Elwyn Richardson: Lessons to be learned (08)
By Kelvin Smythe
Elwyn Richardson: Lessons to be learned (08) - Click here.
Elwyn Richardson: Lessons to be learned (8)
‘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:
Go and look at a geranium flower.
Go and look in a puddle.
Throw a paper bag into the wind.
… 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:
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?
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.
Look for the dividing lines. Draw them in faintly. Thicken the main interior ones.
Add feature details. Use thicker lines for the dominant features.
Work over the drawing, looking, drawing, looking again.
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.