Elwyn Richardson: Lessons to be learned (06)
By Kelvin Smythe
'In the Early World'
This way and that for structure and evocative writing; also
validity of knowledge
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,
Richardson introduced 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.
concerned that the children were responding to his call for more quality in their poems, by simply
writing longer poems. To correct this, Richardson read 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
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
Richardson to 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 from Richardson'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.)
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 Richardson preference, 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, because
Richardson 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.