Kelvin Smythe

In 1989, when New Zealand schools were restructured under a New Right philosophy, Kelvin Smythe left the formal education system to be a critic of some of the restructuring outcomes, and to stand with classroom teachers, many of whom felt threatened and unrepresented. His main voice for doing this was Developmental Network Magazine. In its heyday, Network Magazine, published three times a year, was purchased by nearly every primary school. It provided ideological support and classroom guidance for teachers, and some notoriety and legal consequences for its publisher. (When publication of the magazine stopped in 1999, a compendium of the best of Network was published. To mark the re-establishment of the networkonnet website, this publication, for a limited period, is free on request.)

Some years after Network Magazine stopped being issued, Kelvin Smythe set up networkonnet to continue the philosophy of Network Magazine and to take on a number of issues. As time passed problems arose with posting to networkonnet and so this blog has been set up to allow Kelvin to express his opinions on educational issues of the day. networkonnet is available as an archive and readers are encouraged to explore its treasures.

Kelvin Smythe continues to be frustrated by the paucity of attention given by teacher groups to the ideological underpinnings of education issues. He would like to see schools become less bureaucratic, so that teaching could become more joyous, and attract and retain more adventurous people. The metaphor he has in mind is more knight errant (if the chauvinist image can be excused) and less Round Table. When, from time-to-time, he says schools have developed an unattractive prissiness, he is really hinting at why he thinks schools will fail to attract or retain male teachers. Foucault’s nightmare vision of the surveillance society, he believes, should be a major topic at professional meetings. As well, it is his view that schools are allowing their clarity of education vision to be confused by the electronic tools available. He is concerned about an apparent shallowness in learning programmes. Process, he believes, is being emphasised at the expense of knowledge.

He is not impressed with a lot of the slickness surrounding school marketing (aren’t markets where things are bought and sold?); the way some schools allow themselves to be used as poster schools to promote a narrow, conformist view of education; the large number of out-of-school meetings for principals (more time should be spent standing with their teachers and less sitting with other principals); the review office (still), yes they are kinder and gentler, their wings having been clipped, but there is a better way; claims of new knowledge – it is that confusion with process again; university jargon – an academic rite of passage, but also useful for obscuring the downright ordinariness of the actual message in much academic writing; talk of enquiry learning – it is a label now so widely used as to be meaningless; question taxonomies – good questioning does not come in pre-packaged sequences; prolix ministry publications – stop doing international surveys, try being original; the abundance of overseas gurus with ideas, which seem to him, based on pop psychology; and, finally, anyone claiming to prepare children for the 21st century (the best way to do the right thing for children’s future, he believes, is to meet their needs now).

These ideas are likely to be the rubric for networkonnet. On the other hand, he may have a change of mind, and concentrate on his horses, or write a book or something … In the likely event, however, that networkonnet will continue, your contributions and comments will be warmly welcomed. And unless a particular posting is otherwise designated, you are invited, indeed encouraged, to download, or cut and paste items, for any purpose that suits.

Kelvin Smythe makes a plea for teachers to see behind the commodification of education, the managerialism, the data gathering, the claims of new knowledge, the fads, the array of electronics to what teaching is really about – key interactions between teacher, child, and what is being learnt. He knows that many of his concerns about education, his aspirations for education, his style of writing about them will be dismissed as out-of-date. His claim, though, is that these key interactions are the essence of what teaching should be, and are timeless.

One of the first series of postings on networkonnet was about Elwyn Richardson. Kelvin Smythe analyses Richardson’s inspirational country school experiences from the ’50s and ’60s, recounted by Richardson in his book  ‘In the Early World’. In subsequent postings Kelvin Smythe analyses Richardson’s minor publications written 20 years later, which he declares to be generally confusing and disappointing. Then, to Kelvin Smythe’s relief and delight, there appeared in one of these minor publications, two of the kind of key interactions referred to.

A boy wrote:

‘If you look at a flax plant you will see it wave in the breeze …

Richardson discusses how he would talk with the boy about the use of the impersonal ‘you’, rather than ‘I’, leading on to the flax bush being non-specific as indicated by the use of the indefinite article ‘a’.

Another boy wrote:

‘I saw the wind catch the pine trees. It blew them from side to side.’

Richardson praised the boy for the expression about the wind catching the pine trees, but asked, did the trees actually move from side to side?

This is what teaching is about, and networkonnet. Kelvin Smythe urges readers to take the time to read the series on Elwyn Richardson. It is the signature series for the website. He assures teachers that after reading it, few will be unaffected, and few will be unsure what developmental teaching is.

2 Responses to Kelvin Smythe

  1. Dugald Martin says:

    Hi Kelvin
    I have over recent months been reading your postings. They reach into the heart of what is wrong with our struggling little education system, laying bare the awful results of neo-liberalist intervention. They make me both sad and angry at the same time. having worked in the system as a full time teacher since 1965, and still working as a part time reliever, I have seen and am still seeing the effects of schools being squeezed, pummeled and ground down by the machinery of a nasty and self-serving administration, one that is hell-bent on being in control at all costs. But then, I don’t need to tell you that, do I?

    Having read your recent postings on the little seaside school I have been sadder and angrier than ever before. If anything in our world is more unconscionable, then I need to hear it. My god, what do these people think they are doing, think they can get away with? This story needs to be headlined for all to see, but then that would mean good journalism, and don’t get me started on that one!

    Kelvin, you must continue to pursue your campaign against the dark forces of kontrol (intentional spelling), for how else will people know what happens. Unfortunately people do not see through Mr. Smile and Nod and his cut-throat band of far right cronies. They are lulled into a some kind of soporific nirvana by lies and shallow assurances.

    I remember you Kelvin, when I was teaching in the Waikato in the ’80s, first at (now defunct) Taihoa School and later at Waerenga School. They were good times for me in the first instance, but not the second as country districts can be difficult to live and work in, especially if your philosophies don’t align with the establishment.

    Keep up the pressure on these determined bullies, and keep on highlighting the holes in the system. How one converts critical comment into systemic change I don’t know, do you?

    With kind regards,
    Dugald Martin

  2. John Elliott says:

    Full agreement with Dugald. I am only a secondary-school teacher who started teaching in1970. I missed the website switch last year and have only just caught up with Kelvin’s later writings. Although an atheist, I think that Kelvin is doing God’s work. (A figure of speech, for any over-literal readers.) I have seen a less-able reader criticise him for being long-winded. Criticism from someone with only a 20-second attention-span..?
    Please do not let anyone bring you down, Kelvin.

    John Elliott

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