Saturday, January 16, 2016

Elwyn Richardson a creative voice from the past and a challenge for schools today

The other day an old friend of mine brought me a tape cassette from a seminar we had been involved in in 1976. 

The keynote talk at the seminar was given by Elwyn Richardson who we all regarded as the most important creative educator in NewZealand. Elwyn had developed his ideas about teaching in the
Elwyn Richardson
1950s and in the late 60s authored his inspirational book 'In the Early World' which has beenrecently reprinted

Once we found a cassette tape recorder a group of us (all who had been influenced by Elwyn) sat down to listen. My old friend and I were both recorded on the tape and we were interested to hear what we all said in 1976.

One thing stood out. We were all focused on tapping into the child inner world and helping them explore and express ideas about what was of interest to them.

And at the end of our listening we all agreed that this emphasis has been lost in classrooms today and that schooling, by demeaning the personal world of the learner, had failed too many students. Until children enter formal schooling their interests dictated their learning but on entering school it is the school’s curriculum that determine learning and those than can't cope with teacher determined curriculum begin their unfortunate road to alienation from education.
Imagine technology 40 years ahead

Only a creative education, such as one demonstrated by Elwyn, can provide an environment where all students can realize their innate potential.

 A creative education needs to reproduce the environment young children are exposed to before formal schooling and this is all  the more important for students whose early life experiences has not provided whose early life experience has not provided such a  positive learning environment The kindergarten ( child's garden) movement was established to do just this.
One of Elwyn's students artwork

Elwyn's presentation was all about contrasting the child centred curriculum he followed with school curriculum. Elwyn expressed concern about teacher determined learning objectives. He would be appalled by current standardised approaches to learning with  the emphasis on such things as  learning intentions, success criteria 

 Any experience a child has ( and this includes teacher presented ideas aimed at capturing student curiosity), he said, can be expressed through words, talk, writing, drawing , art , movement, drama and clay. A look at any current classroom, particularly the art work, shows how much children’s creativity has been massaged by the heavy hand of the teacher.

New book about Elwyn
The language arts are at the core of all learning said Elwyn but that the teacher has a responsibility to ensure whatever is expressed exhibits personal growth. Teachers need to come alongside the learner to help then refine and define what they are trying to say. Without such refinement student work can be ‘undisciplined squads of emotion’ Elwyn, I think, was trying to distance himself from those who believed teachers just need to motivate students and then leave it up to them to do whatever they like. Helping students to achieve work of quality is in itself a form of art and depends on the experience, confidence and skill of the learner. Respecting the ‘voice’ and identity of each learner is the essence of ‘personalised learning’. One example given was the tendency for junior teachers when scribing children’s thoughts to rewrite it to make it more acceptable and in the process devolve it of imagination and vitality. Children, he said , soon learn to comply to teachers expectations; for some this is the beginning of the end..

Elwyn made the point that when the year begins creative teachers will inherit students who have been mismanaged. Advice Elwyn gave was to focus on a few students at first to help them achieve quality results and to see what can be achieved. To get children to be more expressive encourage them to go back and reconsider some of their ideas and to resist giving ‘false praise’. In writing, for example, give credit to ‘minor excellences’.  When student achieve work beyond their expectations in any area of learning the work said Elwyn quoting Jerome Bruner ‘startles’ – it is this ‘surprise’ that expresses creativity.

Take advantage of such things as a child bringing a dead bird to class – Elwyn made reference to a set of very different drawings of a kingfisher on display. With such an experience what are the children’s questions and responses. Some might want to write thoughts, some might want to draw or paint while
Republished by NCER
other might want to research about kingfishers.  As the year progresses a curriculum will 'emerge' but this does not preclude ideas being introduced as challenges by the teacher.   Our own project in Taranaki in the 70/80S introduced studies by means of motivating displays that, as the studies progressed, were complimented by students expressive and research work and classroom walls were used to display finished work.

An important point made by Elwyn was that   if learning is not ‘felt’ by students it is not really learnt and not seen in action. He was particularly critical of much of is imposed on learners. All learning, if it is to be successful, requires affective and sensory dimensions.

After listening we all agreed that so much has been lost in past decades and that the problem of students being disengaged in learning stems from their voices, ideas and questions being ignore and this is not helped by school curriculums that fragment learning or place undue emphasis on such things as narrowing effect of  National Standards and the destructive use of ability grouping on the sense of self of the very children who need to develop positive learning identities..
Abnormal teaching!

The remainder of the tape outlined a simple but innovative class unit on snail starting with a display of sea shells and covered students questions, current and researched ideas, observational drawings, maths based on spirals and science experiments involving snails pulling weighted carts. Such a unit was in line with Elwyn’s point of making use of the rich immediate environment and for students to be seen as artists and scientists.

Quality work Taranaki 76
The tape concluded with teachers attending expressing how difficult it is to develop such creative curriculums in their own schools – a problem that is even more difficult today.  Those presenting (including myself as I had been central to establishing group of teachers to implement such programmes) suggested solutions. Teachers trying out new ideas need to be encouraged and to be able to learn through trial and error – the scientific method in practice. It is important to support each other to combat the conformist climate of most schools. Many teachers felt the pressure from senior teachers to conform – a problem that is even more the case today. Teachers mentioned that inspectors visiting failed to even notice the quality work on display and focused on administrative requirements.; imposed conformity of ‘best practices’ is worse today.

The thought of selected ‘best’ principals and teachers to work collaboratively with clusters of schools is fraught with problems. The collaboration we experienced in the 70s often went against current school ‘best practices’ and those in authority from within and without the school.

Elwyn's students making drums
Elwyn developed his philosophy in an isolated school in Northland and was given ‘permission’ to experiment. He also had access to visiting art advisers who played vital role in developing and sharing ideas about creative and integrated education.  There were other teachers, all in rural schools away from authority, developing similar programmes but Elwyn’s work remains the most important and, due the publication of his book, still available to teachers today.

The developments we established in our own province still can be seen in local schools today and were in past times times recognised by those in authority.  In contrast to Elwyn’s isolated approach we developed whole school approaches.

That was until the educational reforms known as ‘Tomorrows Schools’ in the 80s when collaborative approaches were replaced by schools competing with each other.
Taranaki work 1976

The creative ideas Elwyn was central in developing based on valuing the students’ interests and personal ideas, and ensuring all students achieve work of quality, are more relevant than ever.

Snail art Taranaki 1976
If schools suppress or ignore individual student creativity then many students ( those without appropriate backgrounds or ‘cultural capital’  that school cater for reasonably well) are swallowed up in our conformist school system. Students who lose their sense of creativity or self-worth will end up by making their mark on society all too often in a destructive way. We need all schools to ensure all students ( and not just the academic)  gain pride in and confidence from personal achievement and rewarding accomplishment.

Anything else is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic to get a better view!
John Holt

In 1970 he was asked:

‘If American schools were to take one giant step forward this year towards a better tomorrow what should it be?’

‘It would be to let every child be the planner, director of his own education, to allow and encourage him with the inspiration and guidance of more experienced and expert people, and as much help as he asked for, to decide what he has to learn, when he is to learn it, how he is to learn it, and how well he is learning it. It would make our schools, instead of what they are, which is jails fort children, into a resource for free and independent learning, which everyone in the community, of whatever age, could use as much or as little as he wanted.’

‘True learning- learning that is permanent and useful, that leads to intelligent actions and further learning- can only arise out of the experience, interests, and concerns of the learner.’
Tested to oblivion!!

‘Education is something a person gets for himself, not that which someone else gives him or does to him.’

It was thoughts like the above that underpinned the work of Elwyn and our local group that followed on from Elwyn’s work.

An education that creates the conditions and provides the necessary help and resources to develop the gifts and talents of all students should be the purpose of a twenty-first education system.

We have a long way to go. The answers are there. All we need is the wit and imagination to put them into practice. We need to ask how something that begins so well can end so badly for far too many students resulting in too many students ill equipped for life in our society.

Elwyn’s taped talk give us an insight to possible solutions  And in our times Sir Ken Robinsons book ‘Creative Schools’  echoes and elaborates the need to transform our education from the bottom up.

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