Free the Hallways

According to school architect and author of The Third Teacher, Trung Le, over 35% of the square footage of the average school are in use less than 5% of the day.

The hallways.

The reason for this is that the institutional design that schools most resemble are prisons.

Think about it — we move kids from cell to cell, we monitor their coming and going whenever they leave their cells at anything but the designated time, often giving them a pass so that other adults can know immediately that the student is allowed in the common space, and many principals are taught that the secret of success as an administrator is to clear the hallways as soon as the bell rings at the start of class, and most schools give three or four minutes to get from class to class, no matter how big the campus is or how crowded the hallways get at the change of classes.

And we wonder why kids feel like school feel like prison.

If we want kids to feel that schools are more human places, let’s start by making every space a learning space, every space a social space. Let’s free the hallways. It makes sense from a practical point, if nothing else. Authentic learning tends to require more square footage than traditional schooling. When a class of 30 high school students start collaborating, the average classroom can get loud quickly. Letting a few groups work in the hallways is not only a way of letting students own where and how they learn, it also just makes learning easier by simply giving kids more room to work.

But it makes sense from a philosophical sense as well. We can shift our thinking from  When kids are not herded from classes to class with three minutes but are given a little more time to transition, they feel more valued. When kids do not view learning as tethered only to a specific classroom space, they are more likely to see school as a continuum of social learning that is an intrinsic part of their lives, not just something that is done to them.

And yes, there will be times when the kids get louder than we want them to. And yes, this will make it easier for some students to check out of the learning when they want to. And yes, it will mean that “classroom management” can be a little harder when our classrooms does not end at the door of the physical class space. These are some of the negative consequences of what can be a very good idea. And while we need to do things to mitigate those issues, they will never go away. The question we need to ask ourselves is always this:

Is it better to deal with the issues that arise from allowing students more ownership over where and how they learn than dealing with the issues that arise from making sure students know that the adults tell them where and when to be at all times?

If the answer is yes, then schools need to prepare for a major culture shift.

But let’s be clear — this is hard.

This does challenge many of the assumptions we have made about school and how schools function as organizations, and this is a very difficult challenge for many educators to make. Thinking through the questions, challenges, issues and consequences – both positive and negative – of a shift like this requires honoring the concerns of everyone involved.

  • What happens when we put tables and chairs along the halls and make it space that kids can use?
  • What happens when students do not have to stay only in the cafeteria to eat lunch?
  • What happens when we create spaces that are shared between teachers and students?
  • What are the ways we can create third spaces for kids to be that are lightly supervised with a lot of space for student ownership over community standards of behavior?
  • How can the community keep the best goals of this shift in mind, even when there are frustrations with the shift?
  • How do we balance what can be competing needs of teachers and students in the use of physical space?

Autonomy and agency can be really hard, because people make bad decisions from time to time — not just kids, but all of us. And this is not about giving total autonomy to students — everyone has a responsibility to each other to be responsible to the learning process, especially if much of the learning is collaborative. It is about collaborative agency, where decisions can be made together. And when we give kids more agency over how they use the space, we challenge many of the assumptions we make about school. That’s not easy, but the rewards can be one more powerful way we move from compulsory schooling to a more democratic and empowering education. Schools are not prisons, and every step we move away from that model of institutional design, the better.

25 thoughts on “Free the Hallways

  1. i try to let my high school students work where they feel they need to work…..classroom, hallway, hallway one over, stage, library, computer lab at other side of building…..but worry that admin will come down on me for letting kids out of my sight

  2. This concept raises so many challenges. It is really difficult and for success, everyone would need to be on the same page with implementation. It is necessary, but perhaps the ultimate challenge in changing school culture. Would love to see this in action. Will you do this? Document your successes and failures. You have the perfect school culture to make it happen.

    • We already do. All of the questions I posted are questions we have had to ask ourselves… over and over again. We’re just now, I think, reaching a place where everyone has enough of a sense of comfort with this.

      • So you have no bell schedule per se? Kids have freedom to come to class when they want? I’m trying to wrap my head around this. As for the hallways as work spaces, I often send kids out into the hallway or computer storage room to work on projects, record audio or video because it just works. I am sure that many teachers do this. On the other hand, our kids are in the halls during lunch all the time. Sometimes it gets really loud and I have had to physically separate some kids by pulling them into my classroom to avoid major confrontations. Why we all need to be on the same page, I guess. Did you and your staff consciously sit down and discuss the concept of open spaces and then also have discussions with the kids, or did it happen organically?

        • No, we still have a schedule. (That’s the *next* school I want to start…) it is about just extending the classroom into multiple spaces by now… and yes, we have had a ton of conversations about the limits and challenges of it. It is hard, and it does require everyone. But on our best days, our hallways are a mix of kids on free periods chatting, kids working on projects, and adults wandering around, checking in, and when it works, there’s a vibrancy to the school that just feels right. (When it doesn’t work, it gets very messy, very fast.)

          • Thanks. I would love to see our school open it’s doors more often. I do think kids get it when they are respected and part of the discussion. I’m not sure that happens enough. I’m glad to see you taking the lead in our district and setting an example for others.

  3. Chris, my school (Downingtown STEM Academy) has taken the same approach. No bells. Massively open, collaborative workspace. It’s a must in the world we are asking our students to lead. Thank you, too, as SLA was a model for the school I teach in,

    Here are two blog posts I wrote about my school and the open space this year.

    Project-Based Learning at DASD STEM Academy &

    The Need for Collaboration

  4. Your second question to tackle was interesting given a training I attended this week. The person in charge of nutrition services for the district told us that if students leave the designated area for eating ( i.e., the cafeteria), then they would have to worry about competing foods of minimal nutritional value. What that means is that if a kid eats his lunch outside of the cafeteria and all the way on the other side of the school a teacher gives a student a piece of candy, then the state would not reimburse us for lunches for the entire month. So what that means is that if we do not monitor and ensure that our students are in the cafeteria eating and we will essentially be fined an entire months first of lunches at our school that has 90% of our students on free and reduced lunch. While I love your ideas and your push for open spaces and allowing students to be in control of their learning, it is so hard when you have to fight against something that is so much bigger than our school and the community of learning that we want to establish.

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  6. At our school, we have massive hallways that aren’t used. In fact, we have a beautiful courtyard just behind the row of buildings and we aren’t allowed to use those, either (a string of excuses: no doors, too far, sometimes is used for lines in P.E.) I am struck by the fact that some of my favorite schools use space, all of their space, in such a flexible way that it feels open, human and lived in.

  7. Working in a Le designed building we certainly have many of the features mentioned in the post. It’s kind of effective, but the hallways are still pretty similar to what our hallways used to feel like, and would feel familiar to most who’ve spent times at schools. Far more effective have been the other kinds of spaces that Le has designed for community and teaching and learning.

    And I think that’s just fine, because ultimately I don’t think that’s what we need to free hallways from. I think we need to free hallways from being the rare place that student’s are allowed to move around in. I think we need to free hallways from being the rare place that students can fulfill their need for peer interaction. I think creating that freedom in hallways is a far more radical change for schools and would not only allow for the kind’s of interactions Chris mentions but have a much larger impact on our students.

  8. So are your students designing the next school building, built from recycled/reused materials and flexible enough to let anyone create a collaboration space by rearranging “things” ? If there were ways to use “things” to limit sound travel, even better. Having taught in an “open classroom” school for many years, I know how important flexible spaces can be! Have fun with this design challenge.

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  11. In my school, having chairs and tables in the hallway leads to concern from the fire marshall about blocking exits. We may no longer prop open doors for fear they won’t be closed during fire evacuations. More difficult to keep an eye on students working in the hall.

    • That’s a case of not letting the educators make educational decisions. It’s been my experience that an administrator sitting down with school police / fire marshalls, etc… and articulating an educational vision and then asking, “How can we make that vision work and still respect the safety needs?” can get to a place where everyone can get their needs met. But you have to be willing to have the conversation.

  12. I used to work at at an alternative public elementary school in California: no bells, no herding children in lines… just an clear expectation of how to respect environment, each other, community and many, many opportunities to demonstrate self-management. Students generally step up the plate when they are given a structure to succeed within. Even better, students feel empowered when they themselves co-design the structure that works for them. What if students were given a hand in designing their own learning and community space?

  13. Great insight! This is something that I, along with many others, have never thought about. One of the many perks of online learning is avoiding the corralling, herding, and overall population control that is associated with traditional schooling. I would love to hear more on the subject!

    Sarah, Blog Editor
    American College of Education Teacher Blogs

  14. I am intrigued by your idea of spaces that are shared between students and teachers. Some teachers in my school have large groups of students up in their classrooms for the lunch hour. This seems generous and a wonderful way to build both teacher-student and student-student relationships, but those teachers never seem to have time to themselves or time to visit or socialize with other teachers. I jealously guard my lunch and planning periods as time to get myself centered. What types of spaces shared between students and teachers are you envisioning?

    • Kristi – for us, it is best typified by our Main Office, which has a table where lots of folks sit. We also have Math Labs, Lit Labs, places for drop in support, etc… where people can interact as people. What’s interesting is that if we create those spaces where it’s not one teacher interacting with students, but rather, shared spaces where people enjoy being together, it can be spaces where people can get and feel centered together, which is cool.

      • Maybe because I teach freshmen I have little desire to spend too much extra time with them outside of the classroom 🙂 They are exhausting because they do need so much attention. I am actually planning on creating a more inviting space in our 3rd floor teachers’ lounge so that teachers can have a place to be together. All it needs is a little bit of thrift store furniture and decoration. Right now teachers warm up their lunches then eat alone in their rooms. I think we are missing an opportunity to build relationships with each other and relieve stress.

        • One idea could be to offer recurring work lunches. While some adminstrative tasks need to be done independently, sometimes organizing materials or lesson planning/collaborative lunches can be incentive for teachers to leave their rooms but feel like they are taking care of business. When I was in the classroom, those breaks were crucial time for me to get/stay ahead of the day. Sometimes I would need a break from the students but wouldn’t mind a little company while I cross some things off the never-ending list.
          Great ideas!

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