National Standards and What Education is ‘Really’ About

Des Mann. Photo by Angela Bradley.

In the following podcast, Juliet Bonnay talks with Des Mann, founding principal of Green Bay High School in Auckland, New Zealand about some alternatives to National Standards and what education is “really about anyway.” During his twelve years at Green Bay High, Des Mann’s focus was on developing the whole child rather than assessment of their academic achievements which, after all, only represents a small part of a child’s overall ability, creative potential, and what makes them uniquely ‘human’.

Des Mann was a secondary principal for 17 years in New Zealand, first at Opotiki College, then Green Bay High School. Upon his retirement he wrote a book about his experiences founding a school, entitled Correspondences: The Shaping of a School. In the final chapter he wrote:

Not only is humankind capable of being educated, we are also the only species of animal for which education is essential for survival. Education and survival are intimately linked. This is what education has always been for anyway. Humankind has not been fashioned in predetermined, coercive patterns of response. These have to be discovered as part of the rigours of adaptation to the culture into which we are born. As we adapt, we learn… and we can also transform. All three parts of the process matter. These form a lifelong continuum of experience which should never be interrupted. It is a unique paradox of humankind that the completed sculpture can, in turn, become the sculptor. It just happens that in our society there has never been much encouraging interest to see educational development in this way. Adapt we must, learn we might… but to transform, there is resistance. It brings an individual to a threshold which just might overturn the existing order. Yet that is the point where individuation; gestalt; wholeness or whatever term is used to describe this thrust for completeness; must lead. Once reached, it even opens the possibilities to saintliness… the level from which humankind looks not to itself, but towards eternity also. This too, contributes to our survival.

It is perhaps, not appropriate that religious imagery should be mentioned. There was, I believe, something compelling and deeply satisfying in the monastic paradigm… until it became stranded on shoals through loss of contact with the mainstreams of life. Nevertheless, there remains those needs for which the monastic tradition sought answers… to find the ‘self’ by shrugging aside all those identities and rewards with which our culture attempts to seduce us. Thus we might, too, become aware of the resources of our inner world and make these a part of our wholeness as persons. Religious orders sought to achieve this through their discipline of poverty, chastity and obedience. I do not suggest that this is the path for us to follow in our educational quest for survival. There is, nevertheless, a need to begin this journey with sufficient trust, compassion and humility to believe it is through ‘self’-discovery, that we can become pathfinders. At that point reality ceases to be something we fit into, but something we create.

Whatever the pragmatism which determines what we actually do to make survival possible, our actions must be informed by vision. In some way, the image of a school as a building with the future locked inside has always appealed to me. Education has everything to do with the unlocking process.

Our response can be superficial such as, supplying some pamphlets with job descriptions; inviting some speakers to visit the school; or learning to use a computer. These can help, but they can hinder also. Just placing skills in front of young people is a betrayal. This conditions them to look for survival through the process of social adaptation and dependence. Students are left at risk of leaving school with the same frame of reference about themselves as that with which they entered. To terminate schooling, paroled within the constraints of what they have been told to do, or believe, or serve, is not freedom.

Education for survival requires a much more penetrating social analysis and response from our schools. Students should leave with a perception of their unique self-worth clearly etched. Only then are they on their way towards uncovering their ‘centre’—that combination of talents and potential which define the uniqueness of every person—and the liberation this brings. If schooling does not work to this end it has failed, because it leaves students with their resources blinkered… and they have missed too, the magic and joy of what it means to be human and whole.

We do not live in an age which, at popular level, encourages deep probing and analysis of issues. A brief report; a one-line aside; an editorial comment; a television news flash; more often than not, are all that informs or moulds opinion. The technocrats do the rest. Their persuasive skills are harnessed to produce the results they want… be it to ‘sell’ a new perfume; a vacation resort; or a political idea. Thus it was not surprising that a questionnaire which arrived in my mail in late 1984, ended –

“You have three minutes of prime television to respond to the question: What is the main concern of education?”

Although I normally ignored any request for brevity when I thought that truth required a fuller statement, on this occasion, I accepted this challenge to encapsulate my response. It as my last opportunity, as a principal of a secondary school, to state what I most deeply believed about education –

‘The prime concern of education must be for the growth of the person: the development of potentials and the exploration of possibilities. It is about co-operation and not competition with others. Through co-operation our endeavours become creative and not destructive. Education is not a game to sort ‘winners’ from ‘losers’: it must recognise and encourage the contribution every person can make towards the creation of a caring community. Education must enhance self-esteem. There is a feeling of limitlessness and assertive strength when persons feel that they matter… that they are capable and loveable. Through such an education people discover within themselves, the means and the will, to survive and grow.’

No agency will promote this message about education. Its validity will be tested through experience in the lives of the many students with whom I was privileged to work.

Charmaine Poutney, in an article about ‘principals with principles’ the New Zealand Herald on March 09, 1998, wrote:

“As a founding staff member [of Green Bay High], I was proud to be part of a team led by a principal with a vision for secondary education in New Zealand – a vision of schools as non-coercive, community learning centres, empowering all within them to become life-long learners, seeking excellence in every sphere of their lives.”

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