Schooling now and then

Teacher Dianne Motton reflects on …

As I sat at my laptop the other day, I typed these lines of poetry from Dorothea Mackellar’s My Country to begin a lesson for my year eights.

I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges, of drought and flooding rains.

I knew they probably had never read it or memorised it as we had at primary school. I was trying to show them how, by the use of a few sparse adjectives and the juxtaposition of images, you could convey a great deal. I am not so sure if they will enthusiastically embrace the concepts that I am trying to convey!

But I am sure that they would not have had to memorise lines and lines of poetry in their schooling days as I had. It was simply de rigueur back then.

However, the lines of poetry led me down the rabbit hole of nostalgia, to compare the education I had back in the 1950s and `60s with the current one my class is facing.

Life seemed simpler then as we all lined up outside the classroom, then sat at our assigned wooden desks with the lid that lifted up to store our meagre exercise books and pencils. Our desks had inkwells to store the blue ink that managed to dribble and blotch its way across the white pages of our work. Eventually biros were invented and, thankfully, we were allowed to throw out the cumbersome pens with nibs that constantly broke or made your writing look like the work of a demented soul, weaving fragilely across the page.

The days were ordered and followed a routine: maths and memory drills in the morning, recess to play skipping games with a thick rope swung by energetic children who were quick to enforce the rules. Perhaps a bit of marching around the quadrangle some time before lunch; a repeat of the skipping games or a kick of the footy by the boys and then bliss, oh joy, a story read to the sleepy class, often with our heads down on the desk as a voice would come over the loudspeaker, reading abridged versions of famous tales from the Primary School Reader.

Well, that’s how I remember most of primary school. There were no doubt projects to do, lots of colouring in and the smell of Clag, that wonderful opaque glue that stuck all our masterpieces together, the collages and cut and pasting efforts that our not so dextrous hands would try to produce.

High school seemed as ordered, though not as much fun. Cut and pasting made way for copying copious notes from the blackboard, writing out endless maths problems and trying to learn the skill of writing essays.

Now primary and secondary schools are dominated by iPads and laptops, students hunched over, flipping their fingers agilely across the screen. The computer graphics are beautiful, the animations amazingly lifelike and the range of material is stratospheric.

There is no longer a need to go to a library to look something up in the hallowed encyclopaedia. The internet will provide, like some voiceless god from heaven, it answers our every question. Well … some of them, if you can be bothered to be curious and follow through with your queries.

Is the schooling better? Worse? My guess is that it is just different, for a different world, a more complex and complicated one. I know my students do complex work with resources unknown to me at their age. They are more streetwise than I was, exposed to information that has sometimes robbed them of their childhood. That I think is a pity. But I think they work as hard as I did, if not more so, juggling influences and demands that didn’t exist in my day.

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