Page 1: Biography
Richardson, Elwyn Stuart
This biography, written by Margaret MacDonald, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2020.
Dubbed an educational ‘saboteur’ by poet James K. Baxter, Elwyn Richardson was an educator who helped change the practice of teaching and learning in New Zealand schools in the second half of the twentieth century.1 He is best known for his work at Ōruaiti School in rural Northland, where from 1949 to 1961 he undertook an experiment in progressive education with a particular focus on arts and crafts. His influential and internationally celebrated book In the early world (1964) chronicled the Ōruaiti experiment and provided a road map for future educators.
A formative early education
Born in Ōtāhuhu on 8 July 1925, Elwyn Stuart Richardson was the youngest son of Ruby North Sharley and her husband, Henry Richardson. Richardson described his family as ‘poor fringe farmers’, who lived largely self-sufficiently on Waiheke Island; they had no electricity and grew much of their own food.2 Dairying provided the main source of income, supplemented by shearing and forestry work.
Richardson formed a close friendship with English farm-worker Wal Fowler, who took over his early education and had a profound influence on his ideas about teaching and learning. The disgraced son of an earl, Fowler was paid a remittance by his father to settle away from England following a scandal. The Richardson family appreciated Wal’s love of books and scientific knowledge, and enjoyed his pencil drawings of insects, trees, flowers and fruits, and his insect box with specimens pinned in place. Richardson absorbed Wal’s observational approach and later, at Ōruaiti School, made it a cornerstone of his educational philosophy.
In 1930 Richardson began attending the small school at Ostend on Waiheke Island, where his abilities irked the schoolteacher, who scolded him for being ‘smart’ and forbade him from reading the senior pupils’ books. When Richardson decided that he disliked school, his parents applied for a scholarship to Dilworth, a private boarding school in Auckland for boys from families with limited means. He was accepted, and began Standard One in October 1933.
Richardson found institutional life bewildering and frightening; he was caned repeatedly, once so severely he spent two weeks in the infirmary. Dilworth, where he remained until December 1940, provided his first ‘deeply felt situation of real horror, pain and almost total despair.’3 In his last two years he became more accepting of the school and developed a love of chemistry.
Richardson’s early schooling experiences left him with a searing dislike of authoritarianism and bureaucracy, and his subsequent educational ideas were founded upon a rejection of the traditional schooling he had experienced. His years in ‘the devil’s pit’ ultimately inspired him to create a new, rewarding kind of school in which all children were valued, respected and encouraged to develop as individuals.4
Richardson’s family subsequently moved to Epsom, and he was able to transfer to Mount Albert Grammar School. He studied for a Bachelor of Science degree at Auckland University College, taking geology, chemistry and botany courses, before applying to Auckland Teachers’ College in 1946. He left Teachers’ College, he said, still ‘somewhat hating education’, but was inspired to teach pottery and build a kiln by art lecturer Hilary Clark and his potter friend, Len Castle.5
His posting to remote, sole-charge Ōruaiti School near Mangonui, Northland, in 1949 offered Richardson the opportunity to pursue his interest in molluscan palaeontology, and to construct his own educational pedagogy, curriculum and assessment with minimal oversight by school inspectors. With the blessing of the director of education, Clarence Beeby, who spent a day in his classroom, Richardson discarded the official syllabus and turned instead to the children’s lives, and their immediate environment, for the basis of his curriculum. Using their natural curiosity and interest, he taught them to look closely at the world around them and to observe and record their discoveries and their responses to them. From here he developed a dynamic programme that was anchored in the children’s lived reality. Through this environmental study the children learned the basis of scientific method and brought these skills to bear on their studies through an integrated programme of arts and science. Although his educational philosophy resonated with the ideas of Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel and Dewey, he deemed other educationalists’ ideas to be a distraction from the important task of working out his own pedagogy.
As an educator, Richardson was ahead of his time. He fostered the kind of bicultural classroom that only became more generally valued some decades later. He used te reo Māori in his interactions with his students at a time when departmental policy actively discouraged it, and explored te ao Māori through history, language and art. He regularly invited kaumātua to address the students, and encouraged those who were natural leaders in their communities to assume these roles within the school. He shunned corporal punishment decades before it was banned in New Zealand schools.
Art and craft was central to radical educational reform, because it provided a gateway into the field of the imagination in intellectual work. Under the auspices of the Art and Craft Branch of the Department of Education, headed by Gordon Tovey, specialist itinerant art advisers visited schools to introduce new skills, activities and approaches into the classroom. Many, such as Ralph Hotere, Kāterina Te Heikōkō Mataira, Jim Allen, Marilynn Webb, Sandy Adsett, John Bevan Ford, Cliff Whiting and Clive Aldridge, were highly qualified and accomplished artists in their own right. Richardson found those who came to Ōruaiti to be sensitive visitors who treated his students as artists. His friend, the potter Barry Brickell, helped with kiln firings but refused to teach the children pottery, believing they were potters already. Richardson’s work at Ōruaiti stands both as a testimony to the Education Department’s belief in the importance of art and craft in education, and as evidence of its progressive stance on educational innovation.
Richardson married school dental nurse Margaret Anne Hows in Whangaroa on 20 December 1951. They had two children, Stuart (born 1955) and Anna (born 1958). Both Elwyn and Margaret were active in the local community.
Richardson left Ōruaiti School in 1961 to lecture at Auckland Teachers’ College, and was appointed principal of Hay Park School in Mt Roskill in 1963. His success at Hay Park encouraged him to apply for the principalship of a much larger school, and he was appointed principal of Lincoln Heights in West Auckland in 1966.
In 1964 the New Zealand Council of Educational Research published his book In the early world, which chronicled his experiences at Ōruaiti and outlined his philosophies as a model of best practice. The book became a widely used resource in teacher education programmes in New Zealand and the United States, especially in the area of developing reading and writing skills in young children. The first such book to enter mainstream teacher education, it was a prescribed text in most New Zealand teachers colleges in the later 1960s and 1970s.
The publication of In the early world in the United States in 1969 led to an invitation from the University of Colorado for Richardson to take up a visiting lectureship. Leaving his family in New Zealand, he spent the next three years dividing his time between the University of Washington in Seattle, South Dakota State University in Brookings, the University of Colorado in Boulder, Bank Street College of Education in New York, and the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. As part of his work at South Dakota State University, Richardson worked with students and faculty from Oglala Lakota College to develop visual and performing arts in schools on the Native American Pine Ridge Reservation.
Richardson returned to New Zealand in 1972 and resumed the principalship of Lincoln Heights School, where he remained until his retirement in 1987. His marriage had become strained during his years in America, and he and Margaret separated in 1974. Richardson married teacher Kate Amy Mansell (formerly Thompson) in Auckland on 29 January 1976.
Later years and legacy
Richardson was unable to find a publisher for his later writings. His interest in printing led him to establish the Taupaki Printery at his Henderson farm, where he lived with his partner Helen Garonne Hunter after his marriage to Kate ended in 1987. From there he self-published and printed a number of books about teaching and learning between 1981 and 2004. He also published a collection of short stories and several scientific papers for the Taupaki Malacological Society.
In 1989 Richardson was made a Companion of the Queen’s Service Order for services to education, and in 2005 he received an honorary doctorate in literature from Massey University. In August 2007, the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland honoured Richardson’s work by opening a permanent display of pottery, painting and prints made by Ōruaiti children in the main foyer of the building. A third edition of In the early world was published by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research in 2012, with a new foreword and a 20-page appendix of children’s artwork. On what was to be his last outing from Ranfurly Hospital, Richardson attended the launch of the third edition of his book at Lincoln Heights School. He died in Auckland on 24 December 2012, aged 87.
In the early world located Richardson firmly at the forefront of educational reform and influenced a generation of teachers. His work continued to be taught in teacher education programmes after his death. At a time when educational thinking and policy is increasingly dominated by economic relevance, his approach offers a timely demonstration that when teachers forge connections with children’s lives, they create a meaningful curriculum.