Open Mind Lecture: John Marsden

John Marsden is a writer, teacher and school principal. He has won all the major Australian awards for children’s and youth literature, and has produced a string of bestsellers, including “So Much to tell you” and the 7-volume “Tomorrow” series. John now has more than 40 titles in print: the most recent is his first novel for adults, “South of Darkness.”

In 1998, John bought the Tye Estate, 850 acres of natural bush north-east of Melbourne. For eight years he ran enormously popular writers’ courses and camps at Tye, before starting his own school, Candlebark, on the site in 2006. The school now caters for students from years Prep to 10, and has a four-year waiting list.  John is also the patron of the youth media organisation, Express Media.

Geelong Regional Library Corporation presents Open Mind Lectures each quarter. John Marsden spoke last night at the Geelong West Town Hall, to an audience of about 400 appreciative listeners.

John talked about five things that schools must address to give their students the best possible opportunities for learning:

Aesthetics – the learning environment must look and be attractive. Students should be surrounded by beauty. Far too many schools look anything but aesthetically pleasing. Most children leave the comfort and pleasant surroundings of home and go to learn in a place that’s forbidding, uncomfortable, has little appeal

First-hand Experience – Children should be given first-hand learning experiences wherever possible. Candlebark students go to theatre and concerts in Melbourne, see visiting artists and musicians of high calibre, visit workplaces, historical sites, a campus in France. They look for things in the bush, build things, grow and process their own food. Too often learning can be about experiences rather than experiencing things themselves.

Space – Children need plenty of space to learn optimally. The should be able to run, ride, play and get plenty of exercise, not necessarily just in scheduled sport time, but at any time of the day. Brains work better if bodies are fit.

Language – Do not be too regimented and restrictive about language. Children are naturally poetic until the age of 7 or 8, but they stop playing with language and enjoying the musical qualities of words because they get laughed at or forced to make their language regulated and precise. Don’t take the red pen to everything your children say!

Status – This is tied to language in many ways. Try to achieve the fine balance between mutual respect and collegiality / collaboration. Schools should be run by adults, but students should not feel they belong to a different class of being. Many schools won’t allow students to use the main entrance or to even be in the plush reception area, or won’t deal with enquiries from a student partly out of uniform. Some of the most successful schools invite students into the teachers’ lounge when they seek tutorial help or want a discussion. A teacher won’t achieve anything by trying to be best friends with students – they are educators, and have a job to do. On the other hand, teachers must respect students and invite conversation and encourage ideas.

From question time:

There are some wonderful high-fee independent schools, and some terrible high-fee independent schools. There are some wonderful cash-strapped government schools, and some terrible cash-strapped government schools. The majority of schools are at best mediocre. What makes the difference is the quality of the teachers and the school leadership.

One of the biggest challenges to education is bureaucracy: it is extremely difficult to set up any sort of alternative school, much more so now than in the past. Bureaucrats demand compliance with the most idiotic things, often that have no bearing on how children are cared for, or what they learn.



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