What I Learned From My Granddaughter.

Treehorn Express:

Shared opinions soaked in knowledge & experience – all well tested.


Distinguished Guest Writer

Bob Phillips

Bob Phillips has had a varied and intensive life as an educator. During his first eight years as a primary teacher in NSW he developed a keen interest in ‘how to make learning more interesting and meaningful’. Recognised for his outstanding talent, he moved into curriculum development and undertook ‘the interaction between curriculum and teaching’ as a major study. His career focussed on four major focal points:- Mathematics & Curriculum (1964-1990); Research & Scholarship (1973-1993): Development Education(1969-2003); Teacher Education (1969-1993).

Early in his career he worked as a Research Fellow, studying teacher education and testing of children using hypotheses based on psychological principles of learning and development. Pursuing his passion for learning he was a visiting scholar to the Universities at Virginia, Houston and Haifa. His abilities led him to Senior Lecturer at Goroka Teachers College, then to Director of In-Service Education for PNG. Such experiences disposed him to take a keen interest in emerging countries and he spent some time in Indonesia, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, PNG and Thailand.

His notable academic career focussed on Sydney:- Principal lecturer at Andrew Mackie CAE, Dean of Academic Services at Sydney CAE, Head of School of Education of Teacher Education at University of NSW. Associate Professor of Education at U.of NSW, Adjunct Professor at Macquarie U. He was awarded the St. George medal for outstanding contribution to the St. George Institute of Education.

I first met Bob when he undertook a major study for the National Curriculum Centre. He travelled extensively in Australia, Canada and USA and produced a report of considerable value. Later we joined forces when he invited me to join with him in Jakarta in a special two-week program for Teachers’ College lecturers.



I spent a life-time in Education and all the theories about child development, and the whys and wherefores of education, came into focus when Emma entered my life.

image[3]Emma is my only grandchild so naturally, I adore her.  I was a child myself once but I was too busy being a child to really understand what being a child was like.  I was a father once, but I was too busy being a teacher, lecturer, researcher and curriculum consultant to watch carefully and analytically the growth of my own children.  Now I am a grandparent, and I have watched Emma, and listened to her, and learned where the emphasis on primary education should be and worked out one way we retired educators could really help.

The most beautiful words Emma ever said to me were, “”Ï love you grandpa because you play with me.”  Not because it was my due, not because it was the right thing to say but because being with me was fun-I played with her.  Primary education should be fun.  It should be like a big game in which the teacher plays with the children.

Whenever I pick Emma up from school, as we walk hand-in-hand across the playground, I would ask the usual question, “Well, what did you do in school today? I would vary the question, “Did you do anything exciting? …Anything that was fun?…Did you learn anything?”  Pre-school and infants always seemed to be fun days. Once she reached primary school it seemed like she should have been questioning me because, although I am a geriatric, sometimes I seemed to be leading a more exciting life, playing more, and having more fun than she was.  I asked her, “What would make school more fun?”  “Well”, she said, ”the teachers could be more fun.”

On occasions her face would light up and she would talk animatedly about a Science or Art Project.  If a teacher, or a child, did something, which caught her attention, this would warrant a mention.  Excursions always occasioned pre-and post-discussion.  Special events, concerts, new technology and, in fact, any variation on routine, were highlights, worthwhile in themselves and important because they broke the mould.

The other major cause for excitement was that associated with the winning of awards.  Recognition through merit certificates, external rewards for learning worked, at least in the early years.  These carrots seemed to lose their attractiveness over time.

As the years progressed from Kindergarten through to year 6 it was clear that Emma was progressively resigning herself to the fact that some schooling was, ”boring”.  Of course, school had some stiff competition from the extra-curricular activities.  These were fun:  Sea Scouts, swimming club, netball club, Irish Dancing and flute.  Of these, learning to play the flute was the only one done on school premises and involved an external instructor preparing the children for a school band.

Repeatedly, lunchtime and morning tea were rated as the best parts of the day, because those were the times when she could play with friends. Sleepovers and parties are popular leisure activities with middle-class primary children in Australia. I have worked in many different countries, and, although the form or context may vary, the need to have fun, and the urge to play together, seem universal for primary children across all cultures.

Teachers were praised and criticised.  Anything which really engaged her would warrant praise for the teacher.  One teacher seemed to engage her all year and she loved her.  Apparently, she had an exciting program and was brilliant at teaching it.  In other years the engaging events seemed to be sporadic:  ”Oh, it was good today.  We did (usually something in Art or Craft….)”.  The advent of the electronic white-board caused a surge in interest and a teacher drew praise for the way she used it.

Criticisms were of a different sort.  They related to persistent, recurring teacher behaviours such as the following;

”He talks, and talks non-stop.””

”She spends all her time helping “the kid with special needs.”

“She is really good at Sport but there is so much of it.”

“We never do……”

“He is so disorganised. He is nice…but so disorganised.”

“She yells at the kids all day…and carries on..”(About a teacher who Emma didn’t have, thank heavens.)

The School is generally regarded as a “good” school.  Parents aspire to send their children there.   The NAPLAN results are pretty good and Emma herself did quite well.  My first –hand knowledge of what goes on in the school is practically non-existent. I once gave an interested teacher a loan of a rather large book I had co-authored on fun activities across the curriculum.  When Emma spent two years in a combined class I gave another teacher a co-authored paper published by the Australian and New Zealand Councils for Educational Research on the best practices of experienced teachers in multi-grade situations. Apart from these two minor incursions, I have remained as one of those who wait outside the walls.


I learned from playing with Emma, and listening to her views on schooling that, if you wanted to engage her, then it is for now, for a limited amount of time, until she is sick of it and it becomes boring.  She complained particularly about repetitive work, the reintroduction of ideas and the revisiting of skills already mastered .

”Fun” is the propellant for learning.  ”Play”, preferably with other children, is the preferred mode of learning. There were programs in the 1970s (Dienes, Nuffield etc.,) which relied upon play, fun (and even dance!) to teach Mathematics.  However, when I look at the sterile texts, the coaching college courses and Newsagent cribs for today’s students, I sometimes feel that   perhaps Emma was born 30 years too late.

Accompanying fun and play there should be some structuring of knowledge and skills, some consolidation and some applications. The teacher might wish to evaluate the level of learning by observation, face-to-face questioning or paper and pencil test to discover what each child is getting out of a particular learning episode at the time of it happening.  This is the basis for further decision making about course components and delivery methods.

Primary schools have always been more resistant to child-centred influences than infants’ schools.  A study tour I did of American schools many years ago showed me that, in the classroom, the text book, with accompanying Teacher’s Manual, was king. Whenever I went into a new district the Superintendent would welcome me into his office and as I sat down, pull from his top drawer, a series of charts showing how, since he or she took over, basic skills scores had improved.  Good politics.

The teachers I saw in schools were being tram-lined.  The track was the text, the terminus the examination.  Follow the track and you will get to the destination.  This is the retrofitting of the experience to the test.  Not much fun or play en-route. No measurable objectives for those two concepts.  Is NAPLAN having a similar effect in our classrooms?  Poorer teachers love these sorts of chains.  But the interesting question is whether some other teachers are also being tram-lined by the imposition of NAPLAN?  Does the spectre of NAPLAN, even years in advance, move teachers from the child-centred end of the spectrum towards the text-centred end? That’s one hypothesis that ought to be researched.

”I feel anxious about NAPLAN. We prepare for it for a month …not strenuously…and it makes me feel nervous.  I want to get it over and done with. You’ve got to have it because it prepares you for tests like that in High School.”  Now, Emma, that makes me shudder.

Questacon in Canberra has the right approach.  There was a young field officer in Samoa when I was there on one occasion who ”switched on” every primary child he had contact with by tapping into the Samoan love of fun and play.

A young magician in the streets of Cairns also had the right idea.  He was accompanied by some young children and they worked as assistant magicians for him.  After watching the street show for a while I said to him, ”You should be a teacher”. ” I am, he replied,   these are four of my pupils.”   A member of the watching crowd pulled me aside and said, “He is the greatest teacher we have ever had in this town.  The kids love him.  All the parents try to get their kids in his class.”  Apparently magic was an integral part of the classroom activities.  Shades of Harry Potter.

A television series showcased a top British teacher who had a class of difficult children reading Shakespeare to a herd of totally engaged cows.  Their NAPLAN results have not been published so we are in a poor position to compare the cows’ understanding of English literature with other herds of cows from the same demographic.  He also taught punctuation in a fun manner.  Full stops, capital letters, commas, quotation marks etc., were all represented by hand or foot noises, stamping, clapping, clicking of fingers, or oral percussions and whistles.  So his class could punctuate a passage with a slap of the desk, a click of the fingers and a stamp of the foot.  What fun. Can you imagine it?

In Denmark, in Western Australia, a young man, who was a field officer, gave the most inspiring lesson I have seen using primary ecological material with a group of retirees on a boat.  His main props were stuffed animals which he, and the retirees, moved (sometimes flung) around to represent anything from extinction of species to continental drift.  One old guy said afterwards,”   If my primary schooling had been like that I wouldn’t have spent my life digging ditches.”  Yet we are having trouble getting enough young people to join the Wilderness Society at a time when so much of Australia is under threat.

It is time for governments to recognise the importance of fun and play to primary school children and to start exploring ways of making primary learning and teaching more fun.  The outcomes we are seeking might not be easily measurable but they have to do with joy in the moment, happiness in the school and an unbounded interest in learning.  Maybe there would be less binge drinking and drug taking by teens if school was fun.  Tens of thousands of abused children might find, in schools, an antidote to their misery.  They‘re the sort of outcomes society needs…and even the academic subjects might prosper, if learning became more fun.


Emma’s views on teachers would be considered shaky evidence in a court of law, were it not for the fact that we have all seen such problems, in different schools, with a range of teachers, over many years.

The best teacher across the curriculum, who I ever knew, was on the staff with me at a primary school.  The children loved him and he made the classroom such fun that they didn’t want to leave it during the day.  They wouldn’t go out to “play with their friends at lunchtime and morning tea” because they were enjoying playing with them in the classroom. Others recognised the power of his approach. He ended up as Director of Primary Education in NSW.

Primary children want to love their teachers and many teachers reciprocate in the most positive way.  However, there are teachers who may not be bad, in the sense of failing to deliver measurable results, or in the care they have for children, but who are struggling day-today with some aspect of their professional performance.    The teacher who talks too much could be helped through clinical supervision; the teacher who is only interested in a limited range of subjects might benefit from mentoring by a specialist in other areas; the teacher who yells at the children would benefit from help in the area of classroom management; the teacher who is spending so much time with the special needs child might need more support, and the disorganised teacher might benefit from closer supervision.

Support is usually costly and it is exactly the area where cutbacks are being made.  However, the thought of these teachers going on, repeating these behaviours, year after year, with successive cohorts of children, is frightening…and unnecessary.

I would like to suggest an idea that might help.  Stop spending money on NAPLAN, because any impact it has will be antithetical to play and fun and there seems to be little enough of that already in the primary school. For a fraction of the cost set up an Institute of Senior Education Mentors.  Invite outstanding educators who have recently retired, and have identifiable mentoring skills, (teachers, lecturers, principals, etc.) to join the Institute.  Ask them to pledge a month per year for five years to working in schools with teachers on identified problems areas.  In the first year they should attend a two-week program to familiarise themselves with the work of the Institute and after that a three-day conference every year.  The government’s contribution would be to support the Institute, pay for the familiarisation program and the annual conference, and give the mentors travel and lunch money to visit a school.  There would be no consultancy fee.  This would be a volunteer organisation.

I am confident that most of the negative behaviours identified by Emma could be corrected, with the school’s help, by the equivalent of one or two people, visiting the school, as invited mentors, over an initial period of two weeks followed up by two other periods of one week each.  The disproportionate amount of time being given to the child with special needs would require a different strategy.

I am well outside the suggested five-year credibility clause but there was a stage when I would have been so honoured to be invited to join such an Institute, so excited at someone offering me a way to continue contributing to my profession and the community, that I would have jumped at the opportunity to be involved.

Of course, the prospect of seeing a little girl’s eyes still excited from what happened at school that day would be reward enough for anyone.

R. D. Phillips BA PhD

2417 words

4th February, 2013

Acknowledgment: I gratefully acknowledge the role of my wife, ex-teacher and member of a school executive and my daughter, currently a teacher and also a member of a school executive, in providing feedback on successive drafts of this paper.


‘It’s time for governments to recognise the importance of fun and play of primary school children and to start exploring ways of making primary learning and testing more fun” [Bob Phillips P.5]


You know and I know that NAPLAN and its ilk are based on junk science. Please make sure that our political candidates know and understand.

Phil Cullen

February 10th  2013




6 thoughts on “What I Learned From My Granddaughter.

  1. Thank you so much for this Phil and Bob. My experiences as a school principal in the USA (where high stakes standardized testing has infected every part of education) gave me an insight into where we are headed in Australia if we continue along the NAPLAN road. It’s a frightening future and play is one of the first casualties. I have written about this several times in my blog.

    I had come from the relative autonomy of a principalship in the Victorian education department, where the school and its budget were mine to administer as I saw fit. Of course there were limits and expectations, but my professional judgment was both valued and trusted. In the USA things were very different. I was appointed to one of the lowest scoring schools in the district, expected to make a difference, but then micromanaged because of the fear engendered by the testing regime and the sanctions imposed on schools that did not meet the benchmarks.

    The almost complete removal of play horrified me and I outlined some of the things I experienced in my most recent blog post. My only possible responses were to be lax in my supervision of time limits on recess and to provide teachers with ways to incorporate a little play and physical activity into the classroom. I recall the amazement on the faces of a class of third graders when I taught them the action song “When I was young I sucked my thumb the day I went to sea etc. I showed them how they could count by tens by jumping their ten toes up and down, by fives by hopping and the like.

    My teachers had come from several years using one of those ‘tram line’ programs you mentioned Bob. ‘Success For All’ was meant to be the answer. A person had been employed to patrol the school and make sure that all teachers stayed in the tracks, taught from the prescribed pages of the teachers manual and did not inject their own creativity or judgment into the the day.The teachers were systematically deskilled. When I arrived the program had just been scrapped (because it wasn’t working) and the school had been reviewed by the State Department because it was doing so badly. One of the primary findings was that the teachers lacked teaching strategies.

    These teachers were so intimidated by the fear of the tests that it was hard to get them to see the importance of getting the kids up and moving and laughing when that took time away from teaching them test taking skills and drilling answers to anticipated test questions or teaching them the ‘hamburger method’ of writing. And so I would walk around the classrooms in the afternoons, seeing children half asleep at their desks and despairing at how we had got to this point.

    When education becomes primarily about the passing of a multiple choice test in order to score above an externally determined benchmark, play has no place any more. If NAPLAN continues its inexorable grinding away of all that is creative, engaging, innovative and thought filled in education, we will follow the American path. My USA experience was enough to tip me over the edge into resigning. What I was required to do felt too much like child abuse at times. We will risk losing our best teachers in Australia too, as they either succumb to the pressures and give in, or they get out.

    • It all sounds familiar. My wife was at the International School in Jakarta and was amazed at the reluctance of American teachers to deviate from the prescribed path or to build their own programs. Well said.

  2. Reblogged this on SaveOurSchoolsNZ and commented:
    “A young magician in the streets of Cairns also had the right idea. He was accompanied by some young children and they worked as assistant magicians for him. After watching the street show for a while I said to him, ”You should be a teacher”. ” I am, he replied, these are four of my pupils.” A member of the watching crowd pulled me aside and said, “He is the greatest teacher we have ever had in this town. The kids love him. All the parents try to get their kids in his class.” Apparently magic was an integral part of the classroom activities. Shades of Harry Potter.”

  3. Thankyou Dianne. My experience with Emma over an extended period of time taught me that we too quickly and abruptly give up the Infant school notions of the child and too readily and prematurely assign to primary children the mantle of young adult students. The primary chlld needs all the social interactions, hands-on experiences and interesting fun things to do, that the infants children get in the best school settings. After a less -than -fascinating day at school Emma still loves playing after school. The content of the play is different now she is in sixth class but the essential characteristics-high social interaction, physicality, short duration, other kids (preferably), joy in the moment, remain.

    Best wishes for your work


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