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Book reviews


Williams, B. Education with Its Eyes Open: A Biography of Dr K. S. Cunningham. Australian Council for Educational Research Ltd, 1994

K A (Lex) Brasher
Department of Education
Queensland

"Wrong but romantic" might well describe the writings of many of the historians and biographers of the past. Possible weaknesses in historical method and a bias to the point of factual inaccuracy would be hidden in a colourful narrative, clothed in timeless and majestic prose which lived on in the memory of the reader and became part of the English language. By comparison, the compositions of many of our more recent historians and biographers seem to lack literary charm and lose the simple pattern of events in a maze of polemics, interpretations and reassessments written with the advantage of historical hindsight. Although they may have more sophisticated psychological insight and greater technical expertise in the research and interpretation of people and events, such writings come across to this reviewer as "right but repulsive".

Not so "Education With Its Eyes Open", a biography of Dr K.S. Cunningham. Ken Cunningham (1890-1976) was the founding director of the A.C.E.R. (Australian Council of Educational Research) and played an influential role in the fields of education psychology and the social sciences in Australia. Brian Williams's chronological narrative covers the events of his long life in an easy and fluent style.

Williams makes a real effort to place people and events in their historical and geographical context. Thus, Dr Cunningham's family background is described in detail. An account of his father's role as a Wesleyan and later a Presbyterian minister is expanded into a broader view of non-conformist religion in country towns in the late 19th century - for it was the migratory life of a country minister's family which shaped Ken Cunningham's childhood.

This broader picture continues when Williams recounts Cunningham's experiences as a young country school teacher in 1909. In a few concise sentences he manages to encapsulate a vivid picture of Ken's first school.

Gunbower Island was far from being a waterfront paradise on the educational landscape. Situated in a struggling irrigation district, the school was conducted in a tiny selector's hut and had an enrolment of less than thirty pupils. Cunningham arrived to find only one cracked blackboard, a beer bottle in the desk and a snake in the fireplace. The school had an infamous history of staff dissatisfaction and complaint, especially in regard to the intense heat and the absence of a teacher's residence. Rain often left the local dirt roads flooded and unsuitable for cycling, and former head teachers often had to trudge vast distances to and from the school. Cunningham proved to be more fortunate than many of the previous incumbents. He managed to find accommodation near the school, thereby ensuring his career was off to a secure beginning.
Williams places his chronicle of Cunningham's teaching life at Gunbower Island in perspective by recounting anecdotes of the teaching experiences of near contemporaries in the same area.

Williams' descriptive powers and portrayal of a panoramic background of people, organisations and events add life and interest to the early part of this biography. The portrayal of Cunningham's reactions to the horror and carnage of World War I in particular meets the great English historian A J P Taylor's requirement that people should get the same pleasure from reading history as they do from reading novels.

Unfortunately, this panoramic style is sometimes less effective. The detailed assessment of the historical and psychological framework to Dr Cunningham's studies and the accounts of the careers of his predecessors and contemporaries would be more relevant to those whose interests lay in a similar field. For this lay reader, however, the account of Cunningham's early university research was somewhat lost in a mass of additional material. Despite this, it was hard not to become involved in Williams development of the pattern of situations and events which ultimately resulted in the establishment of the Australian Council for Educational Research and the appointment of Dr Cunningham as its inaugural director. In this context, the animated description of Cunningham's American experiences was particularly interesting. ;

One of Dr Cunningham's most noteworthy achievements was making it possible for the N.E.F. (New Education Fellowship) Conference to be held in Australia in 1937. The success of this pivotal event in the development and recognition of Australian education was largely due to his initial support and meticulous organisation. Although much of the information regarding this conference and the general history of the development of the A.C.E.R. can be found in W.F. Connell's The Australian Council for Education Research 1930-1980 (published by the A.C.E.R. Limited in 1980), Williams' account adds new insights.

Of particular interest for Queenslanders is the account of the differences in opinion between Cunningham and B.J. McKenna, a well-known early Under Secretary and Director of Education in Queensland (1922-1936), and the introduction of a letter to Cunningham from one of McKenna's immediate subordinates denouncing his stubbornness and explaining that -

He is doing his best at the present time to gain an extension of his official life. Due to retire, according to normal practice, at the end of the current year, he does not hesitate to ingratiate himself with politicians and with the Teachers' Union in the hope that he will be continued in office for some time to come. I don't think he has much chance unless the Premier, on his return in a few days time, thinks more highly of him that I do. In any case, I will not have it thought that anything I said or did, affected the issue, so I am keeping very quiet. Of course, you know that you and Mr Tate are very unpopular.
As this letter was written on 22nd June 1936, by McKenna's equally distinguished successor, L.D. Edwards (Director and later Director-General of Education 1937-1951), it provides a valuable insight into the working relationship and personalities of two of Queensland's most prominent educationalists.

During World War II Cunningham and the A.C.E.R. were to play an active role in the development of various tests which enabled the armed forces to utilise their manpower more effectively. After a decade of post war consolidation and development in such areas as testing, curriculum, library and university investigation, Cunningham retired in 1954. The chapter which follows, "The Longest Vacation" has great interest. It includes a vigorous and descriptive account of Cunningham's two years as an educational adviser in Indonesia followed by the gradual but inevitable progression to the end of a life.

Despite Williams' vivid recreation of this colourful period and its poignant postlude, and the deta iled and interesting earlier sections regarding Cunningham's involvement in all of the various activities throughout his long life, it is only occasionally that a three dimensional image of Cunningham the man seems to emerge from the pages of this biography. There is little evidence of his personal reactions to situations or his reasons for various decisions. Further comments in the first person might have increased our understanding. This absence could be a reflection of Cunningham's somewhat cautious, remote personality or an indication of the limited availability of more personal material, but there are enough revealing moments throughout the book and particularly in the description of Cunningham and his wife's old age to make one regret that the author did not allow Cunningham's character to emerge more fully.

In an overview of the many literary and biographical virtues of this book, however, these failings play a minor part and they should not be allowed to discourage the reader from enjoying a well written and comprehensive account of the career of one man and a panoramic view of the educational and social changes in which he was involved.

Doig, B., Piper, K., Mellor, S., & Masters, G. Conceptual understanding in social education. ACER Research Monograph No. 45. Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Barry Tainton
Quality Assurance and School Review
Department of Education
Queensland

This recent monograph from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) is another milestone in its program of portraying the achievements of students in Victorian schools. Previous studies that measured and described student achievement in literacy and numeracy (1989), and science (1991),combined modern assessment methods with contemporary scaling techniques to provide empirical indicators of levels of performance. Both studies have set standards in large-scale assessment programs that have been emulated in state departments of education.

The latest study, involving over 2,900 students from Years 5 and 9, continues this tradition. The authors of the monograph possess wide experience and established professional reputations in the areas of social education curriculum, in the assessment of student achievement, or in the application of Item Response Theory in educational measurement.

In the conduct of this investigation, a number of conceptual and methodological issues had to be addressed, the first of which was the problem of defining social education and student outcomes. While acknowledging the debates on and perspectives of what constitutes student learning and how one identifies curriculum boundaries in the social sciences, the significant knowledge base of social education was defined in terms of five content areas: economic understanding; geographical understanding; cultural understanding; historical understanding; and political understanding.

To assess students' conceptual understanding, five tasks requiring responses to open-ended questions were devised, one for each of the content areas. For every question, a set of response categories depicting increasing sophistication of understanding was developed. By calibrating the categories for each item on a scale, a developmental continuum for each of the five content areas of social education was constructed. In the monograph all tasks and questions, together with the proportion of students in the various response categories, have been included, and a selection of student answers for every response category provide good descriptors of conceptual maturation.

The application of Item Response Theory to map development continua has been described and presented in a way that might disappoint those who demand every generated calibration statistic to be reported. However, if the presentation is intended to appeal to a wider array of teachers, curriculum officers and other educators with interests in the challenges of measuring students' understanding of social education concepts, it certainly has hit the mark.

Furthermore, the findings are sure to arouse attention beyond the state of Victoria. In each of the five content areas, Year 5 girls performed better than boys, but there were no significant gender differences by Year 9. There was evidence of consistent gains in conceptual understanding from Year 5 to Year 9.

No doubt there will be considerable speculation, appeal to theories of development and perhaps sheer dogma, that readers will employ to account for these trends. Attributing the value added to a student's education to four years of schooling is a problem compounded by the recognition that the school is not the only influence on social learning. Indeed, some would assert it is not even the major one. Whatever the truth, the monograph wisely avoids such confrontation and appeals to future research to extend our understanding of what impacts most on students' concept development.

In Queensland, social education has not yet been a part of the Department of Education's statewide Assessment of Performance Program. Until the current Program is extended to provide student performance data on social education outcomes, much inspiration and guidance can be achieved by perusing this very readable document and gaining insights on how to measure students' understanding of the social world around them.

Please cite as: QIER (1994). Book reviews. Queensland Researcher, 10(2), 31-38. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qr10/bookrevs10.html


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