A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN MARSDEN
John Marsden would argue that one of the best things we can do for our kids is to raise them to love the adventure of life. And by doing that, we will set them up to be successful adults – able to face problems head-on, find solutions, and show resilience in adversity.
The best-selling author of the award-winning Tomorrow series, John has spent his life educating kids and teenagers. As the founder and principal of two schools – Candlebark and Alice Miller – he has put his theories to the test and seen the empowering results of his methods.
Recently we had the opportunity for an enjoyable chat – about education and parenting, his latest book Take Risks, and why so many children today fall apart when things go wrong …
GRAPEVINE: What was it that began the journey for you, where you ended up setting up a couple of schools?
JOHN MARSDEN: Well, it probably started way back while I was still a schoolboy! It was around year eight or nine, and I was so utterly bored. (Actually, on reflection, I was probably angry – because I don’t mind being bored. Boredom can be quite creative – it spurs you to get up and do things.) Anyway, I was angry at the culture of the school … the unfairness, the bureaucracy, the excessive concern with details and rules. And, even in my early teens, I remember thinking of better ways of doing school.
My ideas were nothing too stupid or radical. I look back now and think they were pretty sensible! But the school would not and could not change anything. So I had four years of tearing my hair out, watching the second hand on the clock ticking around and waiting for the bell.
Then I’d go to the next class and repeat the process!
The reality was, in 13 years of primary and secondary schooling, I had two wonderful, inspiring teachers – in years four and six – and a reasonably good English teacher in high school. But that was it.
If you’re spending 13 years in those conditions – for long periods of time every day – and, at the end of it, you can identify only two or three good teachers, then that’s dreadful! And I think most people would struggle to name more than a couple of wonderful teachers during their entire schooling …
GV: When you finished school, you then studied to become a teacher – obviously motivated by your own personal experiences! So, from that point to the realisation you need to start your own school, what did you discover?
JOHN: A couple of things. Firstly, I was lucky enough to do a good three-year course in primary teaching. From Day 1 they told us: “You need to get out and change the system guys! Don’t put up with this current tired old structure!” So, wow, I loved that! And I really responded to the challenge.
The second thing came later, when I quit teaching for a few years. I started running workshops in schools – mostly Australia and New Zealand, but all around the world. I went to nearly 3000 schools and learnt so much!
I found a few schools that were wonderful … a huge number that were mediocre … and a lot that were bloody awful! And it got me thinking: if I took that aspect from that school, that other idea from that other school, and didn’t do what they were doing in that school over there – and if I put all the good things together and discarded all the rubbish, then maybe we would have something pretty workable.
So that’s what I did!
GV: But it wasn’t all plain sailing, right?
JOHN: Well, after trying to start an alternative school in New South Wales and failing (for various financial and political reasons), I thought the only way I’m ever going to do this is to have enough money to do it myself. So, thankfully, I got to a position where I’d made enough from my writing to do just that.
That made a huge difference – because I wasn’t wasting time with endless fundraising and desperately trying to get a few dollars together.
In the end, it took me less than a year to get the whole thing set up and ready to open.
GV: So, thinking about those 3000 schools you visited: what did you find that didn’t work?
JOHN: The obsession with trivial things! Like, for example, whether someone had their shirt tucked in or their buttons done up properly. Or whether they were on time to class or five minutes late for class. The amount of energy generated in schools on those trivial things is so stupid and meaningless!
In recent years I’ve realised that teachers are often unconsciously hypocritical about these things. Like the staff meeting I talk about in Take Risks – when one of the teachers was pushing for detentions for kids who were late for class. I sat there listening and finally pointed out (with some humour), “When this meeting started at 8.45am, there were seven of the 18 of you present. So don’t talk to me about students being on time or not on time for class!”
It was the same for assignments: teachers getting really agitated and throwing punishments around for kids handing in their homework late. But you try getting teachers to write their reports by the due date, or to submit required curriculum documents on time. They’re often as late as the students! So we need to recognise that and get everything back into proportion.
I suppose one of the other big things is the relationship between the teachers and students. There were schools I visited where staff would never make eye contact with the kids. There was always an uneasy, uncomfortable atmosphere in those schools – and that was quite common!
But then, on the other hand, there were some schools where students who wanted to see a teacher would be invited into the staff room, offered an armchair, given a cup of coffee … and then they’d have the conversation!
I only saw that invitation happen in about six schools out of 3000 – but they were all great schools. If you can change the status hierarchy in schools, you can make a profound difference.
GV: What else did you see that did work?
JOHN: Teachers who had life experience outside the schools …
What I mean is, if a teacher has gone straight from school to university and straight back to school, they’re often still there 30 years later! Which is not likely to be a very successful outcome.
When employing staff, I always set out to find teachers who, for example, had climbed Mt Everest backwards, or ridden a surfboard down the Amazon, or something! And it didn’t have to be a physical challenge – it could be a spiritual or social or emotional or artistic challenge. But I wanted people who’d done stuff, who’d lived a life that was energized and adventurous!
I didn’t necessarily want the whole place to be full of mountaineers and cross-country skiers. I wanted balance. So I also looked for people who were studious and introverted, but also adventurous in the way they worked intellectually or artistically or creatively.
That’s the biggest single factor, really.
GV: So what, in your opinion, is the role of a teacher?
JOHN: It’s to be the ‘elder of the community’ … in the way that the word ‘elder’ has been used over the millennia. People who are respected as those most likely to provide advice, information, leadership, and direction.
So my schools aren’t democracies. The students are treated very courteously and very warmly and very affectionately – but they don’t vote on what we’re going to do next. And they don’t choose whether they go to class or not. I have teachers who make those decisions. Teachers who’ve got expertise, and are hired, like elders, to pass on that expertise.
Whether you’re a canoe maker or an illustrator or a composer or a scientist or astronomer … you have knowledge that other people don’t have. So your job is to disseminate as much of that knowledge as possible, and help other people to acquire that understanding – or ‘wisdom’, for want of a better word.
One of the things that most western schools ignore is that, along with the academic journey to gather and acquire knowledge, there’s a secondary journey that’s just as important: to become wiser and more understanding … to become a more abstract thinker. That’ll happen in English classes if you’re lucky, but it won’t happen in many other classes.
So we try to work on both fronts at the same time. This is not just about the getting of knowledge, it’s also about the getting of wisdom.
GV: What advice can you give existing teachers to help them connect with – and become better educators to – their students?
JOHN: Well, a couple of things. The obvious one is treating students courteously (as I mentioned). But, as a teacher, you also need to be more outspoken and assertive about what you’re doing. Otherwise, you risk getting bullied by parents or bureaucrats or even people within the educational hierarchy of your school. It’s important you find the courage to articulate and advocate what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
Remember: we are the specialists. And we should have both the training and the experience to know what we’re doing.
THANKS – BUT NO THANKS!
Just as I don’t go into a dentist surgery and start telling the dentist how to deal with an abscessed wisdom tooth, I don’t want a dentist coming into my school and telling me how we should be running our morning meeting with students. Or how we should be teaching maths.
But when it comes to education, people believe that because they themselves went to school two or three decades ago, they’re very knowledgeable about learning.
Now, they might have strong opinions (which, by the way, they have a right to articulate). But that doesn’t mean their opinions will automatically be right or well-considered.
We also need to be very aware of status hierarchies. The best teachers are the ones who can change status from moment to moment, if necessary. Once you can do that, and once the students know you can do that, you won’t have any behaviour problems. If a teacher can take charge of an anarchic situation and restore it to a workable situation, then students will stop testing the teacher out. But as long as they suspect that the teacher is low status, they’ll keep probing and pushing and needling … and that’ll go on for years!
For some teachers, it’s their whole career: every day they look miserable, and they seem to be struggling to manage their classes.
GV: Your school motto is Take Risks (like the book!). What does that actually mean?
JOHN: Well, I suppose it means to be adventurous. But take risks is a catchier way of saying it! Now I don’t mean be reckless – I mean get out there and engage with the world!
At the moment, many kids live a triangular life: one point is the home, another is the school, and the third is the shopping mall. And that’s their world – they don’t go beyond those three points! For many younger kids, particularly in the suburbs, their only excursion is to the shops or to those sterile playgrounds in the local park. But that’s not good preparation for adult life.
One of the things to learn as an adult is how to deal with the difficult situations you’re going to encounter – and how to recognise the many possible solutions to a problem. You’ll need to be able to prioritise those solutions, in terms of those most likely to be effective, down to the least effective – and to work out which are worth pursuing.
If you think there’s only one solution to a problem, then you can get yourself trapped – which can prove difficult and very dangerous. In extreme cases, people get suicidal – where they think there’s no way out.
But there are always other solutions and strategies available.
PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES
By giving kids that spirt of adventure – by encouraging them to take risks, tackle difficult hikes, ride skateboards and scooters and bikes, climb trees, and try radical things in art or writing or music – we want them to see what works and what doesn’t. We want them to experience failure and enjoy success and really push the boundaries!
We’ll be equipping them with that inner strength – which they’ll need if they’re going to negotiate adult life successfully.
It’s pretty scary the way so many kids are being brought up in this incredibly cocooned, claustrophobic lifestyle. That’s not a good environment in which to learn all the lessons of life that you need for adulthood.
GV: So, what role do schools play?
JOHN: Well, they don’t play any at the moment – that’s the problem! They’ve become so suffocated by bureaucracy and politicians and parents with extremist agendas, that they’re not doing what they should be doing. They’re timid, afraid to try anything new or daring, because they know they’ll get criticised.
Education leaders of 100 years ago were much more outspoken – and much more proactive in advocating for certain types of education and directions society needed to move in. Nowadays we want to appease everybody! We want to keep everybody happy, to conciliate and mediate and arbitrate … which can be useful and worthwhile, but it can also be taken too far.
GV: What are your top three fixes for schools?
JOHN: Well firstly, like I said before, hire adventurous teachers who’ve lived active lives in a broader community.
Secondly, they’ve got to be adults! Their number of birthdays doesn’t interest me, but are they adults in the more profound sense of the word? Are they able to deal with strong emotions? With difficulties and challenges? Are they able to cope when things go wrong? Do they have good judgment and good reasoning powers?
And thirdly, be aware of the sub-cultures in the school. And not just aware of them, but be active in dismantling them – especially if they’re dangerous and distractive, as they often are. There’ll be the apparent culture of the school, but there’ll also be other subcultures which are run by students. You need to know who those students are, what their values and practices are, and how they function in relation to other students who aren’t part of their group.
Then you need to start dealing with it – you can’t just turn your back and pretend it’s not happening.
GV: Give us an example of a harmful subculture?
JOHN: Sure – kids at the back of the bus!
BULLIES ON THE BUS
These are the kids who always sit on the back seat, dominating the others in front of them and becoming arrogant little bullies. I visited one school where I found an autistic boy trapped in a space under a stairwell by three others during lunchtime. They were tormenting him and treating him like a caged creature in a zoo … and enjoying it!
I went to one of the teachers and explained what I saw, and she just rolled her eyes and said, “Yeah, they’re always like that. They’re so nasty to that boy …” But she didn’t do anything about it or take any action! I see stuff like that too often, and it’s really ugly.
They say that “nature abhors a vacuum” – and if students feel there’s a vacuum in the school, they will fill it. But the kids who’ll fill it will be the loudest and most powerful. The vacuum won’t be filled by the studious student who is aspiring to get into medicine at the top university. It’ll be filled by someone who is angry and alienated and doesn’t have a lot of compassion.
GV: Where do you see the future of education?
JOHN: To be honest, I’m not very confident or optimistic at the moment! I think the bureaucrats are very firmly in control. And my experience with them would suggest that most are people who have not been successful in the classroom. When they come out to our school to have conversations or to inspect us, they strike me as people who don’t have any profound understanding of education. They’re obsessed with rules and regulations, and believe that if you have enough rules, you’ll stamp out lazy and damaging teaching.
But that’s not the case. Because the lazy teacher will always find a way to be lazy, and the damaging teacher will aways continue to damage.
So, this over-reliance on regulation is just a complete dead-end street. And until we deal with that, we’re unlikely to see much worthwhile progress. Unfortunately, this is a problem with all western countries – not just Australia and New Zealand.
GV: Why do so many children today fall apart when the slightest thing goes wrong?
JOHN: I think it’s partly a product of claustrophobic parenting – where kids don’t get to make decisions for themselves, and are so wrapped in cotton wool that they don’t engage with the world in meaningful ways.
I’ve noticed kids who’ve gone from Candlebark to the secondary campus, and have been terrific – they’ve got this inner strength and are able to deal with problems. But kids from other schools (who we started taking when I opened Alice Miller School) just left me dumbfounded as I saw them collapse into emotional wrecks when they lost a text book, or couldn’t find the right classroom, or had a fight with a friend …
Their default setting was to call the parent on their mobile phone and ask to get picked up and taken home. And the number of parents who would immediately drive straight to school at 11 or 12 o’clock, pick their child up and take them away … well, I was gobsmacked! I’m talking about 15- and 16-year-olds!
I’ve talked to kids who’ve locked themselves in toilet cubicles or hidden behind trees while they’re ringing their parents repeatedly, crying and begging to be collected. And the issues they’re facing are trivial – like thinking they’re going to get in trouble for turning up to their next class without their homework, or whatever.
I just think, gee we’ve got such a short space of time to build some better foundations for your adult life! After all, to be a successful adult you’ve got to be resilient, you’ve got to have a flexible way of thinking, the ability to solve problems and show inner strength when it’s needed.
GV: Which is why parents need to apply that Take Risks motto at home, right?
JOHN: Yeah, absolutely! But it’s easier said than done. The honest truth is that people won’t be able to do it unless they take a long, hard look at themselves – because it can require what is essentially a change of personality, a whole new modus operandi! Once people reach adulthood, they’re very unlikely to make profound changes of that nature.
If parents are willing, I’d suggest they take a step back, and hand problems back to the child. So, when their child says, “I don’t know what to do about my whatever …” they’d say, “Well, what do YOU think you should do? Give me some ideas!” They’d be constantly putting things back onto their kids, instead of providing glib answers and solutions for them.
In essence, they’d be getting them to think for themselves and take some responsibility for their lives.
Unfortunately, many parents find that’s beyond their abilities – partly because they’re uncomfortable looking in the mirror at their own fears and failures, and admitting: “Oh man, I stuffed that up because I was too lazy …” or whatever.
Ultimately, the more parents can look at themselves honestly – which is easy to say but difficult to do – the more hope there is for their kids.
GV: So, to wrap up, what are your top three fixes for parents?
JOHN: Give your kids firsthand experiences which aren’t just confined to the shopping mall and the local playground.
MUD, GLORIOUS MUD!
For little kids, that might mean playing with mud … playing with water … playing with sand … playing in the garden! Honestly, you give kids water or sand or mud or all three, and they’ll be happy for years! They don’t need much. And getting their hands dirty – literally, and metaphorically – is really important.
That might mean exploring rock pools along the beach, or going bush, or going to museums, galleries, theater … which isn’t literally a first-hand experience, because you’re not the one on the stage acting. But nevertheless, you’re out there engaging with the arts in a very interactive, and often confronting, way.
Allow them to meet a whole range of different people – whether it’s a neurologist or a politician or a coffee seller or a person on the street. Your kids need to be engaging with the world in those ways, as well as physically adventurous ways.
At Candlebark and Alice Miller, we take a lot of damaged kids. Our schools are a sanctuary for them, from about 8:30 to about 3:30 … and then they go back into the chaos and abuse of their home lives. Yeah, I know: it’s not enough. It’ll never be enough if you can’t fix the home problems. But at least it means that for seven hours a day these kids have some peace and happiness, some stability and security …
TO FIND OUT MORE, SEARCH FOR CANDLEBARK AND ALICE MILLER SCHOOLS ON THE INTERNET, OR VISIT JOHNMARSDEN.COM.AU TO CHECK OUT HIS BOOKS.