and met the shouts of students, creating a disruptive cacophony. Students slid under the chalkboard “walls” and ran through the halls. Fifth graders threw pencils, and sometimes shoes, over the bookshelves and into my classroom.

One might assume that, since focus and productivity were not easy by-products of this environment, anyone experiencing it would come out with a firm belief in the value of walls. But I did not. Instead, I learned to embrace the open classroom.

Getting my room ready for the first day of school

Embracing the Wall-lessness

My main strategy when teaching at MXES was to embrace the wall-lessness and to take it to the extreme. I took my students outside of the building as much as possible. We went to the Washington Memorial, the Zoo, the Capitol Building, the Museum of African History, the Arts and Industries Building and many more. My main motivation, besides selfishly wanting to get out of that cement box, was to show my students what DC had to offer beyond their neighborhood and to instill in them that this was their city too, accessible and open to them.

I am not sure what indelible impression going to nearly every Smithsonian museum left on my students, but for me, it was very clear: learning happens outside the walls of the classroom. On trips, my students were engaged and curious. Once they arrived back at school after a trip, their work was more prolific and they got along better with each other.

My experience at MXES was foundational to my belief that education confined to the classroom misses the opportunity to bring the energy and reality of the world to students. And missing that opportunity is a great disservice to all of our students, regardless of their socio-economic background.

Technology Removes Walls

For a few years now, students have been able to go on virtual field trips anywhere in the world through Google Earth without even leaving the classroom. In the near future, this type of experience will only become richer with Augmented Reality technologies like Magic Leap.

What’s more, entire school systems, such as Summit Schools, are leveraging technology so that student-centered learning is even more personalized. And others, like AltSchool are capitalizing on technology to remove tedious tasks, like taking attendance, so that teachers have more time to do what they do best — teach.

There is still a good argument to be made for having walls in schools as a way to create areas of quiet and safety. But, technology can remove barriers and further engage students while freeing up teachers so that they can realize the lofty ideals of the Open Classroom movement. With the aid of technology, students can be at the center of their own learning, discover at their own pace, and move more fluidly through their education.

What makes me really hopeful about this new reality is that it broadens the learning experience so that it happens all the time—in and out of the classroom. This is one of the most valuable lessons we can teach young people, and ourselves.

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