Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Creative teaching:Learning from the past - John Cunningham teacher 1970s

A study based on local and famous churches.
Students potato printed background.
Uncovering ideas worth sharing

The other day I was visiting my old friend John Cunningham. He had been recently sorting through old notes ( John is a bit of a hoarder) and had found some photos from his 1970 classroom and I suggested they might make an interesting blog..  In all areas of life we need to look backwards to move into the future; ' Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it' ( Santana ).

A little bit of pre-history.

 In  the  1950s the Director of Education Dr Beeby  established an art advisory service led by Gordon Tovey. The advisers encouraged teachers to develop  integrated related arts  programmes breaking away from the then tight timetables. In the 60s many teachers ( mainly in rural schools ) developed such student centred programmes and John Cunningham was one such teacher.  An important influence the time was the work of Elwyn Richardson who worked in the far North in the 1950s - his book In The Early World became an inspiration to us all..


John's 1970 class. All now in their late 40s!
It is pertinent to remember it was the 60s and traditional power structures were being challenged in all areas  of life.Education was not immune. In the UK  the Plowden Report (67) gave official approval of progressive educational developments.

My involvement

As an adviser ( in Nature Study and then Science) I worked with teachers developing integrated programmes in our province - Taranaki. .We were all impressed with an open ended approach to science known as the Junior Nuffield Science Approach. One  UKteacher we admired was Henry Pluckrose whose school I visited.
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As a group teachers involved shred idea, notes and books. The above are a few of the books used.
Elwyn's book top centre. The booklet 'Learning with the Children'  was published for the NZEI 
World Education Conference 76 held at the  Ellerslie Racecourse. NZ's biggest  educational conference 
John and I presented our ideas at workshops.

In 1969 I visited the UK to learn more about child centred teaching and the Nuffield Science.

In 1970 I began working with sympathetic local teachers to meld the related art and open ended science approaches. One idea that impressed me abut UK teaching was the emphasis they placed on motivational displays  to motivate curiosity room environments celebrating quality student work in all areas of learning.

In the following decade teachers involved became recognised widely throughout New Zealand as the Taranaki Environmental Approach.
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The 'environment' referred to the intellectual, aesthetic, social and emotional aspects of the classrooms involved - today maybe 'culture' is a more preferable word.

John Cunningham teacher 1970

So this brings me back to John Cunningham. Contrary to other teachers involved John taught in a large urban school in what we now would call decile one. His 1970 year was an exciting and somewhat challenging one but  finally a very successful one.

An emphasis on displaying quality students work. Extra display boards were provided.
John recorded his progress and wrote detailed plans and evaluations of his progress. Moving from a tightly timetabled to open programme was to be no easy task. A rotary four group time table for the integrated study areas was established  with the fifth day used for students to finish off their work. The study units ranged from three weeks to most of the term and, where possible the language and maths programmes were integrated providing skills and content for the pm programme

Developing observational skills vital - the above relate to Land Wars study.
Work framed and mounted and displayed on coloured hessian.
Rotational group work

In Johns words the first attempts to develop four active social  rotational groups 'were an absolute disaster'. The students did not have the skills to take advantage of all the opportunities offered and John wrote 'I had neglected to take into account the need for a gradual change' and he continues 'there was an important need to slow down the pace of work and to encourage the idea of craftsmanship and finish'. 


Class studies linked all aspects of the curriculum. The display above was centred around
Hemmingway's book The Old Man and the Sea which the class really enjoyed.
.The rotational group work became more directed until students gained the skills required ( an important part of the language arts morning programme) and not all involved activity. One group were researching their questions and writing reports, another completing observational drawing tasks ( having been taught the necessary skills),  an art group and one working with the teacher.

Trips into the environmental feature - this photo is a part of an extensive bridge study.
Importance of personal best.

Slowly the students learnt the need for slow careful work giving John the opportunity to help students, or small groups as required. Lessons were taken to develop observational drawing ('OD') and presentation skills and students began to understand their concept of achieving their 'personal best ( ' PB'). Student bookwork began to show a real growth in quality - study books and personal writing books in particular.  Four page concertina books (made from a half sheet of cartridge) were developed to present finished work and aspects were part of the rotary group work.

 As John wrote 'independence, initiative and genuine interest were being fostered'.


Blackboards defined group rotational tasks as well as reading and maths.
Class, group and individual studies

Whole class themes rotated with group studies and individual research projects. Field trips into the local environment were a feature of the programme as were the variety of art media introduced. As success developed parents became involved both working in the classroom with designated groups an on field trips.

Spider unit. John made use of the Learning in Science inquiry approach

As the year (and teacher and students skills developed) whole day integrated programmes were introduced but reading and maths programmes  were mostly keep to the morning programme but, as mentioned, integrated as much as possible.

Display based on class trip to Mount Taranaki,
An evolving programme.

John's programme was constantly evolving as skills developed. Later John was to develop the ideas in an open plan situation working with four other teachers but that's another story.  John's experience in an open plan environment provides insight for those developing today's Innovative Learning Environments.
Display of work based om monarch study
It was the students themselves who effected the changing nature of the classrooms and we had to accept the children as who they are than what we wanted them to be. Those who visited John's classroom could not but be impressed with the quality of students work on display of the way they were able to work independently.

Quality art work based on local house study.

Students regularly visited from the Palmerston North Teachers College and one of their lectures , David Aitken, complied a photo book on John's classroom, The book was shown to Dr Beeby who commented the this was the kind of teaching he envisaged in the 1940/50s. Unfortunately this valuable record has been lost.


Art work from a snail study
John appreciated creative diversity in his classroom


There is always something to learn from the past it seems.


An illustration from 'our' booklet
Learning from the Children
John went on to be principal of Fitzroy and Spotswood schools where he developed a whole school approach based around the ideas he had developed. As mentioned he was one of the few to develop a highly successful Open Plan Unit in the 70s. Over the years John presented his ideas throughout at National Refresher courses..


3 comments:

Tom Sheehan said...

Thanks Bruce for this blog and all your others.

We transitioned into a four group rotational timetable at the start of term 4 last year. It was very exciting and now that we are free of National Standards I once again have the confidence to develop the timetable and learnings.

In the 2018 classroom the rotation activities have developed - we had one rotation making movies. The children were using ipads to record onto and make the movie eliminating SD cards, cables etc. Required some management due to a limited number of devices but hit all the right spots regarding our focus on collaborating and teaching others something! Incidentally we have decided to avoid a one to one device school and focus instead on enough devices and develop key comps in cooperative/collaborative/individual situations depending on which is best!

The first movies were 2 minute movies teaching about how to use speech marks. The possibilities are endless. The process can be altered to suit most situations and as a vehicle for having the children teach others many modern day children have movie making knowledge developed from our media centric lives. In other words they were highly motivated!

The blog has inspired me to start thinking about the kids again even though we have a few weeks of January to enjoy first!

Bruce said...

Thanks Tom. A lot of water has changed since your Kaponga classroom! If I were still involved I would still introduce a similar programmes to Johns - with as you outline above the introduction of digital technology.. Since Tomorrows Schools, and more recently with the imposition of National Standards, education has narrowed the curriculum with the associated emphasis on achievement. It will be interesting to see what happens with the election of the new government.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting to read about John Cunningham's 1970 classroom. Seems to me to be more exciting than what you would see today. Today the curriculum focuses far too much on literacy and numeracy and not the rich curriculum that John's class featured