Aussie Friends of Treehorn
Cultural Changes over 70 years
School Culture after School Culture
I went to Teachers College with a group that is holding its 70th Anniversary reunion this week. We all went in different directions from College in that immediate post-war period, but I hung in there with some others dedicating our lives to the primary schooling of young children. I’ve been privileged to have shared such a vocation with other serious teachers for so long. I have never retired from this because there is always something of intense interest going on. Primary schooling has proved to be the most wonderful and exciting of the caring professions. I left the Queensland Education Department in 1988, grateful for the wealth of experiences that it provided and ready to take up more study of primary schooling.
Please allow me to present my view of the 70 years in a special way. I’m prompted by the title of Kate Atkinson’s book : Life After Life , the story of a lass born in 1910 who lives her life over and over again. Finally she lives the life that she wanted to live. Since schooling was my passion and primary school children were my focus, I can divide my time into a School Culture after School Culture with an unfulfilled desire to inhabit, in my twilight years, a schooling culture based on children learning how to learn, each seeking high personal achievement in the essentials [as I see them] with a high desire to want to learn for the rest of their lives….with each child wanting to be a ‘Dick Smith” because they learned ‘how to learn’ at school, an autodidact who wants to learn. Since no one child is any ‘smarter’ at learning than any other, I believe that this is proper and possible, given a mature understanding of what ‘teaching and learning’ is. We need to help the big-end-of-town boganaires how to understand ‘teaching and learning’ as a democratic, nation-building dynamic. Sciolist measurers cannot help. They live in another world. Real, child-focussed teachers can.
[When Dick Smith received an Order of Australian recently, he was proud to reveal that he had been rated as 45th out of 47 in the testing culture of the time……a dismal failure!!! Who would, in the present culture, allow him to enter a private school? He’d be told to stay home for the NAPLAN tests, surely. He’d learned how to learn what he wanted to learn.]
It is not difficult to understand why so many don’t subscribe to the notion that learning how to learn should dominate schooling. Did you know that many of the upper class, estranged from social reality, those who shape our society now, opposed the institution of free, compulsory education even in our earliest days? They thought that it was likely that some of the lower class would grow beyond their assigned social position, by doing a dicksmithery. Such learners can be dangerous because they use their whole brain. What would happen to industry if the lower classes started to think?
I have identified three or four distinct schooling cultures during my time.
When I started teaching in 1946, state secondary schooling was a rarity. I think that there were about ten state High Schools in the state and some “high tops” , secondary departments attached to primary schools, conducted under state department auspices. Earlier in the piece, state high schools were not allowed to be constructed in towns that already had a grammar school. Since school attendance was compulsory for 6 to 12 year-olds….later 14 year-olds, the curriculum was devised to suit these ages. Most pupils left school at age 14 to gain employment. Few went further. As I count the 40 pupils in my Year 6 class photograph, I notice that only 3 of us survived to the Senior end of schooling. In today’s terms, that’s a large ‘drop-out rate’. While the keen observer will say that there is a much higher voluntary ‘drop out’ level of learning essentials these days, we know that it is close to the truth and we know the reasons why. The numbers of ‘on the spot’ drop-outs are prolific and they are finding other things to do…..bullying, experimenting with drugs, hooning….anything to get away from the NAPLAN tests’ reminder that they are boofheads.
1. When I started teaching it was a pure Jug-Mug culture.
The nature of teaching was completely ‘chalk-talk’, ‘jug to mug’, direct instruction from the first year at school to the final year in the prevailing culture up to about the 1960s. Classrooms were designed for this ‘ jug-to-mug’ instructional principle. Long desks and forms faced a blackboard with a large space between the desks and the black-boards reserved for the teacher only. Pupils were allowed about a metre square of space in which they sat for up to five hours per day, on backless forms. Some rooms had a podium across the room in front of the blackboard for the teacher to be more domineering and controlling. In some rooms, the seating was arranged in grandstand style with participants looking down on the instructor and the blackboard. Pupils were expected to learn how to pass tests, using a pad and pencil only. The very young used slates. Easier to lick. Each grade level was expected to concentrate on those subjects that were examined at the Scholarship Examination that marked the end of primary schooling. Art, for instance. was not an official school subject for many years. In my neophyte years, art, music, physical education and other airy-fairy non-paper-based examinable subjects were dropped once the Inspector left the school on his [yes – male,only] annual visit.
Inspectors as the regulators, monitors and advisers of the system’s requirements visited schools and conducted tests of their own construction, on which many judged the abilities of the children, the teacher, the head teacher [as we were known] and provided an assessment of the school itself. When I started inspecting, I refused to give such tests neither did I rate the school. I tried to describe the climate of learning that, I opined, each school offered.
From 1875, when Queensland’s Department of Public Instruction was first commenced, through to to 1946 when I started teaching, not much had changed. The system was based on British traditions of adult-dominated instruction linked with vigorous fear-of-failure testing. When one visited a school during this period, only the voices of teachers dominated the airways. It was a rigorous culture, designed to install conformity and obedience in order to prevent children from developing idiosyncratic cognitive styles which were too difficult for us to lead and monitor. Then, the system culture started to change for the first time in over a century. It started in England. It was difficult for sciolists and left-brained folk to handle at the time. .
2. A Freedom-to-Learn culture was emerging.
Supported by notable thinkers of the day, Sir Alex Clegg, Eric Hake, Edith Biggs, Marion Parry and the like, teachers endeavoured quite seriously to profit from their analysis of their wartime experiences. Did a classroom need to built according to one stifling teaching mode? Children seemed to have learned better in open spaces using anything available as teaching aids and helping each other to learn, to talk to each other and discuss. England had had a useful war, schooling-wise. Apart from anything else, they began to question themselves Unfortunately, Americans became interested and, after studious examination of British schooling, they approved and tried to package it and name it…..as they tend to do. We Aussies, as usual, listened more to American educators who had started to describe schooling in arcane terms like “open” aka “progressive”, like “traditional”, like ‘integrated day’. Because classroom changed from being “sit-stilleries” to active learning, serious Australian school architects took up the challenge. The shape of schools changed dramatically to allow teachers and pupils opportunities to indulge in tasks in all kinds of learning environments in which children were comfortable and active in their learning pursuits. These were exciting times, but many parents and others, products of the Jug-Mug culture, were perplexed when they saw pupils talking to each other in learning sessions, studying in pairs and in groups, measuring, constructing, painting, reading, studying on their own, sitting or lying on the floor to write, laughing in class, using the room during lunch breaks.
It became apparent during this period that schools can be a pretty soft target for exploitation and political hoo-haa. . Moral campaigners flexed their twitching muscles and claimed the right to punish those who tried to teach children how to be human. M:ACOS. Their network of alphabetical groups had special tactics designed to influence political decisions, that I describe in my USG monograph Back to Drastics, a prophetic title, as it has turned out to be. They were remarkably successful. They used tactics [group phone call, letter-writing, hanging around parliament for a spare ear, concentrating on pollies’ wives etc.] that could be used these days to have the likes of NAPLAN banned, but religious bad-ass biblical fervour has greater fire power for a social conscience than caring for kids’ emotional and educational welfare. Again, the products of the bang-crash-wallop Jug-to-Mug years [us] don’t believe that the effects of a very deliberate emotional abuse scheme such as NAPLAN show too much. Physical and sexual abuse in schools tend to capture more media attention than does extreme stress, sleeplessness, crying, vomiting, hatred of school subjects and of school itself, all built-in to a political stunt forced on teachers. There is no doubt that NAPLAN’s reliance on the use of fear as the only motivator for learning, leaves deep and lasting scars for a lifetime. The destruction of a child’s self-worth is close to criminal behaviour. Sadly, adults just don’t seem to care. The story of Treehorn illustrates this well.
This 1960s to 1980s period was the most exciting in the history of schooling in all western countries and produced more scholars than in any other period of world history. There was a distinct change from heavy handed chalk-talk adult modes of domination to more productive maieutic child-centred strategies. It paid off in spades. The advances in the sciences and technologies were spectacular and the creative arts, especially down-under, equalled or surpassed many other countries. The new century looked like having a truly focussed learning culture in which all individuals, no matter what their social status, genius, mental or physical health could seek to learn as much as they possibly could. A platform was being laid for the future that augured well. Attention to the creative arts was phenomenal. Music leapt from drum and fife bands to full orchestras in primary schools. Art leapt from crayons and plasticine to the use of the world’s resources. Learning and the quest for high achievement was a feature of school because children liked learning.
3. Then managerialism hit the fan and spread its contagion.
Its onset was the craziest cultural period of all – the 1990s. It was cunningly installed by Harvard-influenced University business study graduates. The late 1980’s ‘reforms’ in Queensland were imposed on schools in a subtle, well organised, underhand way. ‘Schooling’ disappeared from lexicon of departmental proceedings. We were outsourced, down-sized and multiskilled on all fronts just for the heck of it, with no discussion on how it would effect kids . Any resistance was shut down or hidden. Schooling became a confusing mess. A new ‘standards’ meme was invented, this time a New York invention, and the big end of town fell prey to stupid gossip.
The Inspectorate and school divisions were closed down in 1990….schooling was tossed out with the bath water and ‘organizational method’ took over. Kids didn’t matter. Inspection of schools by real experts, the only reliable method known to man for auditing the progress of every school and every teacher …experienced experts working with fellow professionals……clout with knowledge, compassion and humanity , disappeared in favour of money-making fear-based tests.
4. The money-making culture started.
Australian practitioners were so confused by internal arrangements that they dropped the ball when rookie Kevin Rudd and his hip-attached Deputy decided, on the advice of the big-end of town, to radically alter schooling in Australia. When Julia called on the emperor for riding instructions in New York, she met a sweet-talking maverick who ran a school district whose operations were entirely based on fear. Teachers lost their jobs if their blanket test class results were poor. Principals lost theirs, if the school’s results were poor. Schools were closed if test results were beyond rescue. Pupils became mental wrecks with fear of failing and all sorts of shenanigans ensued.
Never mind, Joel Klein the test king introduced his scheme to Australia, following his persuasive style at meetings of the large banking and corporate institutions, then undertook to manage the Murdoch testing empire. He was on a good thing. Millions per annum. The testing business is big, big, big. The sale of testing material and, now, tablets for fast delivery of tests and allied programs will help the emperor to accumulate billions of dollars, according to what he tells us. Parents are hoodwinked into believing that the tests are somehow magical and are necessary. The government of the day refuses to publish that parents have a choice. It is never asked of them as a democratic government would do. They have to find out for themselves.
This money-based system of conducting a school system leads to divergent operations that make no education sense: charter schools aka public-private schools as a pretence for school autonomy, shifting year levels between primary and secondary schools because the test culture can be maintained easier, using NAPLAN results as an entrance requirement even between state schools.
It also reveals a level of political skulduggery of a new kind. The cost of conducting NAPLAN tests in the future is hidden in state and commonwealth treasuries. It must be in the billions of dollars, but did not deserve a mention in the budget presentation, and no one seems to know , if one enquires. It’s a really crazy business, and is allowed to exist because of our traditional fixation with blanket testing at various levels of schooling are part of school routine.
We need a deep and thorough conversation about kids at school. How do they learn and achieve? NAPLAN has shown that it damages children’s enthusiasm and cognition and deep social calamity. It is downright dangerous.
We need to develop a learning culture.