a centenary
of Learning

  • 22
  • by Steve Shann
  • graduated 1973
  • studied PGCE English
  • from Australia

It was a good time to be learning about education and Bristol was a good place to be doing it.

One evening in 1971, I was invited to meet a British teacher educator who was visiting Australia. I knew that I wanted to be a teacher and needed to get a qualification, but had been put off by friends’ stories about the dry and dreary diploma of education degrees they were ploughing through. I asked this educator where in the world I might find a really stimulating teacher education course. He suggested Bristol.

My first week in Bristol, before the course began, was (if my memory can be trusted) amongst the most exciting of my young adult life. This was my first substantial trip on my own and I got over my jet lag by spending strange hours – either very early in the morning or very late at night – discovering the parts of Bristol that had survived the war, then seeing Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 at the Bristol Old Vic, finding the Llandoger Trow and hearing the stories there about Daniel Defoe and Robert Louis Stevenson.

The course itself was pretty much exactly what I’d hoped it would be. The staff were Charles Hannam, Norman Stephenson and Pat Smyth and the atmosphere was informal – lots of sitting around talking educational philosophy and sharing teaching stories – and, at the same time, challenging. A highlight was a program where each of us was assigned a day a week with two struggling and disaffected students from a local school. It was entirely up to us what we did, as I remember, and the lack of defined structure meant we each had to think very hard about fundamental questions: What might motivate such students? What could I possibly teach them? What might I learn from them? I remember their bus arriving on the first day, unloading twenty or more raucous secondary students, us trying to look calm and welcoming when we felt anxious and grossly unprepared. It was a good program, though. Each week, after the visits, we’d sit around and swap stories with Charles, Norman and Pat, and slowly learned to make sense of what we were experiencing.

I think what I most fondly remember – probably because I’m now in teacher education – was the willingness of these three educators to spend time talking about educational philosophy with us. What learning matters for these kids? What motivates them, and us? What was the nature of our subject, English, and how might we build our classroom experiences around our conception of what English teaching is all about? What resistances – personal and institutional – might we be expected to encounter? How might we work against or around these?

This was the 70s. A. S. Neill was teaching at Summerhill, Penguin Books was publishing writers who were asking hard questions about teaching and the nature of school and R.F. Mackenzie was battling the conservative forces in Aberdeen. Two of us from the Bristol course got jobs at Mackenzie’s school, also called Summerhill, the following year. Unlike A.S. Neill's school, Mackenzie's school was a large comprehensive set in a housing estate, and there were significant challenges. About a third of the staff opposed Mackenzie's policy of forbidding corporal punishment and they managed to get the attention of the local press, church and council. During the year that I taught there, pressure mounted and eventually Mackenzie was sacked. He wrote about the experience in his book The Unbowed Head.

It was therefore a tense and, in some ways, distressing year. But it was also wonderful working alongside such an inspirational man and a core of his supporters, trying to put into practice, in difficult circumstances, a pedagogy in which we believed. I remember one particular night getting a phone call from Bob Mackenzie, telling us that he wanted to meet with his main supporters. We drove out to his farm just outside Aberdeen. It had been snowing heavily, and as I walked down the drive with this band of erstwhile revolutionaries, I thought about how this must have been what it felt like in the heady days before the Russian Revolution, with bands of isolated and idealistic folk meeting to plot the way ahead!

It was a good time to be learning about education and Bristol was a good place to be doing it. I had contact with Pat and Charles off and on over the following years, when, back in Australia, I continued to teach and to write about some of the teaching. They continued to be interested and helpful.

Since returning to Australia, I've worked with young people for over 40 years in a number of different capacities: primary teacher, secondary English teacher, teacher at a progressive school in Canberra, psychotherapist and now University academic. I've written a couple of books on teaching, and some articles, and am now writing fiction set in various educational settings and exploring a variety of educational issues. I've recently been contracted to write a new book which is tentatively titled 'Imagined worlds and classroom realities'. I keep a blog called Degrees of Fiction http://degreesfiction.wordpress.com/ which includes more details about my teaching and writing.