“Blueback" by Tim Winton is a beautifully written story from which much can be learned. It is a simple tale of a young boy growing into adulthood and discovering his place in the world. Winton’s literary style invites the reader to journey with the books lead character, Abel as he experiences the ebb and flow cycles of life. Through joyous moments befriending the giant blue groper Blueback, through the challenge of moving away from his isolated home where he lives with his mother, to confronting ruthless business men whose greed threatens the natural beauty of the environment, to his growth into manhood, a career pursuing his passion for the ocean, to finding love and starting a family of his own the reader travels with Abel. Like waves passing over a reef, Abel’s life is a series of events which arrive with the possibility of tension and harm but pass leaving him subtly changed and stronger than before. Throughout his life, is the constancy of the ocean and the faithful companionship of Blueback.
“Abel and his mother slid down into the deep again and saw the fish hovering then turning, eyeing them cautiously as they came. It twitched a little and edged along in front of them to keep its distance. The big gills fanned. All its armoured scales rippled in lines of green and black blending into the dizziest blue. The groper moved without the slightest effort. It was magnificent; the most beautiful thing Abel had ever seen.” - Blueback by Tim Winton
Blueback is a beautiful metaphor for life and particularly of the life we live in schools. When looked at close up, with an eye on the details, the experience of school is one of passing and recurring cycles. When looked at from a distance, with an eye on the whole, there are elements of constancy, the throughlines which bring meaning to our experience and which have as their consequence the residuals of education.
There are the daily cycles that begin with the breakfast table discussion of the day ahead, travel routines to school, daily lessons, lunch-breaks, more travel and home-learning all punctuated by times with peers negotiating the social milieu of our relationships. There are the weekly cycles of subjects, specialist teachers, sports days, music lessons, assemblies and co-curricular. There are the longer-term cycles of units of learning; the annual introduction to grammar, the unit on fragile environments, the history project on settlement, another maths unit about fractions and why they matter. There are the annual events, the camps, the musicals, the sporting carnivals the excursions and the special community days such as Mother’s Day, Easter with the traditional hat parade and of course the many events with which we conclude each year.
School seems to be about fitting as much as possible in the short periods of time into which we divide our school life. Ask any teacher and they will tell you, they are forever short on time, that the days seem to never have enough hours for all they need to hold. Each week seems to race by and as quickly as one ends, the next begins. It seems we are just gaining traction with the grammar unit when it is time to move on to persuasive writing. Our students are just grasping why our environment is fragile, when we must change direction for the electricity unit. Our amazing plan to finally teach our students why they should care about fractions, has once again been foiled by the annual art excursion which seems to come around sooner each year.
Our day is divided ever so neatly into one hour (or there about) blocks of time. For the student, the day is a procession of discrete lessons; of introductions, middles and ends. Looked at on this small scale, the daily life of a school student has much more in common with an anthology of short stories than with the epic novel that it should be. Read just any single chapter of Blueback and you will discover a nice story but entirely miss the point, never see the part it plays in the whole. For the teacher trapped in the moment with a looming deadline and an ever-expanding to-do list it is a challenge to shift perspective and see beyond the next few pages of the story they are writing with their students.
We measure the passing of time in Weeks and Terms and Years. Time in school seems to be all about beginnings and endings. We must start the history unit in Week Three of Term, it must finish in Week Eight, the assessment is in Week Nine. The fractions unit occupies just four lessons before the term ends, next term we must begin the geometry unit on time. Each year is a fresh beginning, a new start, but is it a new book when what we need is the next chapter?
From Kindergarten to Year Twelve, our students have spent thirteen years, or three quarters of their life at school. Looked at from this more expansive perspective we see that our students have a great deal of time in which to develop the dispositions they will need for success in their post-school lives. There will be many, many lessons along the way which they forget. There will be excursions they remember because the bus broke down rather than for the physics exhibition it had taken them to. These are the chapters of Blueback, the cycles that washed over Abel's life, but they are not the whole story. We might never finish the unit on fragile environments, but our students may learn from this and the history unit and their persuasive writing lessons, that they have the capacity to drive change. After years of struggling with fractions and geometry and grammar, they may learn that persistence is the key to success. Through the musicals, and the science projects and the art show and the hat parades they will discover that they are indeed creative, and confident. From countless projects, debates, tutorials, presentations and even home-learning they will develop the skills required for collaboration and communication. They will leave our doors ready to write great stories of their own; to discover their "secret of the sea".
If we insist on looking at education on a small scale, lesson by lesson, unit by unit, we are doomed to see it as an endless cycle of chasing our tails and of never having as much time as we might wish for. If we step back and consider the throughlines, the big understandings, the essential dispositions which can only be developed by time measured in years, through the culmination of many connected and related experiences, we have a hope of seeing the greater success that education is capable of achieving with and for our students.
By Nigel Coutts
Winton, Tim. (1997) Blueback. Penguin Group Australia.