Elwyn today

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.

Yours sincerely

Elizabeth Day


[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.]

Dear Elizabeth

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?

Best wishes



Dear Kelvin

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.

Best wishes

Elizabeth Day


[I received an e-mail from Catherine Lang, Waikato University.]

Hi Kelvin

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.


Dear Elizabeth

I thought you might be interested in this response from Catherine Lang. (She is at the School of Education, Waikato.)

Best wishes



Dear Kelvin

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.]

Best wishes



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.

Question/statement 1

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



Dear Elizabeth

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.

Best wishes



Dear Catherine

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.

Best wishes



Dear Kelvin

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.’


Elwyn Richardson: Lessons to be learned (11)

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.42.23 AM‘In the Early World’


Richardson’s work with clay at Oruaiti has been kept for the final posting. I wanted to end on a positive note, returning to his inspirational teaching at the small Northland school. A few months ago I took my granddaughter to Fieldays, and sought out the area where potters often demonstrate their skills. Two potters from the FirePot Café, Gordonton, were there. One of the lessons I want to be learned from Richardson is the need for children to form their own knowledge (as against simply downloading it). An important kind of knowledge is aesthetic knowledge – finding out the nature of clay, how to work it, are examples of that. Admittedly, there is a mischievous thought as part of this. I have this picture of a teacher wanting to do clay work, and scratching her head about where to do it. Then I see computers being unplugged, put to one side, and the glorious messiness of clay work taking over. How more basic can you get than slip-covered hands moulding clay? In the decades to come, when parents are all computer savvy, and homes are as laden with computers as schools, parents will not be so beguiled by schools featuring computers as substitutes for teaching, and they will want schools to provide their children with real experiences – real experiences like clay. One of the potters did some clever things on the wheel for my granddaughter, then gave her a lump of clay. For days she moulded it, refreshened it with water, took it to school for morning talks, and left grey traces over home, school and clothes. She loved that lump of clay. I asked the potters if many schools were doing pottery. They said a few, mentioning Knighton Normal, for instance, as having a kiln. Well done Knighton.

Richardson’s foray into clay was very early in his tenure at Oruaiti. His writing about it has an engaging exuberance. The story begins with the class traipsing over the local area gouging out samples of clay, taking them back to the classroom, and testing them for suitability. This process took some months with the children fully involved in the experimentation. All the while, the children were manipulating clay and learning about its nature and texture. The co-operative way teacher and children worked together to establish pottery in the programme, set the tone for Richardson’s Oruaiti years.

At last, the first day of pottery arrived – the children were ebullient. Trevor’s first coiled pot rose swiftly and largely, then slumped to the table. He pronounced it a huge success. His next one, though, was more cautiously built and it rose firmly and solidly. The potters talked about form and decoration as they worked. The ebullience became more focused as the work itself ‘appeared to maintain a new control over the individuals’. The clay used, however, was not suitable and a large number of pots cracked in the drying. Class discussions followed. From trial and error, it was found that placing the pottery in the dark of the store room cupboard for slow drying was the best process.

Design became an important issue for the children. Red earths from the ridges were collected and made into slips. Designs were also drawn into the raw surface, as well as through the red slip to the cream coloured surface below. Much of the early decoration was clichéd, but Richardson took a patient approach with this. Before long, trees and fish gave way to line, mass, colour, and texture expressed in an abstract way.

A small group of children became recognised as highly skilled and the experimenters, and it was these children who led the advance into large pot construction.

‘We’ll have to roll coils quite differently,’ said Bevin.

They prepared a large bin of clay mixed with shards and raupo seed-heads. The handling and thumping down of each coil required new hand techniques. When the coils began to rise on the pot shape it was found most convenient to sling coils over the shoulder so that both hands were free for the moulding. Richardson said the ‘process gradually assumed a rhythmic pattern as the potters shuffled around their growing pots.’

‘The noise fun went on, until most of them climbed down and ate their lunches. They sat around their pots and talked about their new experiences … They spoke of the satisfactions there were in clawing handfuls of clay off a pot to trim it to form, and that of ‘bonging’ a wall out to correct contour.’

The children worked out for themselves that the surfaces of the large pots were better if they had a textured surface, so the shapes were smoothed off without water. They also decided that the surface should not be busy, but be decorated with a few bold strokes. There was always a large audience during any transformation of clay into pots. Murmurs of approval or expressions of doubt were offered. It was a valuable forum for the discussion of art values.

Two other pottery techniques became popular. The process of pressing clay into a plaster mould, smoothing-off, designing, and decorating was quickly grasped by the children. Another technique was clay-pressing which involved pressing many kinds of natural surfaces like bark, leaves, and shells into clay to form, for instance, decorated tiles. These techniques were particularly successful with junior children.

Richardson recounts in detail the adventures, triumphs and setbacks with building and using kilns. Finally, a kiln was fired up.

‘By lunch time there were flames gushing out of the hundreds of cracks all over the kiln. We then began to throw small branches and sticks down the chimney and gradually the flames built up to a roar.’

Perhaps, enough said, and anyway, schools today, which have their children participate in the hugely satisfying and fundamental activity of clay work, will have their own kiln, or access to one. Richardson also describes his struggles and occasional successes with glazing.

Richardson comments on the way, with different groups of children, the process of making pots and firing them had to be repeated.

‘Each re-beginning in pottery has been different, but each time, even though I know too well the processes involved, I have attempted to preserve some of the feeling of discovery that we knew at the first firing.’

And that brings me to the final paragraph in this final posting about Elwyn Richardson. The convention is that this paragraph should be a comprehensive summing up of what has gone before, but I am not going to follow that convention. Richardson was only effective when he was close to what the children were doing, and I prefer my comments about Richardson, and developmental education, to be considered close to what Richardson was saying. However, there are a few concluding points I would like to make. I hope the potential lessons to be learned from Richardson are not dismissed because he was in a small country school in a different era. My suggestion is that the focus be on the nature of Richardson’s interactions with children. Many of these interactions are sublime and timeless. Then there is the nature of developmental. There may be those who still feel that understanding it is like grasping a rope of sand. It is really quite simple, though. Developmental requires two main things: a teacher who has a grasp of the essence of curriculum areas; and the provision of time for children to work things through. These are the potent characteristics required for a successful developmental classroom. My final message is addressed to lecturers from schools of education, and to principals. Lecturers – our developmental ideal should be an important part of what you do with students. Developmental is eclectic by nature, it can be used as a context for all the learning theories about education. Principals – much of the maintenance and strengthening of our developmental ideal depends on you. A characteristic of our present system is anxiety – especially from concern about the career effects of review office reports. One of the best ways to bureaucratically control an organisation is to have strong bureaucratic control with the minimum of bureaucrats. That is the system we have. I plead with you to rise above this and be heroes for our system, tactically working around bureaucratic demands, but strategically working to encourage, experimentation, creativity, and innovation in our schools.

Elwyn Richardson: Lessons to be learned (10)

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.42.23 AM‘In the Early World’

Man alone, misunderstood, unappreciated?

Richardson saw himself as a man alone in education, misunderstood and unappreciated. This view of himself was evident at Oruaiti and became stronger as the years went on, as did the bitterness that accompanied it. I stated in posting 1, it was a view similar to Ashton-Warner’s, and seemed to be part of the motivation they needed to carry through with their education ideas. This posting will consider Richardson’s ideas about himself, others, and the education system; then whether he was, indeed, a man alone.

In his final book (‘Into a Further World’), Richardson makes a farewell statement. It is a sad one, suffused with grievance, regret and bitterness. Most of his problems, says Richardson, ‘have been because I am different from the usual kind of person one would expect to find at the village school. (He was referring to his own school years on Waiheke.) After describing his woes there, he adds bizarrely ‘I must not complain.’

Following two years doing a science degree, he describes how he ‘fell into the void’ following his parents divorce. There follows an account which, for me, was reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov in ‘Crime and Punishment’. ‘… I ended up on my own in a squalid single room, beside a toilet used by 25 people, in an apartment house below Grafton Bridge. … I floundered and sank into the squalor of mere existence.’ Richardson could, of course, have valued these experiences as having a silver lining – by making him a different person, it gave him a different view of the world, which he used to sublime effect at Oruaiti. But Richardson is heading in another direction. He says he gained some recognition for his work at Oruaiti, but he ‘found that it was difficult, and often impossible to be held with reasonable respect, because I do not have a recognised qualification.’ The sense of grievance and inadequacy about this perceived lack of qualifications is important to understanding Richardson. From my point-of-view, while I  respect university developed education knowledge, Richardson could just as well have rejoiced in his lack of qualifications being important to the freshness and vitality of his Oruaiti insights.

In an extraordinary dedication in a minor publication (‘The Wonder of Child Reality’), Richardson writes ‘This book is dedicated to black men, to brown and to yellow men, to red and white men, but especially to little grey men wherever they may be all over the world.’ This is one of a number of references he makes in his writings to ‘grey men’ – that is, people in the official education system. He had a long memory for every little hurt. ‘I was told once by a school inspector,’ says  Richardson,’ that it had taken me an inordinant time to find out very little.’

Yet, how well did the official system do by Richardson. There was the significant amount of advisory support (referred to in the previous posting). There is further significance in this support when it is appreciated that it was provided by renowned arts people. A clear signal that the official system appreciated the arts and the direction Richardson was taking. Clarence Beeby, the Director of Education, even visited Richardson at Oruaiti to see what was going on, and to give encouragement. When Richardson was finding it difficult to get into an American university because of his lack of qualifications, George Parkyn, Director of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, vouched for him. And crucially, Parkyn’s organization, using government money, undertook in 1964 a prestigious publication of ‘In the Early World’. John Melser from the Council of Educational Research provided an insightful and gracious foreword. Richardson, however, was already intent on settling into a laager. He asked Parkyn to seek from his Council ‘“some kind distinction” for me, in order to protect the Oruaiti ethic from undue criticisms which might be based upon my lack of a completed qualification.’ (This is cringe inducing.) I suspect Melser’s foreword was the Council’s response to that request. ‘30 years after Oruaiti’, Richardson says (a little dart, I think), Richardson was given a Distinguished Merit Award by teachers, and in 1989 a Queen’s Service Order. The Council formally acknowledged Richardson’s contribution in 2001, and in the same year re-published ‘In the Early World’. Richardson seems to have been well recognised by the official system. I suspect, however, that Richardson really wanted the officials to formally launch campaigns to promote and fix the Oruaiti values into the school system.

Richardson continues his story with references to his three years at American universities. He had to put up with ‘serious public insults’, says Richardson, but ‘never from’ students.  They ‘came from the teaching staffs of the institutions where I was teaching. The feeling of those insults remains with me to this day.’ He was invited by one university to do a doctorate. This is speculation on my part, but I suggest Richardson would have found relief in what seems to have been a pretext to return home.

Richardson returned to his Auckland school. In a revealing and sad comment he says that ‘I continued actively to experiment but did not extend a great deal of the philosophy into the school at large.’ Richardson found what all people find who want to change the values and practices of teachers, that it takes time and extraordinary patience.

Was Richardson a man alone in the developmental-style, child-centred programme he ran at Oruaiti? It is clear from what is stated above that the leadership in the official system recognised the value of what Richardson was doing, and encouraged him. Noeline Alcorn in her book ‘To the Fullest Extent of his Powers’ says Beeby never lost his enthusiasm for small scale innovations … he visited Elwyn Richardson’s sole charge school at Oruaiti, and came away impressed with the creative work his students produced.’

As for Ashton-Warner he ‘discussed Ashton-Warner’s readers’ with a senior officer.’ Alcorn then makes a statement I consider a key to understanding Richardson and the education context within which he worked: ‘Both Richardson and Ashton-Warner he (Beeby) would claim worked within a primary system sympathetic to their ideas and informed by Deweyan progressivism.’ I would qualify Beeby’s statement by saying that it was a sympathetic system at the highest levels, but patchy at other levels.

There is a myth about the extent of developmental practice in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I use the expression myth to connote a self-defining story told by a group to itself, about itself.  However, as an ideal, the developmental had its genesis then, took some hold then, and is still influential today. It was an ideal fostered from the top, slow to make headway in the full range of classrooms, but gradually informed practice. The developmental philosophy is part of our primary school tradition, but is, and always was, more in our aspirations than our classrooms. This is not a university essay so I can use evidence gathered in an anecdotal and personal way. First, I was a pupil in the ‘40s and though I recall kindly practice, I cannot recall developmental practice. I was a teacher in a number of schools in the ‘50s and ‘60s, even one in a country school not far from Oruaiti. In the ‘60s to the mid-‘70s I visited a large number of schools as a lecturer. How widespread was advanced developmental practice? In junior classrooms in the ‘50s and ‘60s, especially first year classes, it was quite widespread. In those years, on many occasions, I can remember being informed in awed tones how such-and-such junior teacher ran a wonderful developmental programme. They were primary school heroes. Developmental classrooms were uncommon in classrooms above the juniors. I do, however, have a demur from the thesis I am putting forward. Developmental classrooms might not have been widespread, but developmental techniques became so. A key characteristic of developmental is time – time for children to work things through. And in providing this time the programme is broken up so that it serves better the learning needs of children. For instance, many New Zealand teachers have for long readily allocated a large part of a day, even a few days, to art or science, or whatever they wanted to pursue with continuity. In my view, the book-based, highly differentiated, ‘I can read’, balanced reading approach is an outcome of the developmental ideal. There are a number of other developmental techniques I would suggest as outcomes, for instance, integrated learning, learning centres, and contract learning. While developmental classrooms might not have been common in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the important point was that there was available to teachers a considerable degree of freedom to determine their own direction – most might not have pursued developmental rigorously, but it was liberating to feel they could do so if they wanted to, or to pick and choose if they wanted to. It is clear, though, from reading Beeby, and from other evidence, that many teachers were resistant to, and suspicious of, change.

Beeby in his autobiography ‘The Biography of an Idea’ wrote that neither new curricula nor freedom from official restraint were sufficient to induce teacher change.

‘ … we had to devise methods of stimulating the liveliest teachers to experiment with novel methods on their own account, or to join together in groups of their own making to break new ground. We had to make teachers feel that the department expected change of them, that it had a clear idea of the general direction the changes should take, that it would condone honest failures and that their successes would be of value to the committees working on new curricula’ (p.140).

The 1940s under Peter Fraser as prime minister, and Beeby as Director of Education, were a time of extraordinary education ideological change. A number of social, political, and cultural developments contributed to this. Under a new government, New Zealand had come through a depression, which required it to turn in on itself to survive. Now New Zealand was looking outward again, but now more confidently. And education was looked to, to give its young a better life. The country had gone through one world war, and was going through another, with the inevitable surge in patriotism. There was a sense of an opportunity for a new beginning.

The country was experiencing heady economic and social change – education, that sensitive barometer, was inevitably part of this. It would be wrong, though, to attribute this golden period in education leadership exclusively to such immediate events, and to events outside education. A reader of New Zealand history will find that many of the education changes can be linked back to the inspirational work of George Hogben around the turn of the century, leading through to the remarkable ‘Red Book’ which showed the influence of the ‘new education’ movement. The developer of that syllabus, T.B. Strong, wrote that the syllabus allowed teachers ‘new freedom … to organise their teaching in any way that most appeals to them …’ (I know I will be testing the patience of many readers by continuing with this historical consideration of the context within which Richardson functioned, but my fierce resistance to some of the changes under Tomorrow’s Schools arises from my affection for, and sense of rightness of, the ideological underpinnings that became evident in this period.)

New Zealand was ready to be set alight by that amazing education phenomenon, the New Education Fellowship Conference of 1937. Overseas and local speakers addressed the conference, then the speakers moved around the country speaking to packed halls and amidst great excitement.  Beeby says some of the occasions ‘had the flavour of the old-fashioned Methodist revival meetings …’ (p.106). Clearly, the education leadership was seeking change, but Beeby was continually giving thought to how to convince teachers to respond in kind. ‘Was the resistance “in the teachers” own minds, or somewhere in the structure of the system, which we could modify?’ (p. 130). The answer, is of course, in both, but also in general conservative social values. While teachers might have been slow to act on the freedom offered, many did take advantage of it to some extent, and as part of our education tradition and mythology, are still doing so today.

All parts of the curriculum were revitalised, but especially pertinent to Oruaiti was the focus on the arts and crafts. Beeby describes, for instance, how halls throughout the country were put to use as arts and crafts centres. Spinning and weaving, and clay were emphasised, one of the reasons being that in the wartime shortages that prevailed, materials could be found for them. Beeby describes how Sam Williams, an adviser, set up a hall, borrowed spinning wheels and looms, made hand spindles, gathered wool from barbed wire fences, and dug for clay. Drama was also a focus. Beeby describes how Williams used his theatre experience to make puppets and organise shows. Beeby says that the ‘introduction of drama, like Smithells’ stress on the aesthetics of physical education, gave emotional depth to his teaching’ (pp.142-3).

As far as the leadership of education is concerned, Richardson was not a man alone, misunderstood, or unappreciated. He might have engendered some suspicion in education generally, but that is the nature of advocating for, or representing, education change. More important was that far from being the outsider, Richardson, in his Oruaiti years, was the epitome of the official ideal.

Elwyn Richardson: Lessons to be learned (9)

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.42.23 AMMinor publications

Through a glass darkly

I do not have all of Richardson’s minor publications, but I am confident I have sufficient to catch the tenor of what, in his later career, he was saying about education, and his attitudes toward education in the past, present and future, and any light he was casting on writings in ‘In the Early World’. These minor publications were self-published, and self-linotype set and are a difficult read. Optimism, joyousness, spontaneity are generally absent – there is feeling of distance from the children, always Richardson’s muse. In previous postings (1 and 8) I commented on these publications as repetitive, lacking in discipline and clarity. In other postings I have commented on Richardson’s querulousness towards some in the education community, even pettiness. However, in these publications there is the occasional odd comment which serves to extend past insights, alleviate the gloom, and allow some reward for the reading effort.

The first minor publication considered is ‘Papers: Children’s Creative Education’, Volume 1, No. 1. There is a subheading inside: ‘Current Practices and Beliefs about Unit or Thematic Teaching.’ It took two readings before I was able to gain a sense of the point Richardson was making. A typical sentence ‘Misunderstandings, if not heresies, about the meanings and extent of the learning process in language unit teaching are, I think, fairly widespread and the assumption that teachers know fully what a process of language study leads to is not commonly concluded.’ Without making too much of such a sentence, note the tortuous construction, the use of the overblown word ‘heresies’, and the straw argument of expecting anyone to ‘know fully what a process of language study leads to’. Most disturbing to me is gloominess about classroom teachers, surely they must be the heroes of education writing – if they have any failings, it is in us the responsibility should lie, we must proceed on their purity of motivation, their wanting to do the best for children. That has been my credo for the forty years I have been outside the classroom, which I have never had reason to doubt. Gloominess about teachers and education directions imbues the minor publications. Another characteristic which is found in this publication and in others, is the dire tone used to describe various emanations from officialdom and various regional courses.

Some Language Theme or Language Units produced from Lopdell House attracted Richardson’s displeasure. Richardson’s publication in response has descriptions of the various current language approaches as Richardson sees them. There is little value in describing these as they are really set-ups allowing Richardson to make the points he wants to make:

  1. Science and social studies should serve as vehicles for good language, with science and social studies benefiting as well. (I agree with this, but earlier postings describe how this needs to be done with care.)
  2. Science and social studies should avoid broad-ranging themes because they often lead to abstract, unfocused learning. Themes should be small and intensive. (I agree wholeheartedly with this – see ‘Getting on top of the ’07 Curriculum (4)’)
  3. Themes should be mainly from the immediate environment.
  4. What he calls mega-units should be avoided because in attempting to cover every contingency, they impinge on spontaneity.
  5. For learning to be effective it needs to have an affective centre.

None of these points will surprise readers of earlier postings – but oh! the sweeping generalisations.

‘I found most Americans with whom I worked somewhat lacking in the ability to think of inspiring things to do in the classroom. Perhaps this quality of imagination is uncommon in any classroom?’

‘If this process went on to the point where language units were available for every moment of the classroom day serious and permanent change would take place in the quality of our teachers.’

‘There was a time in the ‘60s when some infant teachers taught in a very personal and imaginative ways which gave rise to fine standards of expression and creative product. The processes were formalised as written approaches to language teaching with the result that the essential qualities of difference and imagination were lost.’ (This issue will be returned to in the next posting when the context for ‘In the Early World’ and Richardson will be discussed in relation to reality and mythology.)

In commenting on science and social studies being used to promote language teaching ‘Criticisms arise from purists who see these incursions upon their subject matter with regret … I heard a little complaint about … the nature study chapter where we studied wasps …’

The second minor publication considered is No. 2 of the same series as above, with the heading: ‘Affective Based Approaches to Language Teaching’. Richardson, begins with derivative Ashton-Warner. Expressive education, he says, should arise from ‘situations where the individual has engendered deep feelings: love, hate, concern and despair …’ He and Ashton-Warner both emphasise the centrality of emotion to expressive learning, but Richardson is usually more restrained or, if you like, less overblown than Ashton-Warner. Richardson then goes on to describe four approaches to stimulate language thematic teaching

  1. The ‘bluebird in the window approach’ – which is about taking advantage of chance happenings.
  2. The teacher telling a story about a personal experience.
  3. The teacher reading poetry, a literature extract or short story.
  4. Setting up learning centres.

Richardson explains the ‘bluebird in the window’ approach by recounting the Oruaiti incident concerning the stranger and the billy. As with most of the descriptions in the minor publications, he explains too much, providing detail rather than inspiration, reminiscent of the in-service outcomes of which he was so dismissive. I did like his advice to teachers about storytelling. Richardson advised teachers to take care with the structure of the story and their choice of words so their storytelling was a suitable model.

  1. Be wary of adjectives and watch the quality of the verbs.
  2. Tell how you feel.
  3. Tell what you were thinking about.
  4. Tell what you were reminded of.
  5. Tell what other people might have been thinking, feeling, doing.

Along the way he casts doubts about the value of much specialist advice. As well, he complains again about mega-units, and the isolation of social studies from expressive language.

Richardson ends with a further complaint, this time about how the word ‘creativity’ has become debased: ‘There are those who never use the word. Some few don’t seem to have heard it. Some don’t believe in it. Others are disturbed in that the word no longer has true meaning for them – or so they say. Many such people, conveniently, acknowledge the word at the right place and time.’ Fair enough, I suppose, but I get the feeling Richardson was probably putting names and faces to categories as he described them, also allocating situations, schools and agencies.

The third minor publication considered is No. 4 of the same series above, with two headings: ‘Teaching Styles and Teacher Diversity’ by John Denny; ‘Four Models or Styles of Teaching’ by Elwyn Richardson. The contribution by John Denny is a description of how a class programme might be run using a variety of teaching styles to meet the needs of children and suit the structures of what is being taught. The eclecticism of the approach is admirable and clearly comes from thoughtful and hard won classroom experience. However, what interests me most in Richardson is not the overall functioning of programmes, which is what Denny’s description concentrates on, but the frisson of engagement between teacher and child – the classroom equivalent of when the rubber hits the road. It is interesting that Denny’s contribution is not referred to by Richardson, it just sits there, unremarked on. Richardson’s contribution which follows describes in general terms a kind of continuum in teaching style from the formal to the very open. Of the four styles described, it is the third he favours, and in the quaint, sweeping, highly personalized, and idiosyncratic manner characteristic of him, adds ‘There are few teachers who work within the style of model three, even for part of the week, let alone for extended periods.’ He then goes on to name some teachers who do work within this model, or at least ‘for some part of the day.’

‘Four Models or Styles of Advisory Role’ Volume 2, No.2, has, for me, only one point of interest: he lists the names – is this belatedly? – of the arts and crafts advisory support from his years at Oruaiti – Jim Allen, sculptor; Mervyn Holland, photographer; Ralph Hotere, painter; Len Castle, potter. These people are luminaries. There may have been design in Richardson reluctance to go into detail about the degree and quality of the advisory support he was given. Teachers often look for a reason for inaction, for an excuse for why they have not gone in a certain curriculum direction. He could probably sense some teachers saying they didn’t have access to such advisory support, so such a style of teaching was not possible for them. Richardson went out of his way to seek advisory support in the arts field, sensibly sought the best available, then had the teaching skill to keep the interest of these advisers and to transform the information they provided into superb teaching.

I have three publications in ‘The Wonder of Child Reality’ (I think there were seven altogether.) They are not recommended reading. Confused theorising persists. I gloomily flicked through the publications, finding little of interest, then flicked through again to make sure – and there, marvellously, to lift my spirits were four good pages in Chapter One (how had I managed to miss these the first time through?).

Richardson had begun to visit Premla Prasad’s s.1 class (y.3), and Christine Hodge’s s.2 class (y.4), teachers in his own school. What he did with the children was interesting but similar to the experiences he recounts from Oruaiti – it was a series of interactions with individual children that interested me.

First, he comments on a child who wrote:

‘The black vine weevil was starting to make its home. I thought it was going to have eggs.’

Richardson comments that this kind of transmission of knowledge is an example of an uninvolved writer.

Another child wrote:

If you look at a flax plant you will see it wave in the breeze …’

The use of ‘you’ rather than ‘I’, and the indefinite article ‘a’ are also cited as indications of an uninvolved writer. Richardson points out that the writer is very unlikely to have had a particular flax bush in mind.

Richardson then moves on to imprecision in writing. When children use words like ‘funny’ and ‘silly’, he says, they should be invited to find more precise words.

A boy wrote:

‘I saw the wind catch the pine trees. It blew them from side to side.’

The boy was praised for his expression about the wind catching the pine trees, but was asked if the trees really moved from side to side.’

The teachers noted that a number of the children began their stories with ‘when’, and used the word many times in the passages that followed. By crossing out the beginning ‘when’, the children soon picked up it was not needed. They also found the same thing for many of the subsequent uses of the word.

A boy wrote:

‘Once we went fishing and we saw a man catch a baby shark …’

This boy, said Richardson, had a fixed idea that using ‘once’ was the way stories should begin. Richardson encouraged the boy to use ‘Last Monday’.

Richardson and the two teachers were concerned about the large number of stick figures among the drawings. They agreed to follow a common approach to encourage the children to be more thoughtful:

‘What did she wear?’

‘Did the bird have feathers?’

‘Did the bird have legs?’

‘Did the tree have branches?’

The two teachers had a large board for displaying wall magazines of stories, poems and paintings. To encourage the children to read the board, the teachers posted a sheet on which the children wrote their names on completing a read-through. Each teacher read aloud the work of the children before posting it. At regular times there were class discussions about what had been posted. All reminiscent of Oruaiti.

In the next posting I consider whether Richardson was indeed, as he saw himself, a man alone, misunderstood, and unappreciated.

Elwyn Richardson: Lessons to be learned (8)

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.42.23 AM‘Into a Further World’

A very mixed bag

In the introduction to these postings I described Richardson’s other major production –   ‘Into a Further World’ – as derivative, and his minor publications as repetitive, and lacking in discipline and clarity. That is not to say, however, there isn’t some value in the writings, and they don’t throw some light on what he has to say in ‘In the Early World’. The test, though, is whether his message is much bolstered by these later publications. In my view it isn’t. ‘Into a Further World’ has some of the characteristics of ‘Early World’ (powerful art work by children, programme descriptions, and insights), but Richardson is just that one step removed from the children, he stands back a little and generalises, he puts his teaching ideas into a more systematic format, there is absent that sense of being in on the discovery. He explains too much, it is more plotted, serving to formalise the detail of what he did, obscuring the important point that such developmental teaching is an attitude of mind – developmental principles being constant, the way these play out in the classroom rebelliously varied. The minor publications are even further removed from the spontaneity of children, there is much categorising, defining, and setting up straw targets, shot through with a querulous tone that was always close to the surface with Richardson, though kept under control in ‘In the Early World’. (The minor publications are discussed in the next posting.)

‘Further World’ begins with an account of early influences, particularly from Walford Fowler, who came to Onetangi, Waiheke Island, to work on his parents’ farm. He also happened to have an MA in Zoology from Oxford. Walford Fowler helped Richardson to see the beauty in natural life, and to observe and draw natural objects. Richardson describes how Walford Fowler would place a natural object in front of him, for instance, a seed head, and tell Richardson to get close to it in his feelings. He was told to look at it as a whole, to establish the outline, gain a bolder awareness of form, then an appreciation of internal form. The translation of natural life, following intense observation, into art, poetry, prose, and dramatic movement, was, of course, to form the basis of his teaching programme at Oruaiti.

Expressing natural life truthfully will inevitably be an important part all developmental classrooms, but the important point to take from the process Richardson describes is not the emphasis on the natural environment, but the advantage to children’s learning, any children’s learning, in establishing a foundation of emotional involvement, resulting from intense, rigorous experience. It could, for instance, be mathematics, physical education, or particular strands in science such as chemistry, physics, outer space. I can imagine, for instance, an insightful teacher of mathematics, consistently generating classroom excitement by getting children to see mathematics everywhere – in prehistory, history, the present social world, nature, the various parts of science, technology, literature, art, sport, dance, board games – everywhere. Then, devising imaginative ways for children to express what they discover. The scrupulous observation Richardson taught children to direct toward nature, could, under the tutelage of an inspired mathematics teacher, be directed toward mathematics – and curriculum balance, as was the case with Richardson and natural life, could take the hindmost.

The emotional involvement resulting from intense, rigorous experience is a constant for developmental – the particular curriculum area used, or topic can be anything. Later in ‘Further World’, Richardson expresses an inkling of this. In talking of his programme he said that thinking and feeling about the immediate environment was his predominant activity but there could ‘be areas distant in Social Studies and Sciences, which need the same kinds of understanding through emotional/ feeling involvement to be enjoyed and understood.’ Richardson comments, though, that these are areas in which he lacks the experience to be authoritative. He goes on to does add a statement that gets close to the ‘feeling for’ approach to social studies – ‘On the facts and opinions of a range of evidence from many sources (the more personal the better), we may at some time attempt to picture the people and thereby draw closer in a creative way to elucidating the motives, joys, fears, satisfactions and responsibilities of other peoples.’ Though imprecise and roundabout, and something of an aside, this statement is significant because it is a reference, one of the few, to the possibility of generating emotion in learning from topics beyond the immediate environment.

There lurks for me, however, a caution in what Richardson has said – perhaps more because of what we have learned about his preoccupations, than is explicit in the statement. Richardson was to show irritation at the kind of points I am going to make, an irritation shared by those who see developmental as very much revolving around an axis of the immediate environment, artistic and written (poetic) expression. In posting 6, I discuss the need to be careful in elucidating motives for people, especially from other cultures, because the process can easily become one of transferring the values of the ‘elucidator’ onto the ‘elucidated’. Mind you, Richardson does refer to ‘a range of evidence from many sources’ and uses the qualifying word of ‘attempt’. And the statement ‘motives, joys, fears, satisfactions and responsibilities of other peoples’ is a beautiful one. What then are my further concerns? It may surprise readers to know that I find the statement I have described as ‘beautiful’, also as potentially distracting. There is much knowledge about people that appears prosaic that, in its cumulative effect, has a profound emotional effect on the person gaining the knowledge. Our humanness, the bond between people, is expressed in many ways, one of them is in the way small details bound our lives. Grand statements can sometimes be misleading in this respect – establishing an emotional bond does not require a focus on obviously emotional behaviour like ‘joys, fears, satisfactions and responsibilities’. Then there is Richardson’s use of the expression ‘creative way’. For Richardson this would mainly have meant art, drama, and written expression. I endorse the place for these in all parts of the curriculum and am moved when these are done validly and effectively, but I am also moved when I read children’s expository writing as they find joy in analysing ideas, putting them in logical order, and making a convincing argument or explanation. I do not want to load too much on to what Richardson said, or what he is seen to stand for, but I want our children to be intellectual as well as artistic in outlook. I have italicized the word ‘seen’ because there was an obvious intellectual side to Richardson, which the children would have picked up on and benefited from, but it was the artistic side he brought to the forefront, and which he and the children revelled in.

There is one occasion in the book when Richardson breaks through to the kind of directness and insight common to ‘In the Early World’. A girl writes a poem about grass, not by describing grass, but by describing what she saw when looking through the grass.

Small balls of rain fall down and spit up in tiny streaks of white.

Leaves knotted by strings of weeds.

Leaves like cups hold blobs of water.

Drops of water trail down leaves and peak at the top.

Bird’s wings double as it flies.

Twigs uneven like a fork.

The dripping tap splits into tracks.

How many of us would recognise this as remarkable expression? Richardson pounces on it as a demonstration of his attention to children developing pictures or images in their mind, expressing those in art, writing powerful statements, then writing poems or short pieces from some of these. He called the poems that resulted ‘found poems’, that is, images found that are then expressed in poems. Richardson was intrigued by the girl’s poem. Each line describes a separate image, but they add up, he says, to a feeling of a whole. It was as though, he writes ‘she was still drawing, but with words.’

There are a number of lists and sequences in the book which I find unpersuasive, even disconcerting. There were, however, three lists close together which contain useful techniques for us to consider. Richardson describes what he calls the I saw programme, in which the children wander around the school grounds and make ten observations often using the introduction ‘I saw …’ ‘I saw a green beetle climb crippled grass’.

An associated, but more directive technique is for the children to be given a card with a list of places to observe or things to do:

  1. Go and look at a geranium flower.
  2. Go and look in a puddle.
  3. Throw a paper bag into the wind.
  4. … and so on.

As well, at Oruaiti, as we have learned, the children visited sites or situations at regular intervals throughout the year. In this book he lists them (there are forty):

  1. Starlings in our nesting box.
  2. Centipedes under the log.
  3. Our swamp to observe bitterns and blue and white-faced herons.
  4. … and so on.

A list of another kind is when Richardson provides examples of comments he makes on children’s writing. I warm to this list because of my experiences referred to in posting 5, where, in taking written language courses, teachers seem not to appreciate the worthwhileness, subtleties and challenges in encouraging children to write with sincerity. Richardson shows he understands the need for writing to be built on verbs and nouns, with the occasional adjective and adverb inserted for good effect. He regularly comments on the choice of words, felicity of image, other figures of speech, sincerity (did the tree really move like that in the wind?), honesty of emotion, precision. The repetition of these kinds of comments, Richardson says, acts as a reinforcement to raise the quality of thinking and writing.

At the end of the penultimate chapter, Richardson, once again reveals his sensitivity in guiding children through the creative process. Be patient with the children he advises.  During the preparatory phase for writing and art, or the actual carrying out of these processes, make plenty of suggestions but don’t force the issue. He says that children coming to terms with intuitive feelings takes time. Encourage sketching, drawing, jotting down of ideas. The ‘young creators’, Richardson says, ‘must know what intuition means and how to listen to its feelings and hints of where to go next and what to do.’

But what to make of the final chapter and appendices? Parts of Richardson’s personal story are told, a fair bit in an aggrieved tone, there are a number of lists and sequences, and a lot of attention given to how he organised the class to meet some formal language needs. The personal part of the final chapter will contribute to a later posting on Richardson’s characteristics and where he fits in New Zealand’s educational history.

The lists and sequences, disconnected from the immediacy of the classroom and children’s work, I find mostly unhelpful. In one of these lists, though, I do like it when Richardson advises teachers ‘never, never substitute a new “best” word for a student’s inadequate one! Query the word and leave the change to the writer.’ This is another caution by Richardson for teachers to tread lightly around the creative process. There follows one list I do find of value. That is when Richardson goes step-by-step through an artistic conceptualisation process. Some of the advice is:

  1. Look carefully and deeply at the whole object. Scan its parts. Put it together in the mind as a whole thing. What are the most striking parts of the object?
  2. Look at its outline. Draw it in the air over the object. Sketch a faint outline. Look again at the whole thing. Choose a kind of darkness you will use to draw the outline. Draw the outline permanently.
  3. Look for the dividing lines. Draw them in faintly. Thicken the main interior ones.
  4. Add feature details. Use thicker lines for the dominant features.
  5. Work over the drawing, looking, drawing, looking again.
  6. Consider light, shade, and textures.

This list undoubtedly has a direct link to the young Richardson on Waiheke receiving instruction from the farm worker and Oxford MA, Walford Fowler, on how to observe and draw natural life.

In the last of the appendices, Richardson gives some detail on how he took some aspects of formal language, what he calls ‘assisting pupils toward language facility’. His use of these are recounted from his later years as an Auckland-based principal, but they were also there, at least in embryonic form, in his time at Oruaiti. Teachers might like to consider the detail of what he did by going to the book, but perhaps the important point to note is that Richardson paid attention to such matters. At the heart of the process is the allocation of a numbered language evaluation card to each child. When Richardson marked their language books, also numbered, they were put into order so that evaluation cards and language books were in sequence. Richardson commented on spelling, grammar, and usage needs, he also praised excellences and well-chosen images. The children undertook individual activities around the needs noted from the marking, but when a number of children exhibited the same needs, small group teaching was organised.  Another technique involved Richardson compiling on the blackboard, a new word list from interesting words that came up during the day. (The words are drawn from the range of curriculum areas.) Various class activities were undertaken using these words. Another technique, one thoroughly explored at Oruaiti, was the reading out and discussing of exceptional pieces of writing. Then there were the topic lists which were set out on charts to help children with their spelling. Some of the topic lists were concerned, for instance, with ‘technology’ words, ‘weather’ words. Finally, there was oral English. Richardson listed in his oral English book, common oral expression errors for the children to discuss.

The next posting will be concerned with a number of Richardson’s minor publications.

Elwyn Richardson: Lessons to be learned (7)

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.42.23 AM‘In the Early World’

Social studies, nature study, and mathematics

Social studies, nature study, and to some extent mathematics, were largely grist to Richardson’s creative expression mill. This is not to say there weren’t subject learnings, even powerful ones, but in the approaches to the subject areas, and in the evaluation of outcomes, there was an emphasis on creative expression. There was also a strong emphasis on the immediate environment, and on nature study. (These issues were raised in the previous posting.) Curriculum imbalance, however, should be expected in an advanced developmental programme, indeed, almost be a requirement. Such programmes require teachers to take their enthusiasms, insights and skills and make full use of them to fire up the children. The gains can be counted on to far outweigh any losses, especially when it is remembered that the inspiration from being in such a programme is likely to be carried forward to all learning. Advanced developmental programmes in New Zealand do veer towards the immediate environment and creative expression as an emphasis, but teachers should recognize that any curriculum area, or cluster of areas, will serve to provide the necessary dynamism. For instance, mathematics, physical education, social studies, or science (that is, wider than Richardson’s nature study) could each be used to serve the purpose.

Richardson admits he was ‘biased’ towards using craft and painting in social studies. In the chapter on social studies, he extends this artistic bias to what he called drama-mime. He found using drama was useful for both revealing and remedying the shallowness of the children’s grasp of social experience. Drama, as a result, was described as a way to deepen understanding, and as a source for the same kinds of insights to be gained from art and craft.

The chapter on social studies describes what Richardson and the children did with a local history story of Hone Heke’s attack and slaughter of the inhabitants of Taratara pa. Versions of the story were put together to compile a possible sequence of events. The children demanded that the story be broadened to gain a fuller understanding of Hone Heke, also his uncle Hongi. During the two or three days in which the story line was being settled, many questions were asked, pictures painted, poems written, and small scenes acted. The children’s interest extended to such things as clothing, fighting instruments and techniques. This knowledge was seen as crucial to achieving success in the activities that followed. Richardson showed his typically good grasp of child-centred learning by noting that the discussion and study raised the feelings and knowledge of the children to a ‘level above the mere facts of the story where they can be easily related to and used for expression in the arts, language, movements, and drama’. (This is absolutely consistent with the ‘feeling for’ approach to social studies I advocate – see previous posting.)

The next stage was to divide the story into sections and for these to be allocated to groups to discuss, write a story for, and act. (My understanding is that Richardson’s technique with plays, as commented on approvingly in the previous posting, was that the plays had a story written for them to be read for the actors to mime.) At last, the play, ‘The Siege of Taratara’ was ready for its first run through. The play was then re-written and presented a number of times. As well, after children had identified parts they liked, they used these as a source of ideas for art and craft, and poems.

With the story line and play firmly in place, Richardson now felt certain parts, without distracting from the integrity of the play as a whole, could be isolated for special attention. These parts were used to give children opportunities to experiment with movement. The children, for instance, crept, crawled, reacted to startled birds, listened to the wind, hurled boulders, squelched through swamps. Body movements were identified and practised. While there was an element of the contrived in these activities, Richardson said they still carried with them the emotional power of the context from which they derived – which he saw as important to their value. As an extension of these more specialised movement activities, sound pictures were devised that were coordinated into complete sound stories. The sounds came from poems, simple songs, noises from children’s voices, and percussion instruments.

The story of Hone Heke and Taratara pa became the stimulus for a study of the everyday life of the pa. Understanding was obtained through a study of local pa sites, with large detailed pictures bring developed and discussed. Subsequently, the children studied the development of the valley through the hundred years of pakeha settlement.

Richardson, towards the end of the chapter on social studies, outlines his mantra for the curriculum area. The arts, he said, made it possible for children to say something in social studies, often in a surprisingly satisfactory way, which they could not have said otherwise. In return, new social studies topics provided a stimulus to the arts. A sense I gain from this chapter on social studies, is that the local history topic was a definite highlight of the social studies programme in Richardson’s time at Oruaiti. There are references to other social studies topics but little detail. Richardson does not make clear the purposes of social studies in the way he does for creative expression, so his praise for the usefulness of the arts in aiding social studies understandings needs to be qualified accordingly. Richardson’s mantra, though, is stirring to the primary teachers’ soul.

The centrality of nature study to Richardson’s creative expression programme has already been established in earlier postings. Amidst the outpouring of creative expression it is easy to overlook Richardson’s attention to knowledge – knowledge that came from acute and regular observation, also from research. The main point from the chapter on nature study is the way, in classic developmental fashion, topics often arose spontaneously, and were a case of one darn thing after another. The chapter begins with the statement: ‘Nature study began with rambles’ – a particular characteristic that developed from this practice was a listing of places or phenomena visited and the children returning at various times in the year to note any changes.

The children were working were working on some wood models, when Richardson noticed a boy wander over to a few wasps congregating on an apple core.

‘All workers still, but it won’t be long now,’ he said to his sister.

That was the beginning of a prolonged study on wasps.

The nest was tracked down; the continuation of worker wasps was noted; dead wasps were examined and drawn; for projection through the filmstrip projector, a slide of wings was made; various foods were tried as an enticement (honey was established as the favourite); a diary was made of their preferences and behaviours; microscopes were used for detailed examination; a survey was undertaken to establish whether the day being sunny or dull made any difference to the numbers visiting. Richardson saw the need for undertaking a fair number of direct content lessons, as well as directing the children to further statistical work. The study was extended to ichneumon flies, horn-tailed wasps, and the yellow wasp. Richardson usually manages a twist in interpreting his teaching. He said, for instance, that he did not expect, nor did he wish that any part of his work be written up by children or used in their accounts or reports. (Richardson had such a light touch with children, a democratic feel, somewhat in contrast with the irascibility of some of his dealings with the outside world.) Richardson does acknowledge, however, that his teaching contributions often featured in discussions. (I suspect that Richardson would have been delighted by this, all the more gratifying because of the assumed lack of expectation.)

Richardson’s teaching contributions took the form of stories about wasps from other countries. His ability and willingness to tell such stories points to the way Richardson valued knowledge, was curious about the world, and well-informed about it. He was a model in this respect. (Teachers, in my view, need to be well-informed and curious about the world to be able to recognize significant responses from the children and then to know how to build on them.) The current adage that teachers should not be expected to be fund of knowledge, and that children should simply be directed to research matters for themselves has some validity, but not as much as proponents of the adage might suppose. Teachers should have the subtlety of understanding that helps children to depth of understanding, not just breadth.  Richardson placed creative expression at the centre of his programme, but it was an expression of creativity that demanded a level of understanding that evoked a truthfulness in emotional response.

Two boys made their plans to find the nest. They planned to track the movements of the wasps from the various water sources. They found two water sources and assumed the nest must be between the two.

Eric told us of their discovery: ‘We followed the wasps up the hill and watched the sky to see the line of flight, The number of wasps increased until we heard the low buzz of the nest in a nearby dry gully bank. The ground seemed to throb with the drone below the ground.’

Following the boys’ directions, the class went up and found the nest without trouble.

‘Some children were too close, and David was stung three times,’ reported Eric.

‘Those are the guards, those ones. All the ones that fly close around the hole are there on duty … That’s why he “got” me,’ he said.

(Nostalgia grips me: Can you imagine children tracking down a wasp nest in the present ultra-cautious school environment? And I was a principal of a Northland school of much the same size, not too far from Oruaiti, at about the same time – and it evoked for me so well those drowsy summer days and the broken landscape. Also, how languorous small country school teaching can be.)

As readers will have anticipated, the finding of the nest stimulated a flurry of poems, descriptions, paintings and lino cuts, and diary entries.

Brett (13 June): ‘We went up at lunch time and we hadn’t been digging long before David got stung. We dug out the nest and the rest of the earth. The wasps came storming out and we had to wait for them to settle before we could dig any more. We went up on Friday after school and really got to work.’

Valerie (16 June): ‘We have just been up there. The hole is six feet deep and five wide and there are chunks and layers all over the paddock just where the boys left it … (Barbara) put her finger over one of the cells and wow, she was stung … Mavis dug up some of the paper cells and Barbara carried them because she had a cold and couldn’t smell the stink.’

Lewi (24 June): ‘The nest is dead. We saw the queen wasp and a drone. The nest is well dead because of the rain.’

(Did you read the above sequence with a smile and a sense of wonder at a time gone by?)

Some time after the wasp investigation, the children investigated infestations of caterpillars and their effect on pastures. Farmers were interviewed and pastures examined; the effect of spraying was reported on; what were those white eggs found stuck on to grass?; the children watched for what came out – grasshoppers; caterpillars were collected and a terrarium built; chrysalises formed and the children watched for what came out – moths.

A number of other contingent issues became studies for awhile: Ichneumon flies were seen eating caterpillars; sirex wasps were found on pine trees; recording air, shade, and water temperatures in a graph showed that water temperature altered slowly and little, shade temperature varied somewhat more, and sun temperature varied a lot. Richardson makes the point that there was often an advantage in studying the unusual before the usual. The advantage being the unusual at the beginning served as a basis for comparison for what followed. For instance, when the children visited the harbour, the class saw a white heron, which was rare. This led to a study of white herons and egrets as a lead into a study of the reef heron, which was common. To me, the value of such comments and asides by Richardson, is not always in the substance of the saying, but in the saying being said. Richardson demonstrates the important characteristic of continually looking for teaching improvements – sometimes representing a major step forward, other times like this, a tweaking.

A study of snails shows a number of features important to developmental teaching and, therefore, to Richardson’s modus operandi. A study of the rare bush snail was found in the hills near the school and was a lead in to a study of the common snail (Helix aspersa). The first developmental idea, then, was the way an informal, incidental occurrence became part the main programme; developmental teaching being very much an attitude of mind – the teacher always alert for ways to keep the children involved and motivated. As part of the work on the rare bush snail, the children pondered the significance of the lines on the snail. Some thought they indicated age, others only stages of growth. This represents another developmental idea, children being directly involved in the formation of their knowledge. When the common snail was studied, the children were sufficiently informed and motivated to work independently and creatively – a further developmental idea. Underlying all Richardson’s teaching is the availability of time and space for the children to try things out, and to work at a pace and in a manner that suits them. A flexibility in the availability of time was implicit in the way Richardson described the snail study. Richardson says ‘I liked the way that children were able to bring forward their own thoughts in their work … ‘. He then goes on to say that ‘study is only of value as it affects the children’s thinking and imagination.’ This is a reference to the central developmental idea of the link between cognition and emotion. He then stresses what can sometimes be overlooked in considering child-centred classrooms, the need for the interest to be ‘deep’ and ‘followed in fullness.’ In other words, for the affective and the cognitive to work well together, the cognitive needs to be rigorous to be affectively effective.

In discussing his ideas about mathematics, it will not surprise readers to learn that Richardson’s main advocacy was for tying the curriculum area to real-life issues. Mathematics did not seem to be a particular enthusiasm, but the idea of making mathematics practical is consistent both with his child-centred philosophy and good mathematics. And when Richardson focused his full attention on mathematics, some spectacular mathematics resulted.  Later in his time at Oruaiti, Richardson said he went away from working long lists of examples to discussing actual problems that drew on such examples. He followed the practice of having children make up their own mathematical problems for solution, to give added meaning to their work. The process being accompanied by a lot of discussion. Such a practice, in itself, does not guarantee that artificiality and unreality is avoided, but it is a pointer in the right direction, and in the hands of a skilled teacher like Richardson, led to some successful mathematical excursions for the children.

Richardson describes a number of situations as a source for the children to develop their mathematical understandings. Considerable attention was given to clay. Various kinds of clay were cut into standard-size strips in length and thickness, then marked into inches, halves, quarters, and eighths. The origin of the clay was also identified on the strips. The children checked the accuracy of other children’s markings, and discussed parallax error (if a potter was marking off a strip of clay and making an error of an eighth of an inch each time, how much error would there be in eight inches of measuring?). Problem making, Richardson said, became a game. One of the mathematical investigations became finding out which clay from which sites had the least shrinkage. Shrinkage was measured in percentage terms, then in decimal and fraction ones. Did firing change the percentage relativity? Then clays from different sites were mixed in various proportions. The clay study led to a consideration of shrinkage in materials used for weaving. For instance, a jacket was boiled, dried and ironed flat, then laid against a tracing that had been done earlier, and the shrinkage measured.

Making a work shed into a crafts centre became a major project. The children discussed what they wanted the shed for, how many people it would have to hold, and what benches, chairs, and tables they would need. Desks, tables, chairs and people were measured, colour-coded floor areas produced, various scale models, with furniture built to scale, were developed. The problem of sufficient room to undertake craftwork was real, said Richardson, and discussion was intense. There were hours of calculation. Mathematics, reported Richardson, lost most of its isolation. As construction and furnishing ideas were mooted, they were drawn in scale and filed. In this manner, several plans were recorded and a set of recommendations made and acted on.

Then a building of another shed in which to do craft was suggested. A model was planned in great detail, with the project gradually becoming the responsibility of the senior children. A large range of calculations were undertaken before a scale construction was undertaken.

‘The scale-model soft pine timber was cut to plates, dwangs, braces, rafter, barge boards … The glue-pot and tack-hammers were constantly in use as each side of the shed was made, the rafters cut into each other, the window frames stuck into place. Calculations of the quantities of timber used by each group were tallied against estimates previously made … The model shed was boarded up, battened, painted, and the miniature people and furnishings finally laid in place.’

The task was hugely complicated – if readers are sceptical that what is described is not somewhat exaggerated, there happens to be some photographs of carpentry size models in construction. Indeed, throughout my reading of ‘In the Early World’ I was alert for any traces of hyperbole, facile claims, or glossing over. I was able to pick up, I thought, times when practices described were used, but not consistently central to Richardson’s programme, but I am completely convinced of the general integrity of the descriptions. Such was his respect for children and their education, I felt he considered these worthy of nothing but utter truthfulness.

As part of the mathematics programme, there was each year, a project on time, the sun, and latitude. Solar clocks were made, shadows recorded and measured. Richardson once again refers to a characteristic of his teaching, and of developmental teaching – time. Plenty of time being made available to allow children to ponder, discuss, try things out, evaluate, and try further things out. The timetable, such as it was, was shaped, as circumstances encouraged, to suit the learning needs of the children, not set to meet the requirements of school or external bureaucracy.

Richardson concludes his account of the highlights of the mathematics programme with other descriptions of the way real-life measurement and experiments became an increasingly important part of mathematics: hour by hour calculation of the power used by the small electric kiln; weekly totaling of the rain water collected; the amount of sugar used by families; map reading of the local four mile to the inch survey maps; planning fishing trips to particular depths; calculating issues of current and wind for these fishing trips. In this way, Richardson led the children to see mathematics all around them, in their own environment, as part of their daily lives.

Elwyn Richardson: Lessons to be learned (06)

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.42.23 AM‘In the Early World’

This way and that for structure and evocative writing;  also validity of knowledge

In this posting, the attention is on techniques within writing to lift the quality of that writing. Richardson decided that by getting the children to select small, intense and sincere snippets from longer writing, they would learn what to value, and to undertake longer writing in a more emotionally associative way. As part of this, poems, which were called ‘picture’ poems, became a regular part of the children’s repertoire. For reinforcement, Richardsonintroduced a technique he called ‘thought’ writing, which was akin to ‘streams of consciousness’ writing. In this posting there is also a consideration of the relationship between creative expression and subject areas like science and social studies.

Richardson was concerned that the children were responding to his call for more quality in their poems, by simply writing longer poems. To correct this, Richardsonread out some of the poems and asked the children to select parts from them they thought had particular value, and be prepared to explain why. The children became quite skilled at the process. As a result, Richardson realised that the quality of poems would benefit from being smaller and more focused. Small Japanese- and Chinese-style poems were introduced. A simpler kind of poetry writing was the outcome. Poems then became longer, but they still followed the pattern of being based on one idea. They became known as ‘picture’ poems. (These ‘picture’ poems particularly lent themselves to art work – oils, tempera, and lino cuts.) Picture poems became very popular, with children regularly returning to a topic, and the technique, as they strove for exactitude.

Richardson used this returning to the topic as justification for his concentration on the children writing on topics from their own surroundings. He said that when children chose topics they were not familiar with, the results were usually unsatisfactory. This concentration, for reasons he explains, is a strength of Richardson’s approach, but it is also a limitation. The key to children’s motivation in learning is, surely, not whether something is local, or distant (in time or space), but the degree of emotional involvement (emotional involvement based on knowing and understanding). Establishing emotional involvement with matters in the local environment is easier, but the extra effort required to establish that involvement with distant matters is, in my view, both important and rewarding.

After the phase of the ‘shorter’ poems (which includes the ‘picture’ poems), the children, except when intense thought needed to be communicated, returned to longer ones.Richardson was pleased to note that he saw more children exhibiting individuality of expression in their writing. The longer poems were clearly being written with more sincerity and conviction. At times, though, Richardson said when there were new children in the class, or writing slipped into the routine, he found a need to turn back and go through such pathways again.

A girl wrote a rambling story, but one that contained many striking expressions. Richardson read the story to the class and asked the children to list a number of ideas using a similar style of expression. The exercise was a failure because the children had not grasped the basis for what they had been asked to do. A change of tactic saw him ask the children to write at speed for ten minutes all the thoughts that came to mind without worrying about spelling or punctuation. He read the finished work to the children asking then for their comments. Richardson and the children were surprised at the variety of thought. Then he asked them to read their own work silently looking for expressions that appealed to them. Richardson said the pieces selected were ‘direct, economical, and evocative’. The process was called thought writing.

This ‘thought’ writing became another tool for Richardsonto use in his pedagogical odyssey to get children to develop their own way of seeing things, then thinking and writing about them. Richardson developed a theory of how children saw a place. He concluded that children saw the various parts of a place in an unrelated way. They saw these parts before they established relationships between them. That is why, Richardson, said, writing an ordered description of a place is difficult for them. He saw ‘thought’ writing as a better approximation of how children write descriptively. Other forms of expression, however, were never far fromRichardson’s consideration. He said that painting and drama were effective ways to respond to places in their environment because they freed children from the demands for exactness in writing, and came nearer ‘to describing their real experiences and their inner thoughts’. Overall,Richardson realised that the ability to write logically structured stories was an important one, but saw the things he was doing with the children as a legitimate form of expression in themselves, as well as stepping stones to such structured stories.

Richardson, throughout, retained his preference for the simple statement or image in children’s writing. As another way to encourage this, he looked to subjects, especially nature study and to some extent social studies, to provide a vehicle. Richardson decided to study subjects in considerable depth so that ‘children would become so conversant with their subject that their expression would be spontaneous and intensely satisfying.’ (This statement, by the way, is in accord with my writings on the ‘feeling for’ approach to social studies, my solid demur, though, as mentioned above, is Richardson’s almost complete focus on the local.)

Richardson was always looking for the right moment to have children working individually, in small groups, and as a class. His preference was for individual work, and small group work based on emergent needs, but he was never doctrinaire about it. Usually, after or during a subject study,Richardson gave the children a free writing period, but with no compulsion to write about the topic in that subject study. On this occasion, though, following a study of a number of grasses, Richardson undertook a direct writing lesson. The children went out with their pencils and papers and were asked to consider grasses in a number of ways. What does the grass do? How does it feel? What does it look like from a bird’s-eye, worm’s-eye, cat’s-eye view? What does grass look like far away? Lie on the grass and look at the sky ? What can you see? What are your thoughts and feelings?

The individual approach always predominated towards the end of a study. He did this by carrying out personal discussions with children as a stimulus for them to come up with their own ideas and clarify their thinking. (He acknowledges the influence of Anton Vogt in this matter – Vogt, a lecturer at Wellington Teachers College was a well-known advocate of child-centred education.) A further approach, this one first carried out in the junior room but extended later to the senior one, was for the teacher (or some other recorder) to record individually the children’s ideas about their paintings.

Richardson pondered the need for, and ability of, children to express their wonder and awe about the world. He quotes D. H. Lawrence who said: ‘The sheer delight of a child’s apperceptions is based on wonder; and deny it as we may, knowledge and wonder counteract each other.’ In support,Richardson argued that if studies are just factual and children not encouraged to perceive the topic through their senses, then any expression would just be a ‘repetition of unfelt words’. However, in reference to a boy’s study of a fly, Richardson goes on to say that he was ‘sure Lawrence did not mean that children should be without knowledge, but rather that there should be a recognition of wonder and of knowledge, that one should not counteract the other, and as knowledge of such an insect grew so should the opportunities for expression grow.’ This is a balanced view of the issue. Richardson, though, was referring to a science topic from the local environment, a decided Richardsonpreference, which can evoke a more immediate sensory response and be easier to gain knowledge about, than a more distant one.

The ideas put forward by Lawrence and Richardson point to a tension between creative expression (art, drama and writing), and knowledge-based subject areas. The tension between creative expression in, say, science and social studies, and maintaining validity in those subjects needs to be recognised. Richardson showed himself to be sensitive to the issue of art in science and social studies, and maintaining the validity of the art. In the case of art, while no absolute answer is possible, he plotted his way through the issue skilfully. In science, the tension between creative expression and validity in science is the tendency to anthropomorphise (and the botanical equivalent), and legitimising factual incorrectness. There is no way of avoiding this altogether, nor do I want to be pernickety, but there is an issue there. In social studies, the tension is more acute. The main issue is children in creative expression, giving thoughts, feelings and motivations to people that are unjustified and trivialising, indeed work against social studies’ main aim of cultural respect. These issues can be mitigated and avoided, but teachers need to recognise the issues are there, and also plot a way through. (It should be noted that the approach to social studies I advocate is the ‘feeling for’ approach: in other words the emphasis is on establishing an emotional bond between children and the people being studied – a bond established by children gaining knowledge that confirms our shared humanity.) I want to make clear that I accept, indeed strongly support, the holistic argument that creative expression in science and social studies can be to the advantage of both creative expression, and the aims of science and social studies, but applying the holistic or creative label to things children do, without thinking through all the implications, is antithetical to both the creativity and truthfulness that are at the heart of Richardson’s message.

How well, then, does Richardson do in plotting his way through the validity issue in science and social studies? His statement about the importance of factual information is relevant to this plotting. If the process of gaining the knowledge is right, and the information right, then a powerful instrument for establishing a valid emotional response is available. Following such a process, when creative expression is undertaken, truthfulness of expression is more likely. Another part of the plotting is getting the children, in their expression, to put an emphasis on their feelings, thoughts and ideas toward the topic focuses (for instance, a spider, or a citizen in Ancient Egypt), and to be chary of allocating feelings, thoughts and ideas to these focuses. (A quick activity or question in social studies, though, about the feelings, thoughts and ideas of the people involved can be useful for evaluation and identification purposes.) Richardson did not explain as clearly the case for maintaining the validity of social studies and science in relation to creative expression, as he did with explaining the case for maintaining the validity of art in relation to these subject areas. However, becauseRichardson formed his theories from working closely with children, and being an exquisite observer, he is always surefooted on such pedagogical matters. For instance, when drama was taken he encouraged the children to use the voice-over technique. This involved the children preparing, then presenting, a voice-over, while the actors mimed. Actors, as a result,  avoided anachronistic, bizarre and insensitive comments resulting from the pressure of acting, public performance and an unsure grasp of knowledge. It also meant the actors could concentrate on sincerity of body and facial expression.

Maintaining the validity subject areas in relation to creative expression will be explored further (amongst other things) in the next posting where there will be a brief look at social studies, science – which Richardson called ‘nature study’ – and mathematics.