School administrators are tailoring class timetables at Clifton Hunter High School to help cope with teaching problems caused by the open-plan classroom layout, described as an “urgent problem” by inspectors.
An inspection report on the school highlighted the experimental layout at the new $110 million facility as a barrier to improvement.
“There is no strategy from government/Department [of] Education Services or school to address the problem caused by the open-plan class layout, which limits the range of teaching styles that can be used, and adversely affects students’ concentration,” an inspection team wrote in the review.
The inspectors also highlighted noise pollution between classrooms as a problem.
Christen Suckoo, chief officer in the Ministry of Education, acknowledged that the design has posed problems. He said officials are now tailoring the timetable to “reduce disruption between learning spaces.”
He said further work is going on to develop teaching philosophies and practices that are more conducive to an open-plan environment.
The design of the school, initially intended to be completely open plan but amended to include partitions between classrooms, was intended to go hand-in-hand with a new style of teaching.
“The project was the result of the ministry’s efforts at that time to transform education. The ministry’s efforts consisted of a design for open-plan schools, with a corresponding shift in teaching style,” Mr. Suckoo said.
The concept has since been abandoned. New design work is under way to complete John Gray High School using more conventional methods.
Mr. Suckoo told the Cayman Compass, “We are taking into consideration the experience at Clifton Hunter so that we can make further improvements to make best use of the design for the buildings that are already substantially complete, especially the one academy that has been constructed, and to redesign the rest of the campus using a more traditional approach.”
The inspection report, one of 16 baseline inspections carried out on all government schools by the Independent Schools Inspectorate Consultancy, made numerous references to problems posed by the classroom layout.
“Teachers often provide low-level, unchallenging, mechanical tasks that fail to engage and motivate students. Excessive noise levels are commonplace. Behavior deteriorates when students become bored and disengaged, noise escalates and in the open-plan classrooms this can have negative consequences, not only for themselves but also for learners in adjacent lessons,” the inspectors wrote.
The report goes on to describe the open–plan layout as an “urgent problem” that places “severe restrictions” on teaching methods.
It notes, “Teachers are aware of disturbing other lessons with what, in an enclosed classroom, would be considered normal levels of noise experienced during an enthusiastic exchange of views. Thus it is difficult for students to produce the required volume of sound, and teachers shy away from such things as role-playing activities.”
The original plans for the school, drawn up under the previous People’s Progressive Movement administration when current Premier Alden McLaughlin was education minister, went even further with the open-design concept – with no partitions between classrooms.
Changes were made when the project resumed in 2011 after a hiatus following the termination of original contractor Tom Jones International. At the time, Education Minister Rolston Anglin, who had taken over following the general election, described the open-plan layout as a “futuristic experiment” and sanctioned design changes, including the addition of acoustic partitions between learning spaces.
The changes also ditched plans in the original design for science and art to be taught in the same classroom.
Speaking in the Legislative Assembly in 2011, Mr. Anglin said, “I am told that our educators were informed that this was a concept Da Vinci area where the separate subject lines were merged in an attempt to re-create ‘renaissance learning.’ To our collective knowledge, nowhere else in the world teaches science and art in the same room at high school level, for the obvious reasons of noise infiltration and the products of science experiments interfering with neighboring classes.”
He added, “Both science and art have changed significantly, I suggest, since the times of Leonardo Da Vinci.”
Mr. Suckoo recalled that the ministry had been limited in its options for altering the open-plan layout following the termination of the original contractor because the mechanical, electrical and plumbing installations were already in place.
“The addition of walls at that point would have created fire code violations and MEP issues regarding air circulation,” he said. “An acoustician was consulted, which led to the installation of acoustical partitions between learning spaces. In addition, where possible, the school has timetabled subjects, classes and teachers in such a way so as to reduce disruption between learning spaces.
“We also work to further develop pedagogy to make it as engaging and student focused as possible, and hence more conducive for an open-plan environment.”
Mr. Anglin, speaking in the Legislative Assembly in 2011, said the open-plan design concept had been pushed through despite the objections of educators.
“We heard consistently that aspects of the design were maintained despite the concerns voiced to the ministry and its consultants about their inappropriateness and the challenges that were likely to be encountered by teachers and students … we sought the advice of our educators, our experts, both within the classroom and in administration, they expressed grave concerns over aspects of the design, and whether it was best suited for the needs of our students,” he said at the time.