In mainland Europe forms of classroom
organization vary, although over the past 30 years there has been a gradual move away from the organization of pupils in formal rows focusing on a single teacher at the front of the space. Now, smaller more informal groupings organized around tables of 6 to 8 pupils is the norm. Elsewhere, in Russia and India for example, pupils are still generally organized in rows as they were in UK primary classrooms until the mid-1960s, when practice changed dramatically as a result of the findings of Plowden.
The report published by the Central Advisory Council for Education entitled Children and their Primary Schools, but better known as ‘The Plowden Report’, was published in 1967.16 It brought about a radical transformation in primary education. Before Plowden ‘traditional’ primary education was predominant, with children taught in whole class groups and typically sitting in rows focusing on the teacher’s desk, which was often raised up on a plinth. The ‘progressive’ era was characterized by profound changes to the curriculum and, in particular, to teaching methods. These were described as ‘pupil-centred’; the principle was that education should engage with children as individuals. This was a philosophy that placed the child at the heart of educational methods and extolled the virtues of individualization within the framework of collaborative learning. Rather than sitting at the front, the teacher now moved around the classroom, facilitating in turn individual or smaller groups of children often carrying out different tasks in the same lesson period. As a result, whole class teaching would be minimized.
A glance at some of the photographs taken from the report illustrates a variety of classroom arrangements proposed by Plowden with children in smaller, less formal groupings. The comparison between figures 3/A and 3/B is stark, with the 1937 arrangement showing children sitting in well – ordered ranks enclosed by four walls, whilst the 1966 image is a space which is higgledy-piggledy and open plan. In reality, most schools favoured the ordered discipline and predictability of the 1937 arrangement until Plowden enforced new informal layouts from 1967.
The Plowden Report endorsed a reduction in the proportion of time that teachers were spending teaching the whole class and a drastic increase in the proportion of time that children should be taught as individuals or as members of small groups. However, there was a problem. This proposition did not provide additional teachers or more space in order to make the new teaching strategies workable, as one might have expected. In addition, ever more complicated forms of classroom organization were introduced, such as the ‘integrated day’, to provide individual children with appropriate direct learning experiences relating to their own individual needs. Here, the implication was that children themselves would begin to take more responsibility for their own activities, so that learning would be based on their natural desires and motivations, as their interest in learning was stimulated. In hindsight this appears to be a somewhat idealistic aspiration. The reality of the integrated day for many teachers was an environment where art took place at one table with maths at another adjacent table simultaneously; this necessitated even more control by the teacher. For many teachers the atmosphere in the classroom became increasingly fraught as the day progressed. The ideals of
Plowden, to create a generation of adults more socially adept as well as being better educated, was turned on its head. Discipline and restraint had to be increased in order to maintain some semblance of order. Resourcing of the new approach was simply inadequate.
Nevertheless, this radical educational approach was enforced and it is generally acknowledged that the Plowden Report was substantially responsible for the development and nature of primary practice over subsequent decades up to the introduction of the UK National Curriculum. During this period the only systematic surveys of junior school classroom organization were those carried out by Moran (1971) and Bealing (1971), which concluded generally that teacher control remained tight within the framework of the ‘integrated day’.17 However, much anecdotal
evidence suggests that this was not the case. By 1970 the transition to ‘informal’ classroom structures had been widely adopted, however there was little evidence to support the idea that primary school children would or could take more responsibility for their own learning, and more evidence built up over intervening years that education was poorer and children less disciplined:
Despite the relatively informal classroom layouts adopted by the vast majority of teachers there was so much evidence of tight teacher control over such matters as where children sit and move that it seems highly doubtful that there is much opportunity for children to organize their own activities in most classrooms.18
Following the implementation of Plowden, the first large-scale observational study of primary
classrooms in use was undertaken; ORACLE (Observational Research and Classroom Learning Evaluation) took place between 1975 and 1980. The main focus of the ORACLE study was the curriculum; the way teachers taught it and how the pupils responded. Looking back it is surprising that spatial or architectural issues were largely ignored. The study followed pupils during their last two years of primary school and through the first year of their secondary school. The study used systematic observation techniques in a wide range of classrooms to gather data on the nature of classroom events. Much of the research focused on a somewhat reductive question – which worked better, combined individual teaching and small group teaching in informal groups, or traditional whole class teaching?
This obsession with the effects of individual pupil activity, as opposed to whole class pupil activity, disguised a hidden agenda which was perhaps somewhat ideological; the progressives favoured the notion of free self directed learning, as opposed to the traditional virtues of ‘instruction’, a single message given to the whole class simultaneously. Galton et al. (1980) showed that although the majority of primary class children sat in small groups around 4-8 person tables, they rarely interacted. Instead, children worked either alone or collectively as a whole class. An accurate portrayal of classroom organization at a time when the pre-war image of the primary classroom, as a place where children sat in serried rows of desks, had virtually disappeared, with children only sitting in rows in four of the fifty-eight classrooms surveyed. Further observations from the study reveal that the teacher no longer stood in front of the blackboard, or instructed the pupils from behind a centrally positioned desk, but instead moved around the room interacting with pupils continuously. However, teachers tended to spend time with the most engaging pupils whilst others missed out on individual instruction.
Figure 5.2 compares children’s activities between the 1976 ORACLE study and a subsequent 1996 ORACLE study which revisited the same schools. Information about the use of collaborative learning comes from the records of activities that pupils
a: Figures in first column represent the percentage of all interaction
b: Figures in brackets represent the percentage of teacher-pupil interaction.
Changes in the form of classroom organization 1976-1996. (Source: Galton et al. (1999).30)
were set. Comparing the data, it can be seen that there is a decline in individual interactions and a corresponding increase of teacher-pupil interaction with both group and class activities. Individual interactions have increased from 43.1 to 48.4 per cent, group interactions have changed from 14.6 to 16.4 per cent and class interactions from 31.3 to 35.2 per cent.
Like Plowden, Curriculum Organisation and Classroom Practice in Primary Schools conceptualized primary teaching in terms of individual, group and whole class teaching activities.19 The main task of their research was to make recommendations about curriculum organization in the classroom. Groups were considered in terms of children collaborating in their learning and of the teacher’s role as manager of a class comprising of groups working on different tasks. The report also made recommendations about effective methods of teaching and classroom organization:
The organizational strategies of whole class teaching, group work and individual teaching need to be used more selectively and flexibly. The criterion for choice must be fitness for purpose. In many schools the benefits of whole class teaching have been insufficiently exploited.20
The report also went on to make recommendations about the deployment of
teachers beyond the traditional ‘one teacher one class’ model, stating that:
primary teaching roles in the past have been too rigidly conceived and much greater flexibility of staff development is needed.21
What the report failed to recognize was the importance of the environment in this regard. Because of the need for constant supervision, the limitations of ‘one teacher one class’ can only be overcome if the staff pupil ratio is increased or team teaching is enabled by physically combining two or more classrooms. This requires the arrangement of classrooms in suites with flexible partitions which can be removed at certain times. Coming full circle from the original aims of Plowden, the Alexander report affirmed that primary teachers had been devoting too much time to individual instruction and making insufficient use of whole class teaching methods, concluding: ‘In many schools the benefits of whole class teaching have been insufficiently exploited.’20
Another more recent study, The Nature and Use of Classroom Groups in Primary Schools (Blatchford et al., 1999) found that teachers taught a large range of group sizes including pairs, small groups, and groups with 7-10 pupils, in addition to working with individuals or with the whole class.22 The study revealed that large groups of 7-10 pupils were in greater use in Key Stage 2 classrooms than smaller groupings. It also indicated that there was little correlation between grouping characteristics, such as size and composition, learning task type and interaction between group members.
To summarize, the grouping of children for instruction is widespread in British classrooms today, a practice encouraged in the Plowden Report, conceived as the best compromise in achieving individualization of learning and teaching within the teacher time available. Among the benefits the report envisaged for group work, were that children learn to get along together, to help one another and realize their own strengths and weaknesses by comparing their work with the work of their peers. Much of the research illustrates that most of a child’s contact with a teacher happens when the teacher is working with the whole class, consequently in classes where teachers do more whole class activities, children get more teaching contact. This view is supported by McPake et al. (1999), whose study of 12 Scottish primary school classrooms found that overall, children were in direct contact with their teacher for 41 per cent of their classroom time. This was only achieved because for 32 per cent of the time their teacher was interacting with the whole class.23
Plowden was a radical experiment which was imposed upon an education system ill prepared and under resourced. Teachers found it challenging as control was the price paid for pupil freedom within the classroom, yet this freedom to discover (and it seems to also disrupt the learning of others) was the philosophy which lay at its heart. Furthermore, the available buildings were inappropriate for the new system, lacking flexibility and enough space for the system to work properly. Many classrooms were acoustically disastrous when fifteen or so 9-year-olds were attempting to express themselves simultaneously. Nevertheless, Plowden was pushed through and took some of the blame for poor educational standards in state schools over subsequent years. Politicians blamed new fangled trendy ideas and by the beginning of the 1980s set out to re-create a more traditional approach to education. The result was the new UK National Curriculum.
The National Curriculum was in part a reactionary return to older values. However, after 15 or so years of tinkering since it was first introduced, there is now a recognition of the need to make education at Key Stage 2 much more tailored to the child’s individual needs, reflecting the culture in which most children now grow up. ‘Individual learning plans’ are perhaps the latest exemplification of this, yet there still appears to be little discussion regarding how best to design buildings which will support this strategy. A ‘one size fits all’ approach to education is a neat exigency for politicians wishing to understand their brief, but widely understood to be inappropriate in modern Britain. It is unfair to deal with a group of middle class children in a leafy middle class suburb of Surrey in the same way you would with a refugee
community on a sink estate in post-industrial Sheffield. When a primary school has 45 per cent of its pupils requiring special needs support, the key requirement is for more specially trained teachers, and a whole range of smaller self-contained rooms in which small group and individual work may take place outside of so-called mainstream teaching; the notion that five identical classrooms can support such a diverse learning community is rather like suggesting that every family should live in an identical house.