By Marilyn Smith
We recently hosted the Year 12 Valedictory Dinner in Kevin Borland Hall at Arlington and each year I am struck anew by the very strong sense of camaraderie there is among our students. They have come to know and care for each other over a period of time, many of them since their own days at Arlington. Their willingness to stand up and speak at this gathering is testament to the trust and confidence they have in their classmates and their teachers.
A focal point for the night’s proceedings is provided by the stage curtains*. This gorgeous backdrop was retrieved from storage where it has been since it was painted by some of these students when they were in the 11s in 2010.
One of the current 11 year old children from Arlington was admiring this enormous artwork and astutely identified its key quality – it was a genuinely collaborative production by the whole class. It seems that over recent years we have tended more and more to allow each child to make their own contribution, to stitch together a patchwork of individual art works, rather than support the children to work through the more arduous process of a genuinely collaborative final product. Certainly we end up with a final result that is still beautiful, but it requires none of the struggle and resolution that genuine collaboration demands.
When Frances Derham, the eminent authority on children’s art, joined Preshil in 1935 she was most impressed with the cooperation of Preshil children as they ‘designed, planned and painted backdrops and curtains for their plays and the democratic principles which were followed in choosing and creating the final design. Votes were counted, no comments were made, no feelings were hurt, a joyous experience to watch.’
It is, of course, so much easier to value the product over the process. This seems to be such a pervasive characteristic of our contemporary world and sad to think that we have come to accept this ‘commodification’ in our approach to teaching and learning. As a by-product we lose sight of the most significant opportunities for our children to learn – how to collaborate, how to negotiate, appreciate other perspectives, compromise and sometimes be disappointed and have to let go.
We know that creativity and deep learning spring from interaction, from the collision of ideas and points of difference. We know that problem solving arises from shared imaginations, discussion, playfulness and experimentation.
Now we are well into the VCE exam period, there could not be a more stark contrast between what we know about rich and lasting learning and the vision of students each isolated at their own exam desk; a perfect illustration of the mentality that demands ‘no talking and cover your work’, competing against close friends and struggling to gain an advantage. In our current approach to schooling we have somehow come to accept that collaboration is ‘cheating’ and this attitude permeates so much of what we value in schools. We have become obsessed with only teaching and valuing what can be measured by a standardised test or examination.
I hope all of our Year 12 students are able to hold on to the images they took away from the Valedictory Dinner and that beautiful stage curtain, a symbol of joyful shared imagination and effort. We wish every one of them the joy of emerging from this strange world of school into the creative, imaginative, collaborative lives they are about to enter.
*”Preshil has a remarkable collection of curtains painted by students dating back several decades. We are looking for a sponsor to photograph, catalogue or ideally, curate an exhibition of, these extraordinary artworks.”