And what did we learn there?
The poems “From a Railway Carriage” (Robert Louis Stevenson); “Night Mail” (W H Auden); “The Ballad of Semmerwater” (William Watson); “A Smuggler’s Song” (Rudyard Kipling). We sang together (National Songs, Hymns, Singing Together songs from the Radio). We painted stained glass windows during Advent using semi-transparent paper on the actual classroom windows (No square inch to be left unpainted). We learned to add, subtract, multiply and divide decimals. We learned Divisor, Dividend, Quotient. We learned to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions. We learned and practised handwriting in pen and pencil. We learned Verbal Reasoning and how to practice spatial relationships for our mid-year test. We practised Queensway Intelligence Tests.
Homework and Classwork
We bought our own copies of Attainment Tests by Haydn Perry and our own exercise books for Homework. We read to some purpose. We practised effective English comprehension. We learned the Geography and History of the British Isles. We made three-dimensional models in card from two dimensional drawings. Our teacher read to us from 11.30am to 12 noon every day over the three terms “A Christmas Carol” (Charles Dickens) and “The Wind In The Willows” (Kenneth Grahame) and “Treasure Island” (Robert Louis Stevenson). He taught us that the sky did not begin three quarters of the way up the page of our art efforts – and did that same without making us feel silly. He taught us dimensions and perspective. We learned how to measure length and area. We learned scale drawing and rotation of three dimensional shapes. We learned all of the special English measurements and knew how to use them and to convert them into smaller units. We learned to take pride in our work and research. He taught us the true beginnings of mathematics. We learned how to make estimates and to work out simple percentages. He taught us how to divine the arithmetic from the written problem. He taught us how to spell “woollen” (and this was one of the very few times that I saw him nearly cross when we were convinced that he had made a mistake). He shared information willingly. He taught us what a true Cockney was, being one himself. He encouraged us all to join in. As I age, I regret the July that I left more and more. I still have some of the books.
An Early Disappointment
Once we had left Junior Four, no session or lesson until University tutorials ever matched the skill, forbearance, wit, timing and positivism of this man – and even those were thin on the ground. However, not everything was perfect. One day our Headmaster came in and talked spontaneously of algebra without properly preparing us for it. Our teacher was not impressed and did not understand all that was being said either. It was a moment memorable only for the doubt that it sowed and the confusion that it engendered. I still worry about it.
An Enlightened Headmaster
Why I still worry about this can be accounted for by the fact that our Headmaster was normally a most enlightened man. He assessed every child in that school and when the school opened, he had created a “remove” class of about twenty pupils which he taught
himself. As a member of that class, I left out Junior One (roughly Second Grade) and immediately progressed to a high level spiral curriculum which allowed us to learn things that otherwise we would not have learned – or indeed may not ever have learned or experienced. These included more advanced English grammar, diary keeping and news collection; in Mathematics, we worked in every base from 1 to 21, which gave us a very flexible approach to number and we learned fractions. We also conducted surveys on many things, using our gathered statistics. Our enlightened Headmaster also arranged for pictures to be borrowed from collections and gave us the opportunity to appreciate them and then write freely about our impressions. We also later learned French with the aid of film strips and tape recordings.
Lessons in a Corridor
Our “classroom” in the remove was just an ordinary corridor. We sat in rows and no pupil ever left his desk unless to have his work marked. For the times that we could not be taught by the Headmaster, we were placed in another classroom with a teacher who resented our presence those of us with any sensitivity knew that. We thought this teacher short, rough, lacklustre and tedious. He did not like able children. He did not appear even to like children. He did not reward us. One time, we had to learn a hymn. I knew all the verses already but he did not believe me. He asked me to prove that the words I recited were correct and I brought out my Parochial Church Hymn Book, which I carried with me everywhere. He was not happy that I had learned the hymn. He was dismayed to see the hymn book. He made us all write the hymn out. One day, one of my contemporaries, now a respected medical man found a dictionary and laughed at many of the words therein. The teacher also found that unfunny. He cavilled at our presence.
Our Headmaster was enterprising and had much vision. For the most part, he employed thoughtful and cooperative staff too – although he inherited some of the usual prejudiced and inflexible lot from the old school. I learned later that he extended considerable freedom to his staff to teach what they thought fit. It was a bold experiment and produced very fine pupils and members of society generally. It is a pity that such vision is no longer considered appropriate. Indeed, it may no longer exist anywhere. Much of today’s curriculum places a boundary on learning. It is unnecessarily both restrictive and restricted, not to mention somewhat grim and uninspiring. It seems to have been inappropriately drawn up by people unequal to the task who have little idea or experience of the genuine capabilities of the young. What price real education?
(Junior Four is the rough equivalent to Fifth Grade in America)