Dear Mr. Smythe
I’m an Auckland student, and for my History of Ed. paper we have been asked to write about an important person in New Zealand education. A chapter in Colin Gibb’s new book prompted my interest in Elwyn Richardson. However, I couldn’t find out much about him until I googled and came across your series of articles.
I wonder if you would mind answering some questions I have about him.
Thank-you and I look forward to hearing from you.
[I am setting out this correspondence as a lead in to a description of how Catherine Lang of Waikato University is using ‘Teacher Diary’ with her third year students. Another purpose of this posting is to encourage teachers to read the 11-part series on networkonnet (‘Elwyn Richardson: Lessons to be learned’) detailing the extraordinary way Elwyn worked with children at Oruaiti in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s; and the later seven-part series, ‘Teacher Diary’, which has Elwyn teaching as though in a contemporary setting.]
As you would have guessed, of course I would be willing to help you in any way.
As well as Elwyn Richardson, I thought about both Sylvia Ashton-Warner (who is also in Colin Gibb’s book) as a web site icon. But there is more education in Elwyn, and for all his irascibility and undisciplined thinking in his later work, he is easier to like. Both are inspirational in that they exemplify the idea of finding your own way in teaching, but the detail of Richardson’s teaching still resonates today.
My views about Elwyn Richardson are derived solely from his writing. A major proviso I have him about him is that away from children, I find him an unconvincing education thinker. When, however, he is responding directly to children he is often sublime. It is the latter Elwyn Richardson I want to keep in front of teachers today.
His reputation, in my view, is based on the one book, ‘In the Early World’, in which an excellent introduction is provided by the government-sponsored publishers of the book. His later writing is saturated with grievance and complaint. Even in ‘In the Early World’ you can detect the attitudes that were to become so much more evident and obstructive to his wider education purposes. Other teachers at the school, parents, the four New Zealand-renowned arts people who occasionally give him help, visitors to the school (one of whom was Beeby himself), formative influences, are like ghosts – it is nearly all about Richardson and the children. However, given the somewhat magical nature of the book – this tight little world, this world with the concentration on the teacher and children, is why the book charms.
In a nutshell, I only find Richardson useful when he is describing how he responded to children. As a result, I am not much interested in the later Richardson; the Richardson who fought, and no doubt still fights, to get the world to see him as he sees himself and his contribution to education, which, though a natural and human thing to do, he manages to do in a particularly charmless way.
I will help in any way I can.
By the way, did you pick up on Elwyn in Teacher Diary 1-7?
Thank-you for your kind response and I am very grateful for your help. Is ‘Teacher Diary’ the ‘Lessons to be learned’ series?
[It isn’t – the seven-part series ‘Teacher Diary’ is additional to the 11-part series on Elwyn Richardson at Oruaiti.]
I am working on my list of questions now.
[I received an e-mail from Catherine Lang, Waikato University.]
Just letting you know that I am reading ‘Teacher Diary’ to my third-year students at the beginning of each tutorial. I have been able to make links to all sorts of things, but particularly to peer and self-evaluation (this is the paper on assessment).
I have told students it is the diary of a magnificent New Zealand teacher, and I will introduce them to the person at the end of the readings (in a couple of weeks). They are madly trying to guess who it is. I will then show them ‘In the Early World’, and I have a short video that Elwyn gave Colin [Gibbs], where he talks about art work done by different children across his various classes.
I’ll then introduce the students to Sylvia Ashton-Warner. I usually talk about Anne McKinnon as a local example.
Keep up the good work!
PS We may have Dorothy Heathcote here some time soon – I’ll let you know once I know when it is.
I thought you might be interested in this response from Catherine Lang. (She is at the School of Education, Waikato.)
I have found your ‘Teacher Diary’ on your web site.
It was very helpful in bringing Elwyn Richardson to life for me.
The following are my list of questions:
[The questions are responded to below.]
A part of my response to Elizabeth’s questions (Kelvin Smythe)
To begin on a more dismal note about this interesting and inspirational teacher (though being dismal was part of who he was, and part of his motivation), the references to George Parkyn and Elwyn’s aspirations for university recognition come from the valedictum (his label) at the conclusion of ‘Into a Further World’ his other major publication. I found this book useful but lacking the freshness and spark of his first book. I saw a Peter Pan quality in Elwyn when I read ‘In the Early World’; his appeal to me was his direct work in the classroom with children. This valedictum, however, is not Peter Pan, it is Eeyore, though there is a kind of admission that some of his relationship difficulties with authorities and parts of the education community might have been to do with his own personality.
You can sense the self-pity when he says, this ‘book is a small edition, and my last. I plan to print 100 or so, at first, with a few spares to give to a few remarkable friends or colleagues.’ Perhaps, he adds further on, I shall give my grandchildren a ‘copy so that they may be reminded of what an “oddity” their grandfather was.’ In the context of what follows in the valedictum, this is self-pity not self-mocking.
‘I grew up’, he says, ‘and was educated in unusual circumstances and times. I was handed out a liberal dose of misery in my schooling but perhaps I was not unlike some others who wanted to think, make, do, and did in other walks of life. I must not complain.’
The valedictum, though, is one and a half pages of complaint. Indeed, I think, in Peter Pan-style his wonderful teaching was a refuge from the world and a complaint against it.
Elwyn refers to the effect of his parents’ divorce on his university studies, the illness that followed, and his descent into what seemed Raskolnikov depths ‘in an apartment house below Grafton Bridge’. (The geography of his habitat a physical expression, it seems, of his spirit.)
‘In my later years’, he says, ‘after my “isolation” at Oruaiti, when I had something of value to share, I found that it was difficult, and often impossible to be held with reasonable respect, because I do not have a recognised qualification.’
Oh, come on!
Elizabeth, at this stage, and taking into account my web site postings on Elwyn, I realise I am repeating what is in those postings; as a result I will do some quick responses (see below) then send you the postings (from ‘Elwyn Richardson: Lessons to be learned’) with what I consider the more significant parts highlighted.
Responded to in various places but, above all, to remind teachers of our heritage, and to challenge current formalistic approaches to teaching. I particularly admire his patience with children, his demand for truthfulness in expression, and the way he was determined to think through teaching in his own way.
Responded to in various places.
Definitely. Without the book, no collective memory would have been retained. The book has made the recourse to the Beeby legacy so much easier.
If he wasn’t part of something bigger, his work as a legacy would have no pertinence or value to the present day. Elwyn is part of the story we tell about ourselves, in other words, our education myth. He did not create the story; he was a brilliant representative of it. There are also other representatives of that myth, S A-W, for instance, and Beeby.
Complex question: Sue Middleton, Waikato University (who has done an excellent paper on S A-W) interviewed some teachers from the era, and creates a picture of a fair amount of similar teaching – I am much more cautious.
Responded to above.
They can be considered pre-academic times because education departments in universities were not really in existence. Administrators and teachers, as a result, felt they were the main source of education ideas.
Very vaguely remembered by a small number of older teachers (indistinct memories of the book); almost completely unknown by younger teachers.
As for his general influence: his book, as mentioned above, has definitely added to our education myth about the Beeby era, though, as I say, most don’t know the part he played.
One important point, though, I perhaps need to reiterate: while representative of the era (albeit a brilliant one), he did, in relation to what we consider inspirational teaching, shift the myth on its axis in a particular way. Without him, the immediate environment over more distant ones, and the emotions over the cognitive, would not have achieved such ascendancy. You can read me in web site postings trying to correct what I consider an imbalance – an intolerance.
All the very best
I hope things are going well with your writing. It was interesting to hear Ashton-Warner’s son being interviewed on National Radio (following a Sylvia Ashton-Warner conference) and slide away from making big claims about his mother’s educational significance, to emphasise her brilliance as a writer.
As a final thought, I need to draw your attention to the part a Walford Fowler played as a formative influence. Walford Fowler was an Oxford MA graduate in zoology who worked on Elwyn’s parents’ farm as a labourer. He is acknowledged by Elwyn as a considerable influence – teaching him, in particular, how to observe and record the natural world around him. This acknowledgement is clearly expressed, but is only done much later, and in isolation from his main writing. My point is that the more I think of it, the more I think Walford was extremely influential. It is an evocative part of Elwyn’s background: Walford was a virtual unknown, who met a lonely and early death, but is part of our education story.
Just a thought.
I am going to do a bit of an overview of responses to various postings on the web site. Nearly all the responses will be anonymous but I would like to identify you in association with your use of ‘Teacher Diary’. Would that be all right?
I gained great satisfaction in writing about Elwyn, as I did in ‘Teacher Diary’, as though he was in action again.
Here is a piece about Elwyn I wrote. Let me know if it’s what you want or whether it needs tweaking.
Elwyn Richardson in primary teacher education programmes (from Catherine Lang)
I make sure that somewhere along the line our primary students are introduced to Elwyn in our professional practice papers. There is not, I’m afraid, a great focus on the work of historically inspirational New Zealand educators in our programmes (I suspect this might be the case in many institutions). With the shift from most primary students doing a four-year teaching qualification, to a three-year one, things have changed and not all students get to have an historical perspective on New Zealand education. They miss out on their proud heritage of world renowned, learner-centred, developmental teaching. The decade of prescriptive primary curriculum documents has taken its toll. It’s not until I get to the masters paper I teach, about teacher curriculum decision-making, that we can really make people like Elwyn the centre of attention.
I read to the students at the beginning of each tutorial as a ‘thought to focus us’. Recently, for the Curriculum and Assessment paper, I have been reading to my third year students, excerpts from Kelvin Smythe’s networkonnet Teacher Diary. I have been able to make links to all sorts of things, but particularly to children’s peer and self-evaluation (this is our main paper on assessment). I told the students it is the diary of a magnificent New Zealand teacher, and that I would introduce them to the person at the end of the readings (after a couple of weeks). They madly tried to guess who it was, asking, ‘Come on, give us a clue!’, ‘Is the person still alive?’, ‘Did they teach you?’, ‘Is it a New Zealand author?’ …
On Wednesday this week (after we’d had several excerpts) I borrowed all six copies of In the Early World that we have in our library, and took them to class along with my own copy. I also had Elwyn’s videotape Oruaiti In the Early World: A Day in the School.
I read one final excerpt, and then told the students that the teacher was Elwyn Richardson and said a little about him, including that the book had been a compulsory text when I was student teacher. I distributed the seven copies of the book so the students could look at it in pairs (it’s a small class of 15 students) and put on the videotape, intending to play the first ten minutes as an introduction. If it was well received, my intention was to play the rest of the tape in a couple more bites in later tutorials. As I watched the students’ faces I could see that they were utterly captivated. I let the tape run for almost another ten minutes and then said quietly ‘Shall I stop it now or do you want to see the whole thing?’ ‘See the whole thing’ was the response almost as one voice, with no one taking their eyes off the screen.
Once the video came to an end I remained silent – I’ve learned to be comfortable with silence, to use wait time, and dwell in the moment. After a short period of silence, out came a tumbled torrent of ‘Can we really teach like that?’, ‘Wow, that’s so relevant to kids!’, ‘We did things like eeling when I was at school!’, ‘It’s like real life – kids live in the community and go to school and it’s all part of the same thing, no gap between home and school’.
Several made connections with their own education in rural schools and bemoaned the ‘fact’ that you can’t do that in town, or not without a lot of forward planning and permission slips. There was lots of discussion about OSH, risk management plans, and the like.
Several said, ‘I want to read this book – can you still buy it?’ (I had taken along a printout of the page on the NZCER website where it may be ordered for a mere $22).
I talked a little about Margaret MacDonald’s research project and how she had interviewed some of the people who had been taught by Elwyn – possibly some of those whom they’d seen in the video. ‘What did she find out?’, ‘How old would they be now?’, ‘What did they say?’, ‘Can you ask her for us?’ were typical responses.
I was able to tell them a little more about Cherry Raymond, who taught the infant class, and Barry Brickell who came in and potted alongside the children. I also reminded them that Colin Gibbs’ book To be a Teacher: Journey’s Towards Authenticity, which is a recommended text for the paper, has a section in it about Elwyn, in the Inspirational Teachers chapter.
My greatest delight in all this is the enthusiastic ‘Can we really teach like that?’ response from so many. ‘Yes’ I told them emphatically, ‘the curriculum design and review provisions of The New Zealand Curriculum 2007 open the way for you to take back teacher curriculum decision-making in the best interests of the children you teach.’