The Place of Myth in Educational Change
It has taken a long time for us to learn that no fundamental change can be brought about in schools on a national scale unless the average teacher understands the change, believe in it and, above all, accept it as their own idea.I entered primary school in 1909, and I have been connected with schools…
It has taken a long time for us to learn that no fundamental change can be brought about in schools on a national scale unless the average teacher understands the change, believe in it and, above all, accept it as their own idea.I entered primary school in 1909, and I have been connected with schools ever since. In those years I have seen great changes in New Zealand education and, as Director of Education for 20 years, I had a grandstand view of the education system as a whole.The first thing I learnt as an impatient young reformer is that real change in education is slow, often maddeningly slow. Society is constantly changing and, in theory, the schools that serve it should be changing just as rapidly. At first glance this looks simple. It seems as if all you have to do is to agree on a new curriculum and new syllabuses, and pass regulations. Put up better buildings, buy new equipment, produce new textbooks and train teachers to use them. If all you are trying to do is to find new ways of achieving old objectives, you might reach something like your goal in five or ten years.But if you want to go deeper than that and change the very objectives of education, change the kind of students who emerge from the school system, then you have at least a generation of work ahead of you. That calls for changes of attitude, not just in the teaching profession but also in the parents of the students, the employers and the country as a whole. Changing attitudes is a vastly slower business than changing skills and the tricks of the teacher’s trade.
It has taken a long time for us to learn that no fundamental change can be brought about in schools on a national scale unless the average teachers understand the change, believe in it and, above all, accept it as their own idea. Without that, the teaching profession has a remarkable defensive skill at going on doing the same old things under a new fancy name. And the average teacher will move only slightly faster than the average parents and employers. In a democracy that’s not a fault; it’s just a hard fact that the politician and the administrator, full of bright ideas, have to learn.
Fortunately, in the teaching profession there are always some adventurous and imaginative men and women who’ll move on ahead, in the face of public criticism, to clear a track for the rest to follow a generation later.
If major innovations must be thought of in generations rather than in years, how can a country plan for consistent change? Governments change, and ministers come and go even more often. Each has new plans for education, each wants to put his or her mark on the system. But a series of three-or four-year plans that change with political fortunes will get a country nowhere unless they all accept, over a generation or more, a consistent sense of direction, a perhaps half-conscious master purpose that will last for 25 years.
I believe that, over its long history, the New Zealand school system has been successively under the influence of three of these over-arching ideas about the purposes of education. I call these our three great educational myths, myths of purpose, all of them vaguely expressed, none of them fully attainable, and yet all of them, in their time, powerfully affecting political and administrative decisions on education.
I don’t use the term “myth” in any sense of disparagement. Some of the noblest of human achievements have been myths that give a sense of permanence and purpose in this world or the next. Every Utopia is a myth. An educational myth is, for me, a form of communication, spoken or assumed, between contemporaries or between generations. It’s a communication that can’t be taken quite literally. It gets public credence and support from its capacity to express, in relatively simple terms, relations between ideas and events that aren’t completely understood and whose outcomes can’t be fully foreseen. Within limits, it can be interpreted in different ways by different people; it leaves some place for the element of the irrational that underlies most human activities, and it gives a sense of direction rather than absolute goals.
At the core of each of these three myths I see a different attitude to the place of the individual student in the school system. It is the change in this attitude that marks the slow movement from one myth to the next. The first of these three ideas I have called the Myth of the Survival of the Fittest. When New Zealand opened its first state schools in 1877, the economic and political philosophy of laissez faire was at its height both here and in Britain. Appropriately enough, Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species, had been published about 20 years before that; it was this that suggested to me the title of our first educational myth. The government of New Zealand had neither the means nor the desire to offer more than the rudiments of education to the mass of the people. Secondary education was for those who could afford it. Even when the state gradually increased the number of free places in secondary schools, it seemed only fair to give them to the students who had proved in primary school that they could make best use of them. So the whole school system, from the very beginning, had two functions: to educate and to select.
It was thought that the fairest method of avoiding favouritism and maintaining standards was to do the selection by external examinations, set and marked by examiners who knew nothing about the candidates but their written papers. This meant that the examiners were ignorant of every ability that could not be tested with pen and paper. It was only natural that the schools should then concentrate on preparing for success in the examinations, which was what the parents were demanding: anything else was liable to be dismissed as “frills”.
When I entered school, some children were dropping out at standard 4, after failing repeatedly in lower classes. Selection at the end of primary school was done by the old Proficiency examination, though many of those who passed it couldn’t afford to go to secondary. The dread “Matric” did the hatchet job at the end of secondary school. Both examinations were, in fact, competitive for the limited number of places in the next higher institution. So selection for some meant inevitable failure for others. Failure was built into the system, which could not have worked without it. There were always good teachers who cared for individual children whatever their abilities, but huge classes and the system itself were against them. The system was interested only in the successes; and failures just faded off the educational screen.
The myth of survival of the fittest dominated the school system for 50 years. Attempts were made from the beginning of the century to modify it in practice, but it was not till the 1920s that the first harsh myth was openly challenged by the second, the Myth of the Education of the Whole Child, the catch phrase of the reformers at the time. I always associate it with the name of James Shelley. He was not the only person to preach the new myth, but he did it with a passion and panache that eclipsed all other prophets.
In 1920 he came fresh from England, where the new movement for educational reform had sprung up, almost unknown to us, during World War I. Shelley had two deep-seated beliefs by which he judged any school. He believed in the unique worth of every single human being, whatever his or her abilities. And he believed that nobody could be a full and rounded person without some experience in the arts: painting, poetry, music, dance, drama, crafts and the even more difficult art of working with other people on creative pursuits. For him, any school system failed if it didn’t give every child a chance to become a fully rounded person.
Shelley’s plea for more care for the individual child moved his students profoundly and gave us a new vision of the craft he had chosen. And his superb oratory spread the idea throughout parts of the community. His efforts, and those of other reformers of like mind, did bring freer practices in some schools, especially in the junior sections of primary schools. But it took more than that to break the grip of the myth of survival of the fittest. As late as 1933, at the height of the Depression, a committee of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce produced a report opposing the raising of the school age to 15, in which they said: the children of unenlightened parents would not gain benefit from a longer period at school and it is a matter for serious consideration whether, having passed the fourth standard, children of but moderate mental development should not be definitely prepared for the type of work for which their mental capacity and natural ability make them best suited. It might be that further education along general lines would not fit them for the modest role nature intended them to play in life…. It is a matter for consideration whether the view should not be placed before boys that the unskilled labourer is not entitled under natural law or under the principles of justice to the luxuries of life, but to little more than the basic necessities.”
That is a deathless statement that could have been made in Britain during the Industrial Revolution or in South Africa today. I do not believe it represented the opinion of the average businessman at that time, but it was taken seriously enough to be circulated to other chambers for comment. The myth of the survival of the fittest was tenacious, and it may, for all I know, still linger on somewhere.
By the end of the Depression, the country as a whole felt differently, and was experiencing a healthy sense of guilt at what the Depression had done to the poor, and especially to the young. For the first time, many people began to suspect an economic and social system that made this possible. The first Labour Government swept into power in 1935, and Peter Fraser was Minister of Education and No. 2 in Cabinet. One of his first acts was to abolish the Proficiency examination, the last official barrier to free secondary education for all.
Early in 1939, as Assistant-Director of Education, I unexpectedly found myself working with Fraser in writing a broad statement of the government’s policy on education. The first sentence of it was to become the country’s third educational myth, the Myth of the Equality of Opportunity through education. It read:
“The government’s objective, broadly expressed, is that every child, whatever his level of ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted and to the fullest extent of his powers.”
(I apologise for the sexist pronouns, but that was the practice of the time.) This statement has been quoted thousands of times since then, and now seems obvious and tired, but, coming only six years after the deplorable Chamber of Commerce statement. it must have sounded revolutionary to some people.
Fraser’s statement illustrates perfectly what I mean by a myth of educational purpose, and the difference I see between a myth and a simple idea or ideal that can be dreamed up by anyone. An educational myth must have five characteristics, and Fraser’s statement has them all.
First, an effective educational myth must be either noted deep in social history like the myth of the survival of the fittest, or it must express some deep – though not always clearly defined – public aspiration. It must say briefly, in strong and simple terms, something new for which many have been trying to find the words. The myth of equality of opportunity sprang from the Depression, not just out of Peter Fraser’s head or mine.
Second, it must be expressed in language that’s flexible enough to permit a reasonably wide range of interpretations. Its purpose is to give a broad sense of direction on which most people will agree, though they may differ on their specific goals and in their reasons for seeking them.
But, third, the language must still be tight enough to rule out altogether some lines of action, so that administrators, planners and teachers can get practical guidance from the myth. For instance, any proposal to restrict entrance to secondary education would have run counter to the myth of equality of opportunity.
Fourth – and this may sound strange – the myth must be unattainable for at least a generation if it is to sustain 25 years of change without being constantly and confusingly modified.
The fifth and final paradox is that people working for the new myth must believe in it so completely that they will fight for it in its youth (and perhaps in theirs); they must hold to it more critically in its middle age and, when it has served its purpose, they must be willing to see another myth put in its place. Though a myth seldom dies a sudden death. The old educational myth, like many ancient faiths, is usually quietly absorbed into the new with a fresh interpretation of words and ideas and a new sense of direction.
Fraser’s statement made no pretence of setting out all the purposes of education, which extended far beyond the interests of any one child, out into the economic and social life of the country, and which obviously could not be neglected. The new myth simply sought out the greatest weakness in the school system, its failure to cater fairly for all students, and Fraser pledged the government to correct that injustice. For me, the most important discovery in education over this century has been the discovery by the school system of the individual child. This began in the first decade of the century, but Fraser’s statement was the first time any government had put the individual bang in the centre of its educational policy, and committed itself unreservedly to equality of opportunity for all.
By 1940, I was Director of Education, the officer primarily responsible for advising the government how to carry out this bold new myth. Fraser, and his successor, Rex Mason, believed as strongly as I did in what, for the sake of brevity, I might call the Shelley myth of a fully rounded education for every child. Indeed, we saw this as the best method of giving equality of opportunity. If the curriculum were broadened and if school achievement were measured by something more than pen-and-paper examinations, then the differences between students would be less glaring, and every one of them could hope to succeed somewhere.
So the second myth, the education of the whole child, which had lacked sufficient popular appeal to come to power by itself rode in on the back of the third myth, which had all the pent-up feelings of the Depression behind it. The two myths fused to become a powerful force in education for 30 years or more. The dream behind it was of a school system where every student should sometimes know failure – without that, they couldn’t be stretched to the limit – but where no student should continually fail.
To cover the next 20 years I sketch the three interlocking thrusts of our programme of reform:
First we tried to get rid of external examinations, or at least alter them so that they would cater for the needs and abilities of a wider range of students. Fraser, on his own initiative, had already abolished the Proficiency examination. Next, with the help of the university, we introduced accrediting for university entrance, which gave the schools the opportunity to use their own judgment on the students best fitted to go on to higher education. At the same time we introduced the School Certificate to provide a school leaving qualification for those who didn’t want to go on to university.
We wanted the School Certificate also to be given by accrediting, but the teachers’ organisations opposed that because they thought it would throw too much responsibility on school principals; so we were forced to institute an external examination. The School Certificate has been much criticised of late, but, in its day, it played a vital role in freeing the schools to give more attention to students of moderate academic ability, and the certificate carried weight in the world of work.
Second, we expanded the curriculum in both primary and secondary schools. For example, the School Certificate regulations, for the first time in New Zealand, and perhaps even in the world, made music, arts and crafts compulsory in all schools, public or private, that were preparing students for School Certificate. At the same time, we were preparing the ground for the establishment of technical institutes that would give tertiary education to students whose interests and abilities were practical rather than literary.
Third, we made special provisions for disadvantaged students: country children, the Maori people, the handicapped, those with special difficulties in basic subjects, those with problems in the home and those in need of guidance. We did not do enough for them, but these were the beginning of services that have burgeoned in later years.
Of course we did not succeed in everything we attempted. Politicians and administrators never do. (And here I must explain that, when I say “we”, I’m not referring only to ministers and officers of the department, but also to the teachers’ organisations and the controlling bodies of schools, without whose co-operation the reforms would have got nowhere.) By now, our successes are just taken for granted, which is the highest compliment that could be paid them. Our failures, in one form or another, are your problems today.
In my old age, I’m sometimes asked what I should have done differently if, with all the benefits of hindsight, I had been able to foresee the results of the changes we brought about. There are some aspects of intermediate schools I should like to reconsider in the light of later experience, but, in the primary system as a whole, I should have followed much the same track that we beat out then, though I should have tried to go faster and further.
When it comes to the secondary schools, I also believe that the general direction we took was right, and that, with the excellent work done under my successors, the schools are now better prepared than ever before to handle the extraordinarily complex job that society demands of them in 1986. But there are two major things I should try to do differently if I had my time again. They take a little explaining.
When the new School Certificate was introduced, the government also raised the school leaving age to 15. So adolescents who would never have gone near a secondary school in the past, or would have dropped out after a year or two, flooded into the schools. Many of them were tempted to stay on and try for the School Certificate which seemed to offer so much. We had not foreseen this; we had expected them to leave at 15; and the School Certificate had not been devised for such students, many of whom, for one reason or another, found difficulty in expressing themselves in written examinations. Nor had most of the schools had much experience with students of this kind.
We did what we could for them, but it was not enough, and the shortage of secondary teachers after the war made the job doubly difficult. There was little or no public demand for further help for such students, and their parents were rarely in a position to fight for their rights. On the other hand, the department was being constantly criticised for the damage its policies were said to be doing to the brighter students. We were accused of wasting time on “frills”, and for an alleged drop in the standard of entrants to the university because of accrediting. There wasn’t the slightest evidence for this, as a fine bit of research by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research finally showed. We were being attacked on the wrong front, criticised where we were strongest, and neglected where we were weakest.
Subsequent events proved that the public was wrong, and that I was wrong in not fighting harder for the rights of the students at the bottom of the class, even if this had meant the over-worked department, for a period, giving less attention to the students at the top. I don’t think I could have got away with it, but I should have tried harder. I do not want to be misunderstood here. I believed then, as I believe now, that high academic standards are essential in any school system. But the schools themselves were skilled in maintaining standards and would have continued to do so even if the department’s attention had been directed elsewhere for a while. What they were not skilled in was catering for this new type of client. It was there they needed more help.
So the School Certificate examination became as irrelevant to the needs of the bottom 25 percent of the school population as the University Entrance examination had been to the needs of the middle 50 percent, and all subsequent efforts have not completely solved that problem. Even today, most authorities seem to agree that there are about 15 percent of secondary school entrants with whom the school system is not succeeding. Some would put the figure higher.
If it is of any comfort, I can tell you that practically every developed country in the Western world – I cannot speak for Japan – finds itself with the same problem. Some countries put the figure as high as 25 percent. Some individual schools do better, but no country has fully explained the reasons for this failure or yet found a remedy for it. I believe the most urgent educational problem in the well-to-do countries today is to find a method of educating – in school or out – the 15-20 percent of adolescents who fail in the schools as we know them, or who, for some reason, reject these schools.
Our second error in the 1940s and 50s was closely related to the first. In our call for equality of opportunity we too readily assumed that nearly everybody who was given the opportunity would take advantage of it. We didn’t take proper account of the economic and social conditions of many of the adolescents who were dropping out of school without any qualifications for a satisfying job. It was not till the 1960s that social research showed how profoundly students, whatever their abilities, can be handicapped throughout their whole school life by the social and racial background from which they came. Some obstacles to school progress that are glaringly obvious to us now were hidden from us in the 1940s. We did not even realise, for instance, that the average girl did not have the same opportunity as the average boy simply because less was expected of girls both at school and at work .
What should have been even more obvious was that the Maori people, on the average, were doing worse at school just because they were Maori. We realised they needed extra help, and we tried to give it, but we did not understand that helping individuals with finance, tutoring and sympathy was not enough. Some of the disadvantages they were suffering had their roots deep in our social attitudes and in the economic and social structure of our society. Now we understand, as never before, that some fundamental changes in schools must await changes in society.
I can scarcely claim to be an unbiased witness when I say that the myth of equality of opportunity, in its time, served this country well. But it did not go far enough. Already, the present Minister of Education and his department are trying, with no small success, to correct the weaknesses in earlier policies, and are doing some things we never dreamt of. The time has come for the third myth to be reinterpreted or for a new one to be written. In our complex and pluralistic society it will be harder to write the fourth myth than it was to write the third.
It so happens that in a book he has just published – Moving Targets – the present Director-General of Education, Bill Renwick, attacks just this problem. In the best critique I have ever read of the policy of equality of opportunity, he contends that it is no longer adequate for present conditions and that we should aim rather at equity, equality of results, equality of outcome. The meaning of the phrase “equality of results” can be argued at length and I foresee much professional and public discussion before it is accepted in some form, but that is no business of mine. Nor, for that matter, do I very much care what its exact meaning is.
For I regard it as the beginnings of a myth, and I have stressed throughout this talk that the purpose of a myth is to give a sense of direction and not to set an exact target.
It is not for me to take any part in formulating the fourth educational myth. That is for your generation. Just permit me to express my hope – no, more than that, my faith – that you will move towards a school system from which all students will emerge with a sense of achievement, with a feeling of their own worth and with respect for the worth of others.
If the ultimate goal proves unattainable in your lifetime, that will be no cause for reproach. It will leave room for your children’s generation to write their myth when yours has had its day.