The previous comments suggest that Primary Schooling undergoes conditions of turbulence from time to time. It was certainly true of the second half of the twentieth century. Its volatility is demonstrated by a series of shifts during my own teaching experience.
I started teaching when all classes sat in long desks, seated on long forms without any back support [as illustrated above], facing a blackboard for the full school day. Most of the daily efforts involved the use of paper and pencil. The use of pads, textbooks, homework [including ‘home exercise’ as it was called], lawyer cane as a motivator, plenty of rote learning including parrot fashion chanting [which was the only time that the silence was broken], no talking to each other in class, reading one story per week from prescribed official reading books, a very limited set of library books, copy books, transcription were part of the rituals. Above all, the threat of failure at regular examinations, especially the one at the end of primary schooling that determined one’s worthiness to undertake secondary studies, dominated. There wasn’t much sparkle in these unadorned sit-stilleries and unworthy pupils were cast aside. The pupils who stuck with the routines learned little beyond how to pass exams while the remainder were out in the world learning about it. Of the forty-three pupils in the author’s class at the end of his own primary schooling, all but three left school as soon as possible after their fourteenth birthday. Some remained for a little while to contest the mid-secondary school series of examinations to gain official credit for vocational purposes, with only the three of forty-three remaining to the completion of schooling. The pass-exams school culture was cruel. There was an enormous waste of talent both in the body of pupils who gave institutionalised schooling away and in those remaining whose learning focussed only on the examinable.
This set of circumstances was challenged by serious students of teaching and learning in the 1960s. How come ?
There had been a surge of interest in primary school activities during and following World War 2 in England. Something dynamic had stirred the education world. Teachers and pupils had endured make-shift arrangements during the blitz. They could not gather in set grades and, with no textbooks nor illustrations provided and no pads to write in, they made the most of cast-off material. Pupils were learning more, learning with zest and learning wider than they had ever done before. They talked to each other, shared effort with their teachers and constantly evaluated how well they were doing in a collegial manner.
Teachers learned more about the teaching-learning enterprise than they had done in centuries
A real revolution started. It was slow, as most educational progress tends to be. The USA observers were impressed and copied what they could. Then its scientific and creative inadequacies were exposed after Russia launched the Sputnik in 1957, and changes in the world of science and number came fast. Those Soviet Commies were not supposed to be smarter. It was such a gross affront to western dignity. Questions were asked of the usefulness of existing maths and science teaching techniques and the use of resources beyond books. The syllabus format of Mathematics [Americans called it ‘New Math’.] and Science changed dramatically and there was a quest for higher pupil achievements at a younger age. Creativity and lateral thinking became universal essentials. Jug-to-mug notions disappeared.
Procrustes was no longer the ruler. This legendary bandit who cut people limbs to fit his iron bed if they were too long and stretched them if too short, retreated to his cave. Schools had previously kept each class to the same age, same achievement level as determined by regular testing and equal levels of mediocrity were sought with fine Procrustean fit-the-bed style. Then, large schools deliberately arranged multi-age classes, whereas strict age-grade classes with lock-step promotion had previously been the norm. Small schools always operated in a multi-age setting. Strict ‘grade’ levels started to become blurred and pushing the learning envelope was encouraged. Teaching also began to reflect the best notions of learning in a family group. Children love working with older and younger friends and joy with learning is a crucial aspect of achievement. Things were looking good for learning.
At the time of writing [Feb., 2009], trends indicate that Procrustian treatments will re-emerge. Didactic methods will be more convenient to be able to contest the national testing regimes. Then, life and magic and happy enthusiasm and love of learning will gradually disappear from school rooms. Bullying in the playground, disrespect for teachers, self and others, and large-scale absences from school will dominate the school landscape….both primary and secondary. Bet on it.
Australian schooling has always followed British and American models. During the 1960-80 period of dramatic change, the Americans followed the British, so Australia studied both to see what it could learn. It was in a good position to do so as it was anxious to improve its standards of teaching and learning and it did through to the end of the 20th century. It was healthy copy-catting, modelling and improving on imported ideas.
During this learning-focussed period, Americans liked what they studied in Britain. They became anxious to package, as they tend to do, the ideas that they gathered from Bristol, Hertfordshire, Yorkshire, Oxfordshire and other outstanding LEAs [Local Education Authorities] of the 1960-70s period. Many schools in Australia, following academic and general discussions on Teaching Machines and Programmed Learning, used U.S. kits to help in the teaching of subjects that lent themselves to packaging. SRA [Science Research Associates] Reading Laboratories became very popular and dominated the market. Other kits like Reading for Understanding and a home grown ACER [Australian Council for Educational Research] product called Individual Mathematics Program [IMP] were used by schools that could afford them. They were not on issue.
But there were hiccups as there always are when educational dynamos try to do better and to push the envelope. The kits were almost teacher-proof and the teacher’s role became more of being a corrector than a sponsor. The kits disappeared. The wise borrowed ideas from these kinds of experiences as schools settled down into providing first rate schooling with a wide variety of wonderful ideas, while enlightened Inspectors supported those who wished to push the boundaries. For instance, there were schools, some quite outstanding, who taught through de Bono’s notions of THINKING and applied it to curriculum requirements. A close teacher involvement in curriculum development and sharing of ideas supported the professionalism of individuals.
So…there always seems to be something new or changing in this fascinating profession of primary education. When children are anxious to get to school and remain there for learning purposes…. and not just because of their friends or because it has a good playground or the sports program is a good one….you know that standards are high. [6. Some Stories from Schools]