Towards a democratic vision for schools

This is something I wrote many years ago. But as I reread it, it is just as relevant today as it was then.

In 1984, I transferred from the co-educational high school in which I began teaching (in 1977) to a girls’ high school nearby. The change was to revolutionize my view of teaching.

Up until that time I had been a fairly traditional (albeit in a different sort of way) teacher pretty much satisfied with the traditional view of classroom teaching. I wanted to tinker around the edges because I knew my students weren’t learning as much as they could (or at least, as much as I thought they could). I felt guilty, as a Year 12 Physics teacher, that I didn’t give out reams of notes like a friend and colleague of mine in another school who always achieved higher pass rates than I did. But yet I knew I had something going for me as a teacher. Every year, there would be a couple of students who would really respond to my teaching. They would really hang on to my approach. I knew they appreciated my patience — my willingness to explain a point over and over again and search for different ways to explain it each time. Unconsciously, at that time, I was operating on the belief that if the students didn’t understand, it wasn’t their fault — it was mine and it was my responsibility to find a way of explaining it that would allow them to 4–14 understand. (As I look back on those attempts at explanations I shudder. I was always operating from my conception of the world. There were things that really lit up for me when I first started teaching Physics and I thought if only I could transmit that same conception to my students they would understand too. I had made no effort to find out what their conceptions of the world were.)

I always stood out as a Physics teacher too in my insistence that Physics wasn’t about learning and learning how to apply formulas. I argued strongly, with other teachers and students, about this. As a student myself, I can remember more than once, working out a formula from first principles in an exam so I could answer a numerical question. Often, I wouldn’t even go that far. I might have used an intuitive form of variational analysis or sometimes, even, the answer would just jump out at me from the question and I would write it down. I wanted my students to operate like that — at least a little bit — and I knew for them to do so would require them to understand the principles of Physics rather than learning formulae.

In all this though, I believed that, as Douglas Barnes would put it, I was basically there to talk and the students were basically there to listen. Communication (at least notional communication) was from me to them.

Nevertheless, I was fairly happy and believed I was making incremental progress along the road to becoming a better teacher. And then I changed schools.

Ironically, the biggest single factor in revolutionising my pedagogy was becoming maths co-ordinator at my new schoo1. As a co-ordinator I was eager to prove myself. The school had recently undergone a school review and the report was fairly negative as far as the maths faculty was concerned stating that it needed to re-evaluate its methodology. I wanted to be the force that led the faculty down this path. But before I could do so I had to do some research myself and find out what was happening in Mathematics Education. I discovered a group of people who held a completely different pedagogy to the one I had been operating from. Learning was at least just as important as teaching. Students’ talk (to the teacher and each other) was just as important as teachers’ talk. Creating a context in which students could place themselves in a real life situation as they considered a concept was really important. (This was different to having traditional problems about so called ‘real life problems’ which students immediately see through as having no real value.) I discovered Seymour Papert who said some pretty damning things about what passes for mathematics education. Take this poignant story as an example.

I learned from his parents that Jim had developed an early habit of describing in words, often aloud, whatever he was doing as he did it. This habit caused him minor difficulties with parents and pre-school teachers. The real trouble came when he hit the arithmetic class. By this time he had learned to keep “talking aloud” under control, but I believe that he still maintained his inner running commentary on his activities. In his math class he was stymied: he simply did not know how to talk about doing sums. He lacked a vocabulary (as most of us do) and a sense of purpose. Out of this frustration grew a hatred of math, and out of the hatred grew what the tests later confirmed as poor attitude.

…I am convinced that what shows up as intellectual weakness very often grows, as Jim’s did, out of intellectual strengths. (Papert, 1980)

This discovery of a new pedagogy led me to register for a six week (two hours per week) professional development program at Monash University on the teaching of Science and thus to enrol in the Master of Educational Studies degree at the same institution where I planned to pursue my first love — the teaching of Science. I will return to the effect on the Monash Faculty of Education on me shortly.

In parallel with these experiences I was, for the first time in my life, teaching classes in which there were no boys. (One of my reasons for transferring to a girls’ school was to learn more about the teaching Of science to girls which was just becoming a major issue at that time.) From what I had read about Girls and Science and my experience teaching one or two girls a year in my Year 12 Physics classes I thought my more descriptive approach to Physics with less emphasis on formulae and mathematics would suit girls’ styles of learning. I was in for a surprise. In my first year at the school I had only one Science class — Year 12 Physics. I developed a strong rapport with the girls who, I believe, appreciated my honesty and sincerity but continually pleaded with me to “tell us the answers” and “teach us the formulas” I can remember the following plea clearly probably because of the force with which it was put to me by Ginny: —

If we had been taught like this since Year 7 we would be used to it and it would be a much better way of learning. But we’re just not used to thinking like this and we don’t know how to handle it.

The student talking above was conveying to me a lesson I never really learnt. That group of students were feeling insecure. I had tried to change just about all of the unwritten rules and they weren’t sure of the new ones and certainly didn’t know how to play the game by them. As HSC students facing arguably the most crucial year of their education (certainly in their estimation at the time) they were also just plain frightened. As time passed, their fear that I didn’t know what I was doing passed, but they were left with the fear that they weren’t prepared for what I was trying to lead them through and they wouldn’t be able to succeed in the final hurdle — the exam. Anxiety stands in the way of learning. My students were not only thus hindered in learning the set curriculum but were also hindered in learning what I was trying to teach them about learning.

In defence of myself I must say that I was also trying to learn new and unfamiliar rules in a new school. The students in the school I had come from were used to a wide range of teaching styles and thus had learnt to switch from one to the other with little concern. The new school had a strong and uniform culture which I didn’t, at that stage, understand. I was trying to learn new rules too and this made my teaching style more different for the students than I at first thought it would be.

Another defence I could use is that I was not alone. Linda, a student at Laverton High School in 1985 when PEEL was introduced states: —

The wrong method was used to introduce PEEL into our classes — and we were against it from the start…

…We had walked into the class unsettled and slightly tense, not knowing what we would have to face, but this was totally unexpected. We’d never been confronted by these questions before, nor any that required answers of such magnitude, so how could we even begin to answer them? (Baird & Mitchell, 1986)

Other teachers, backed by external agents with a great deal of experience in education had made the same mistake as I had. (This makes me feel better.)

Following my first year of teaching at the school and particularly influenced by Ginny’s comment above I decided that I would take the Year 11 Physics class the following year. This would give me a chance to introduce change in a less threatening context for the students. However, this was also to be the year when further change occurred in my own pedagogical position because of the influence of my first studies at Monash. I have to say, though, I learnt a lot about teaching in that year.

As maths co-ordinator I was trying out new techniques with my Year 7 & 10 Maths classes as well as my Year 9 Science and Year 11 Physics classes. I was trying to learn new techniques and attitudes and trying to implement them everywhere I was teaching. I had to. I had undergone a Kuhnian transformation (see Kuhn, 1962). I believed in what I was trying to do with missionary zeal. I could no longer justify going in to a class and wasting everyone’s time teaching (the word is here used to mean the practice of being the person allotted to control the activities of groups of students) in a way that could hope to induce real learning in only a handful of students. I had begun to hate what we did to young people. I had for a long time understood the anger and rebellion of so many young people locked up in institutions (that we call schools) for thousands of hours of their lives where everything that happened to them belittled and degraded them. Now I understood that the way I had been teaching contributed to that process.

I hope I have conveyed that I was in an irrational state when I decided to introduce change. I was too intricately emotionally involved with these practices to have any hope of implementing them satisfactorily

What I can see now is that what I did caused as much bitterness, heartache and alienation in my students as did the traditional practices I so despised. At the time, I thought it was just a part of the ‘J — Curve’. I knew that change always disrupts established social patterns and thus produces uneasiness as all involved learn new patterns of behaviour and establish new unwritten rules. I was determined to crash through this stage in Whitlamesque (see footnote) manner. What I was doing was for the good of the students even though they mightn’t know it. This was really being naively paternalistic in the style of so many early social reform programs. I had decided that I knew better than the students what was good for them and I was going to give it to them. The students had been given no say in their own destiny. I believed in negotiating the curriculum but I wasn’t going to negotiate whether or not to negotiate it.

It is almost superfluous to say that I failed abysmally. There are many lessons that I learnt from that experience but there is one that I would like to focus on now that I believe has wider application. In a change attempt such as this I believe the students must be involved in the decision to adopt it. Reading the PEEL case study, it is obvious that the students were not consulted as to whether or not they wanted to be a part of it and if so what form it should take. I would now argue that if this had been done, some of the problems that arose in PEEL would have been overcome. Charlie Hull (Hull, 1985) argues that students are the gatekeepers of change in the classroom. They are the one constant in the culture of school. Thus without their cooperation, he would argue, significant change is impossible. He and Jean Rudduck (Rudduck, 1983) have carried out some interesting research into how to introduce change to students. Rudduck concentrates on allowing the students to gain a picture of what it would be like if the change were introduced successfully. She has used videos of other classes using the new practice as a successful tool in this process. What she is really doing is allowing the students to develop a meaning for the change (see Fullan, 1982) so they can understand more fully what it is that they are being asked to do.

I am suggesting here that this be taken one step further. Hull and Rudduck were ‘in-servicing’ students on the change so that they would more easily and fully be able to adopt it. I would suggest that it could be used to allow students some say in whether it ought to be adopted at all or at least in how it should be implemented. Fullan (1982) suggests that in successful implementation, the decision to adopt is rightfully taken by an authority (could be the principal or the school board or council) but teachers are given a great deal of control over implementation. My argument is that, at least as a minimum, students should also be given some meaningful control over implementation. It could be argued that students have a greater right to influence over implementation as the change has far greater implications for their futures than for any other stakeholders in the change process.

Bowles and Gintis (1976, pp 250–51) state: —

Why in a democratic society, should an individual’s first real contact with a formal institution be so profoundly anti-democratic?

It is time we decided not only to make schools more democratic but also made the process towards democratisation a democratic one as well.


Whitlamesque: Gough Whitlam was a reforming Australian Prime Minister elected in 1972 after 23 years of conservative governments. He was noted for his determination to push through his reforms. He is often quoted as having said “Crash through or crash.”

The PEEL Project

The Project for Enhancing Effective Learning (PEEL) was a grassroots, Australian, collaborative action-research project involving teachers and academic colleagues researching ways of stimulating and supporting metacognitive student learning. It was co-founded in 1985 by John Baird (University of Melbourne) and Ian Mitchell (Monash University). It continued for over 25 years, involving thousands of teachers, in hundreds of schools, in several countries because it addressed issues important to many teachers.


Baird, J. & Mitchell, 1., Improving the Quality of Teaching and Learning. An Australian Case Study — The Peel Project, Monash University Printery, 1986

Barnes, Douglas, From Communication to Curriculum Penguin, 1976

Bowles, S. & Gintis, H. , Schooling in capitalist America, Basic Books, 1976

Fullan, M. The Meaning of Educational Change, Teachers College Press 1982

Hull, C., Pupils as Teacher Educators, Cambridge Journal of Education, 15 (1), 1–8 (1985)

Kuhn, T.S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press

Papert, Seymour, Mindstorms, Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Basic Books, 1980

Ruddock, J., In-service courses for pupils as a basic for implementing curriculum change., British Journal of In-Service Education, 10 (1), 32–34 (1983)