Elwyn Richardson: Lessons to be learned (09)
By Kelvin Smythe
Elwyn Richardson: Lessons to be learned (09) - Click here.
Elwyn Richardson: Lessons to be learned (9)
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:
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.)
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)’)
Themes should be mainly from the immediate environment.
What he calls mega-units should be avoided because in attempting to cover every contingency, they impinge on spontaneity.
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
The ‘bluebird in the window approach’ – which is about taking advantage of chance happenings.
The teacher telling a story about a personal experience.
The teacher reading poetry, a literature extract or short story.
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.
Be wary of adjectives and watch the quality of the verbs.
Tell how you feel.
Tell what you were thinking about.
Tell what you were reminded of.
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.