Page 2: Teaching theory
Ashton-Warner, Sylvia Constance
Educationalist, teacher, writer
This biography, written by Sue Middleton, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
Starting to write
In 1941 the family moved to Pipiriki in the Whanganui River valley, where Sylvia and Keith taught at the local native school. Here Sylvia practised the disciplined life of a writer. The diary she kept there would, two decades later, be published under the title Myself. It explored the competing rhythms of teaching, motherhood, married life, emotions and artistic creativity – painting, piano-playing and writing. Psychoanalytic influences on her teaching method were already evident in this diary.
In Pipiriki Sylvia began to develop the teaching theory for which she became known during and after the Second World War. At the heart of the scheme was the idea that literacy was best achieved when children expressed their experiences of fear and sex, the two great Freudian drives. In her infant room, these erupted to the surface by means of what she called captions (a child’s ‘key vocabulary’). The most powerful ‘key words’ were ‘ghost’ and ‘kiss’. According to her, ‘Any child, brown or white, on the first day, remembers these two words from One-Look.’ 1
Sylvia believed that venting fear and the destructive drive through the key vocabulary and other expressive arts could prevent violence and war. She explained: ‘I see the mind of a five-year old as a volcano with two vents; destructiveness and creativeness. And I see that to the extent that we widen the creative channel we atrophy the destructive one.’ 2
Although there is a common perception that her approach was met with hostility by authorities, it was in many ways consistent with the policies, if not the universal practices, in infant rooms. In the mid-1930s to 1940s, the New Zealand Department of Education, under the directorship of Clarence Beeby, promoted progressive or new education, an international movement informed by new social theories. It drew on psychoanalytic and psychological theories of individual child development, conceptualising schooling as socially transformative through the promotion of democratic and peaceful values. Douglas Ball, senior inspector of native schools, encouraged new education in native schools and advocated making the curriculum more relevant to life in Māori communities.