Why Are Classrooms the Only Place Learning “Counts”?

Insights  06 June 2018
By Ulcca Joshi Hansen, Education Reimagined


Education Reimagined partnered with 180 Studio and ATTN: to create a video series exploring the “Why” of traditional education. The series digs into why we narrowly group children by age, promote memorization over deeper learning, use grade levels as indicators of “moving up,” and confine learning to four-walled classrooms. Complementing each video, our Associate Director, Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen, provides the research and history around the “why” of America’s education traditions and invites all of us to explore the possibility of something new.


When we think education, we think of a classroom with desks, a blackboard, and a teacher at the front of the room.

Why is that?

The roots of our current education system can be traced back to 18th-century Europe, when the driving assumption was that children were empty vessels into which adults needed to pour all essential knowledge. This was also a time when efficiency was seen as a catalyst for societal progress. Innovators like Joseph Lancaster jumped at the chance to apply the science of efficiency to the industry of education:

The advantages of this system, in its economy of labour, time, expense; in the satisfaction it affords to the master and the scholar; can scarcely be comprehended or credited by those who have not witnessed its powers. Like the steam engine it diminishes labour and multiplies work. —Joseph Lancaster

These innovators wondered, what’s the most efficient way for content to be delivered to the most children using the least amount of teachers? The answer: Have them sit at desks, in straight rows, facing forward, and in silence. This made every child well-positioned to listen and absorb what was being delivered.

This formula has been tweaked and “perfected” for the last 200 years. But today we understand a lot more about how learning actually happens. In fact, there are learning environments all across the country beginning to reimagine what education could look like by opening up the walls of their classrooms, and creating learning experiences that are far more aligned with how the brain is wired.

How the Brain is Wired to Learn

We are learning from the moment we are born. Our brains are wired to learn—but not in isolated environments, divorced from the real world. Human beings are social animals, and some of the richest, deepest, most endurable learning happens when we are learning in ways that connect us to others. This is something that researchers who study play have discovered.

Play is the most basic and universal form of learning, and it’s natural to human beings across all stages of life. What is interesting about play isn’t so much what the play looks like; it’s how the brain is engaged when we are playing—a state of “flow.”

Human beings have two types of attention: One is highly focused and narrow, mediated by the left hemisphere. The other is more diffused and open, mediated by the right hemisphere. Each hemisphere is primarily responsible for one type of attention, but the corpus callosum allows information to travel between the two so that connections can be made and the two hemispheres can work together.

Research shows that flow and deep engagement occur when the brain is able to go back and forth between these two states of attention. This is the type of mental state that results in creativity, intrinsic motivation, and connections between ideas and concepts.

In education, one way to think of this is by considering the difference between conceptual and practical learning. By virtue of design, traditional classroom-based learning is highly conceptual. It is designed to engage our narrow, focused attention. By contrast, opening the walls of the learning environment allows young people to engage in learning experiences that happen in real-world contexts. This more naturally engages the brain in the type of wide-open attention that complements the narrow attention used in traditional classrooms.

How Open-Walled Learning Fosters Curiosity, Understanding and a Stronger Sense of Self

One of the most fundamental human needs is to find a sense of purpose and the ability to answer the question: Who do I want to be in the world?

Even children as young as two or three crave a sense of independence and an understanding of where they stand in the world. They want to connect what they are learning with what they already know—and all in order to develop a deeper understanding of the world they live in.

To gain this deep understanding, young children need environments that help them understand the connections between abstract ideas and the everyday world they live in.

For example, vegetables don’t just magically appear in the refrigerator. They are grown in the earth, on a farm or in a garden; harvested; cleaned; shipped to local supermarkets; and purchased by families to use for homemade meals. At each stage, there are real people doing real work. Having the opportunity to see all of this in action, and hear the stories of the people involved, helps show children how to become independent actors in the world.

As we reach adolescence, we are trying to develop a sense of identity and belonging. Consequently, opening the walls of the classroom allows young people to ask: Who am I as a person? What am I interested in or passionate about? What can I contribute to the world?

In schools that create space for young people to develop this way, learners become aware of their strengths, the areas in which they need to grow, and their adult aspirations—whether that means going straight into the workforce for a period, continuing on with college, or enrolling in a technical program.

But even for learners who may not be as sure of their direction, opening the walls of the classroom is a way to encourage purposeful exploration, meaningful engagement with adults in the community, and the potential discovery of a future path.

How Open-Walled Learning Closes the Social Capital Gap

We spend a lot of time in school thinking about the content and skills we want kids to know. Yet, the research is clear that our success in life beyond school is also about who we know and our overall social capital. That means knowing people beyond our own networks who can support us in getting where we want to go. It means having the skills we need to effectively communicate, engage, and collaborate with others.

Open-walled learning helps build social capital in ways that are critically important for all learners, and especially for young people coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. Young people begin to develop relationships and find mentors in the fields and areas they care about.

One of the most transformative things we can do to education is expand our understanding of how and where learning takes place, namely, beyond the walls of classrooms. Not only will we better meet the immediate needs of learners, we will better prepare them for the lives they want to lead far into the future.

From Theory to Practice: Open-Walled Learning You Can Touch

Visit any learning environment that has open-walled learning, and you’re certain to have remarkable interactions with young people.

Take the elementary learners in Sandpoint, Idaho, who will talk to you about how they studied and designed a student-led peer program in response to a spate of teen suicides in their community. Or, hear children in Raleigh, North Carolina talk about how they addressed the needs of local refugees. Or, visit MET West in Oakland where teens are crafting specialized internships that let them explore possible professional pathways. And then imagine if this type of learning was happening in every community, every day.

What is most appealing to young people about this type of learning is something I have heard over and over again in interviews: they don’t want to wait until later in their lives to make a difference. They want to direct their energy, creativity, and desire for a sense of purpose towards meaningful projects today. They want to help their communities. They want to direct their desire for novelty, risk, and excitement in a productive direction. And, they want to practice and acquire the skills, knowledge, and dispositions they will need to carry with them beyond graduation.

Who are we to deny them that opportunity?

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