Douglas George Ball was born in Wanganui on 19 October 1895, the son of John Ball, a journalist, and his wife, Emma Agnes Shaw. He was educated at the Victoria Avenue primary school and Wanganui Technical School. He then spent four years as a pupil-teacher. Enlisting in the army in 1915, Ball left New Zealand in January 1916 for France. He fought in the battle of the Somme and was mentioned in dispatches. Subsequently recommended for officer cadet training, he was commissioned a second lieutenant.
Ball married Isabel Mary Elizabeth Lee in London on 7 May 1918. On his return to New Zealand he was appointed headmaster of Grovetown, a two-teacher primary school just outside Blenheim. An important inspiration was N. R. McKenzie, a Wellington Education Board inspector who had studied under the progressive American educationalist John Dewey. Ball described McKenzie's visits as always exciting, with the inspector carrying a suitcase of the latest publications on modern educational philosophy and methods. While at Grovetown, Ball completed an LLB extramurally and received very high grading marks. In 1926 he was appointed an organising teacher to the Taranaki Education Board, visiting isolated one-teacher rural schools accessible only on horseback. During his two years in Taranaki he completed a BA degree extramurally.
In February 1929 Ball was appointed inspector of native schools. Once again he rode to schools in remote areas, later commenting that he was sometimes taken for a drover. Influenced by Dewey's ideas, Ball believed strongly in 'learning by doing' and 'child activity', and this profoundly influenced his work in native schools. His review of the role of the schools led to their being given a fresh direction. Finding the teaching methods over-formal and stultifying, he set himself the task of improving the confidence and competence of the teachers. They were encouraged to replace stereotyped classroom teaching with a more child-centred approach, aimed at stimulating activity and developing responsibility.
When Ball joined the native schools service, he was a comparatively young man, conscious of much needing to be done, and possibly hoped to achieve at least some of his reforms within a short time. The morale of the teachers had been waning and the Native School Teachers' Association losing membership. Because of the remoteness of the schools, teachers had little opportunity to meet together and discuss professional matters. Ball organised regular meetings of teachers on the East Coast and in Northland and provided them with educational literature. He introduced new ideas in a native schools column in the New Zealand Education Gazette and announced plans for building up the inadequate school library facilities. He placed considerable emphasis on strengthening links between schools and communities, including visits by teachers to marae and parents to schools.
Ball's most important contribution to Māori education was to reverse the policy of Europeanisation of native schools, which had meant that almost the only indication they were for Māori was the presence of Māori pupils. He was responding to concerns among prominent Māori such as Apirana Ngata that aspects of Māori culture were under threat, and to anthropological theories about the intrinsic value of all cultures. He was also influenced by British colonial policy in Africa, which emphasised that 'Education should be adapted to the traditions and mentality of the people'. Ball introduced tāniko (embroidery), carving, poi dances and Māori games, and used Māori stories in history lessons. In order to develop activities of this kind effectively, Ball encouraged teachers to study Māori culture. To disseminate the new approach, teachers attended refresher courses on Māori culture held with Ngata, Tūtere Wī Repa, Pine Taiapa and Hera Rogers as guest lecturers, and invitations were issued to Māori experts to visit schools and assist with the instruction.
Like most of his contemporaries, Ball believed that the Māori future lay on the land, and agricultural and gardening activities were consequently expanded. By 1939 he reported that most East Coast and Northland schools were participating in home gardens and stock-rearing projects. Health education also received emphasis, with a new scheme of instruction issued to teachers in 1934.
Ball was also responsible for the inspection of the Māori denominational boarding colleges, which, in order to carry on with depleted rolls and a fall in income caused by the depression, were forced to introduce economies and reduce staffing. In 1937 he advised the principals of the boys' colleges that too much time was being spent on purely practical outdoor work and too little on classroom studies. In a comprehensive report prepared in 1939 he showed that pupils leaving the more remote native schools lacked the opportunity to receive a secondary education. This hastened recognition of the need to build district high schools in remote areas.
Looking back on his years in Māori education, Ball wrote that he had come to recognise how 'The school had been in the pa, but not of the pā. In all respects it had been an English school,…and it had failed the Māori in his critical period of adjustment.' He acknowledged the difficulty of realising a 'blending of cultures and spiritual values' in schools which were Māori in name only, and in which the Māori language was seldom heard. He also stressed the need to abandon 'motivations and objectives almost completely European'. Despite the slow progress in making Māori culture integral to the native school, the atmosphere and environment of many classrooms became more humane and happier for Māori children during Ball's term, and the schools had ceased to be regarded as an outright instrument of assimilation. Ball could also claim to have improved the morale and performance of the teachers.
Ball had been promoted to senior inspector in 1937. He found promotion within the Department of Education blocked by the appointment of C. E. Beeby as assistant director in 1938. He appealed without success, but came to see Beeby's appointment as justified because 'the Department came to life and I enjoyed working under his direction'. In 1940 he took up an appointment as a senior inspector of primary schools in the head office of the Department of Education.
In September 1942 Ball was appointed first director of the Army Education and Welfare Service with the rank of lieutenant colonel. It was a daunting task as New Zealand had no system of army education. He made a thorough study of other schemes, particularly that of the British Army. He established a central office in Wellington, appointing teaching staff from a wide range of professional and trade backgrounds and arranging financial support. By early 1943 the service had begun to provide educational facilities for the troops. Progress was not always straightforward: Ball had to cope with a feeling among some senior army officers that education had no place in a fighting force.
Ball oversaw the development of a series of booklets dealing with training in trades, agriculture and general subjects. Comprehensive university, professional and vocational studies courses were developed with his typical thorough planning. He provided library services and was responsible for supplying 16-millimetre sound projectors and films on military training, education and entertainment.
Ball returned to the Department of Education in 1947 as chief inspector of primary schools. In February 1950 he was promoted to assistant director of education (professional), taking special responsibility for the supervision of the school sector and working on revisions of teacher grading and salary scales. Shortly before his retirement in 1955 he was appointed to chair a committee set up to review Māori education policy.
In January 1956 Ball accepted an invitation from the commissioner of police to take up a part-time appointment as director of police training. He chaired a committee whose report recommended a complete change in the concept and methods of training and a new, larger and better-equipped training college. His influence was clearly evident in the structure and aims of the syllabus and the attempt to achieve greater sophistication in instruction. He was also concerned with the development of in-service training of police beyond the recruit level.
Ball published little, but did contribute a chapter on education to I. L. G. Sutherland's The Māori people today in 1940 and co-authored a book on the inspection of primary schools in 1961. In the same year he was appointed chairman of the Māori Education Foundation. His foreword to each of his 10 annual reports drew on his extensive experience to survey developments relevant to Māori education. He commanded the Makara Battalion of the Home Guard from 1940 to 1942 and was a senior officer of the St John Ambulance Association for Wellington, and a member of the Wellington Civil Service Club and the Rotary Club of Wellington. He died at his home at Lowry Bay, Eastbourne, on 8 February 1986. He was survived by three sons and a daughter; Isabel Ball had died in 1978.