Urban Designer - Vernacular Architect - Maritime Planner - Owner-Builder - Servant of Piglet - Educator - Author - Revolutionary - Peacenik - Tour Guide 

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Only those who do understand Print E-mail
ImageA paper on "Teaching Excellence"

Teaching is not the same as education.

When Ivan Illich was staying down at Karaka Bay we talked one morning over breakfast about education. At the conclusion Jenny, who was around ten at the time, reached for the phone and rang her school. "I won't be coming to school today." she explained "I want to devote the day to education rather than teaching."

I do not like the word teaching and I have never aspired to being known for teaching excellence. I am concerned with education.   I have not taught Megan,  Mark, Heidi, Claire or any of my other students anything. I have rather discovered who they are. I have been fascinated by the discovery.
They, however, have taught me a great deal.
My only pain has been watching other people who think they are "teachers" trying to force my students into their own image and likeness. Fortunately with my best students they have had little success.

Orators move the debate forward.

When I was a young academic I flew to England with my precious paper and my bundle of slides feeling so proud that my paper had been accepted for publication.

I found myself in a darkened room with thirty people who had no interest whatsoever in anything I was saying. More importantly I realised they were not going to do anything about the issues which concerned me. They were only there because their papers had been accepted, and their world was introverted beyond belief.
I walked out into the sun and joined up with a group who had decided they could end the Cold War. Several years later I ended up looking down the barrel of a gun in the middle of the Velvet Revolution. We changed the world.

Oral cultures communicate through storytelling,
Whakapapa is normally carried through to the next generation through storytelling. Maori tell stories and they sing waiata.
It is only through knowing our whakapapa that we know who we are. We sustain our whakapapa not by teaching others but rather by living out our stories and fulfilling their destiny.
The institutionalised racism of the University places no value on storytelling.

Irritants can be a source of creative energy.

I had organised a bus to take my students on a field trip. Another lecturer asked if some of his students could come along. It made economic sense. We set off but then he directed the driver to go first to what he was interested in. By 5pm we had reached the Orewa car park without having achieved any of my objectives for the day, and my students were bored and frustrated. I was so angry I rang a travel agent and asked if I could get a ticket to Japan in the morning.
Competing for students' minds to sustain a world view is absurd. Insecure teachers who compete with other teachers only create confusion. Teachers who destroy the work of educators may get great personal satisfaction, but they leave nothing behind. There is a better way.
Turning negative energy into positive energy is much more creative than getting involved in confrontation. My anger made me passionate. It produced a surplus of energy for me to direct to other ends.

Learning takes place at the edge.

The earthquake in Kobe had just happened but Kansai Airport was still open. From there I was able to get a boat across to what was left of the port of Kobe. Six thousand people had died. The city was a shambles. Yet people, as they were burying their dead, smiled apologetically because they could not offer me a drink of water.
Security leads to mediocrity. Death sharpens the mind.
When we are face to face with death the blood runs more quickly in our veins. We see very clearly what is significant and what is of little importance. We leave behind the muddle of life and focus on the possibility of a heroic gesture. We learn what no lecturer's description can teach us.
Being in a situation such as the Kobe earthquake restores your sense of perspective.

We lie more through habit than malice.

The "research" reports from Kobe suggested that the buildings designed to survive earthquakes had in fact survived. Not so. The bridges and motorways had toppled. Many high rise buildings had simply "lost" a floor where there had been a change in the composite structure.

The "research" reports suggested that traditional housing had not survived. Much had, but a great deal of it had been burnt by fires resulting from the failure of contemporary infrastructure.

People see what they want to see, even when all the evidence is telling them that it is not true. More than facts are needed to dislodge belief structures. Lectures conceal as much as they reveal.
It takes courage to stand in front of a class and confess that you do not know. It takes even more courage to say that what you are teaching is morally wrong, although it will lead to good jobs and handsome profits.
Academic freedom has little meaning in an institution driven by public relations marketing and economic viability. However when you pay your own way to go to conferences you buy the freedom to speak from your heart.

Talking becomes an excuse for not acting.

WSSD, the United Nations World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen, was extraordinary. It was here that we convinced the organisers of Habitat II to pedestrianise the whole conference venue and to bring the Forum and the Conference itself together. It was a significant political coup.
Nothing succeeds like success. One bold achievement makes the next dream seem possible.
When you are asked to gather around tables with felt tip pens and a moderator to misinterpret what you are saying you know that nothing is going to happen.
The conference industry is too often a well oiled machine which leaves everyone feeling good because change has been neutralised.
Academic papers too often postpone the revolution by reducing passion to discussion.

Enthusiasm is contagious.

I did not drive home from Mangere Airport. Instead I went straight to Bob Harvey to convince him he must come to Istanbul. I called on some of my undergraduate students doing my "Planning and Design" course to share my enthusiasm. This was plotting rather than planning. There was no time to waste.
Deadlines focus the mind, but only if they are real deadlines. The process of filling students lives with endless meaningless deadlines dulls them into a stupor. We haggle over an extension as a technique for avoiding confronting what we are really teaching our students.

No one ever plans to be passionate. It sweeps over you. Planning thus never results in passion and produces only passionless development.
Students learn a great deal from a passionate lecturer, even if they learn nothing about the subject.

You can do anything if you believe.

ImageWe had lost some time getting the course under way for the year so we needed to recover the lost ground.

I announced that in six weeks time three of the class, none of whom I had ever met before, would be in Nairobi for the Second Preparatory Committee for Habitat II, the United Nations "Cities Summit".
There was a brief flicker of interest before the students went back to sleep. It was much later before they realised that designers are interested in results, not boring policies.

Boredom is the greatest enemy of Western Civilisation, not terrorism. Like the Vietnam veteran in Stark the best minds do not bother getting focused until all the loud-mouthed self-styled "leaders" begin disintegrating.
Most teaching does not really challenge the students. It tediously clambers from one rung of the ladder to the next. No one yells "jump".

Education means giving the power away.

In a knife-edge operation the money was raised, with not a cent coming from the University.

It then seemed that there was a nightmare riding in from left field. Who should go? How should we decide? The students sorted it all out among themselves with a dazzling maturity which left me astonished.
Then a bombshell broke. The New Zealand Government decided that it could not fund an official delegation to go the Nairobi. When you have built up enthusiasm it seems cruel to destroy it. We decided to go anyway.
At the airport the students were full of enthusiasm, and their parents had absolute confidence in me. I looked over my shoulder and there was no one standing behind me.

Giving power away can be hard. It means giving control away. However, unless you do, nothing is ever going to happen. Keeping the power displays a lack of confidence in people. None of us want to spend our lives doing what someone else tells us to do.
The young believe that they are invincible, fortunately.
When you give students a fond farewell hug you are actually wondering if there is anywhere worse than Johannesburg and Nairobi to send them off to.

Education is a risky business.

As a safety net I had given the students a list of people to call on if they ended up in trouble. I hope no one ever finds the list because it gives my friends a rating. "Good for a coffee." "Good for a bed." At the top of the list was my friend Wally N'Dow, United Nations Secretary General for the Conference.

Waking up on their first morning in a no-star motel in Nairobi the students realised they were in trouble. On their way in from the airport they had passed the United Nations compound. It was encircled by a high concrete fence topped with razor wire. How were they to get in? They consulted my list, Their aim was a little high when they rang Reuben Mutiso, the Head of the host Kenyan Delegation. Fortunately I had rung Reuben, an old Arc-Peace friend, the night before to ask him to keep an eye out for any lost students.
Reuben sent a chauffeur and a car with a fluttering Kenyan pendant. The students still did not know how they were going to get in. The steel doors swung open. Everyone saluted. They walked up the red carpet on the steps to a rapturous welcome. Nametags were waiting.

You never know if the door to knowledge is locked until you try the doorhandle.
The world has never been changed by people driven by fear.

Fencing wire is a cultural position.

The Third World is not like the First World. Nothing works, unless you happen to be wealthy, privileged and patient.

The students asked if there was a xerox copier. Their surprise at the negative response led to an explanation that the UN had several copiers, but none of them were working.
The skills training the students had received at the University of Auckland was suddenly and unexpectedly useful. They were accustomed to coaxing equipment back in to life around midnight, and breaking security codes. With screwdrivers from the local hardware store they soon had their own copier.
The Chairpersons of the Committees did not. No documentation was available to begin negotiations. The students were able to help out. Before long France, and then China, and then a queue of other countries, were seeking help from the students.

The myth that managers deserve high salaries because they are good at telling other people what to do is propagated by managers. In a crisis you quickly discover which people it is good to have around.

The older generation will never catch up.

Vanessa, an Australian I had met in Copenhagen at WSSD, was really helpful. She tossed the students the key to her office as she went home, with a strict instruction that the students were to be gone in the morning, with no sign of them ever having been there.
The students were able to hook her computer up to my one at Karaka Bay. It was something I could never have done, although I had explained the theory to them. The time difference worked to our advantage. While everyone in Nairobi was sleeping the rest of the class could work on documentation and strategy.
We had experimented with interactive participation before, first in Chicago and then in Copenhagen, but this was the first time that we had been successful. The whole class was now a team. We needed all the resources we could get.
When United Nations began work for the day the New Zealand report on the day before and the New Zealand recommendations for the day ahead were available in hard copy for all the delegates, thanks to "our" computer and "our" copier.
The students became the New Zealand delegation, with their efficiency and leadership gaining admiration and respect.
The oldest of the students was less than half the age of the youngest other delegate in Nairobi. I suspect there might have been a little envy around the negotiating tables.

Different people live in different worlds. Teaching is concerned with moving people from one world into another. Education seeks to realise the potential of all worlds.
Diversity with respect leads to a rich life.

Changing the world is an art, not a science.

The core mission of the United Nations is to achieve peace. Recognising that most of the architectural problems of the next twenty years will be in cities Habitat II by now  was being called the Cities Summit.
Putting together "cities" and "peace" the idea of "Peaceful Cities" was born. It was a simple idea which could be translated into many languages. It was powerful. It was creative and positive. It became the key idea which New Zealand could realise on the global stage.

Image We do not need to know any more about the environment: we need to do something about what we already know.
Sadly very few environmentalists and planners understand the processes of turning words into action. Talking about how to do it just leads to further inaction. Others were satisfied to see their hobby horses included in the documentation. We wanted to go much further.

You learn about tenacity by being tenacious.

By now the students had become skilled negotiators. They had achieved their core objective. They had set about changing the world. They had also realised that it was their idea, and they were on their own.
Two of them took the initiative to go to New York for the Third Preparatory Committee to defend their accomplishments.
Some ground was lost, but not much. New York is very different from Nairobi. It was a steep learning curve. An entrenched bureaucracy does not welcome change. Nairobi had been a necessary preparation.

Most assignments end up in the rubbish bin, and that is what they are worth. No one seems to come to the obvious conclusion.
The bell curve breeds mediocrity. Either work is good enough or it is not.
Excellence is too important to bin.

Everyone needs to take initiatives.

It was the students who finally convinced Bob Harvey that he ought to go to Nairobi for Habitat II. Even then he did not intend to stay.
I arranged for him to speak at the Mayors Forum for Peace. The standing ovation and stamping of feet changed his plans. He realised he could make a difference. Bob shouted us all lavish lunches which were of course also briefing and reporting meetings.
It was Bob who got Don McKinnon out of bed in the middle of the night to convince him that the New Zealand Ambassador's speech needed to be rewritten. I would never have had the nerve. Don convinced the Government.
After it was all over I nominated Bob for the Mayors for Peace Prize, which he won. He was flown to Stockholm for the Award Ceremony.
He recently returned from a meeting of Mayors for Peace in New York. The story goes on.

Education is a process which brings students to the point where they take the initiative. If this does not happen nothing else will happen.
Lecturers become the bottleneck when everyone waits around for them to do something.

Having teams is not the same as teamwork.

The students arrived in Istanbul ahead of me, and they found the perfect hotel, right next to the venue. They negotiated the perfect price because the place was being renovated, just like the rest of Istanbul.
We took different roles, with an intensive breakfast meeting each morning to agree on strategies for the day ahead. Megan and Mark handled Committee One, meshing the documentation together and selecting speakers. It was the first time that any NGO documentation had been accepted by the UN and the first time that NGOs had had official speakers at a UN Conference. After many years the ideal of "partnership" had been realised.
We had put a proposition to Wally N'Dow, Secretary General for the Conference that the students could reduce the time lapse for negotiating documents. We reduced it from ten weeks to twenty four hours, and by the end of Habitat II the time was as low as two hours.
I handled media releases along with Verney. We established good relationships with Reuters and other agencies, which was invaluable.
The University of Auckland was one of only three universities in the world accredited to the Habitat II Conference. As we were also accredited through Arc-Peace we were able to gain access to security areas for a number of other New Zealanders who came to Istanbul. It was an enormous advantage to be everywhere.
When the New Zealand Government delegation eventually arrived the students were able to brief them and bring them up to speed.
The Ambassador's speech was not good, so we rewrote it, and in the Plenary Session she announced to the world the importance of Peaceful Cities. We had achieved more that anyone could ever have dreamed.

Students learn really quickly given the chance.
They discover that having too many facts just gets in the way. Good judgement is more important than good data. You learn about good judgement by making right decisions. Experience is no use if someone else has it.

Making changes can be risky.

For many of the students it was the first time that they had seen innocent protesters being beaten up by police. They watched women lying on the ground being kicked. They met victims of torture.
We ate meals with heroes who were putting their lives on the line, and found our movements were being followed by the secret police.
The students watched some tough negotiations. One meeting where I was to speak was closed down by the police. I arrived to find tanks and barricades surrounding the venue. It took time to talk it all through, but the meeting went ahead. My Press Accreditation was invaluable.
You cannot lecture about those kinds of experiences to students who have not been there.

There are many people to whom nothing ever happens. One person I know went to a conference in Morocco and came home with nothing more than a complaint about the hotel. Another friend went to Morocco and a bomb blast in the foyer of her hotel killed the receptionist and a bystander.
You need to develop a sixth sense for where the action is. Good journalists or photographers arrive before something happens. Revolutions catch some academics completely by surprise. Others sniff out a revolution from miles away.
The students discovered that getting involved means just that. The good and the bad come at you together and you need to sort it out as best you can. The rules you learnt do not apply.
In the real world everyone becomes an equal.
The students watch you making the tough moves.
They watch what you actually do, not what you say you are going to do.

Those who do recognise others who do.

The President of Turkey flew us down to Cappadocia at the end of the Conference to celebrate by having lunch with him. It was the most lavish lunch I have ever had.
These were not students any more, except for the one who was so exhausted he slept through the festivities, waking up after it was all over.
In the rear vision mirror as we left we watched the soldiers coming out of their foxholes.

Image Attitude is everything. Students need to learn about attitude. It is a question of being outrageously good.

You learn through teaching others.

Back in New Zealand the students decided to share what they had learned. They put forward a proposal to build a house in Aotea Square for the EAROPH (East Asian Regional Organisation for Planning and Housing) Conference.
The idea developed into two houses, one concerned with "sweat-equity" and the other with "sustainability" and "zero-waste architecture". One relocated house now has a family happily living in it while the other has become the focus of on-going research into Maori housing.
The Arakainga House was too big a challenge to turn down. To build a house in 24 hours with a crowd of students who have never built anything before, in the middle of winter, with no funding and no resources, right next to the Town Hall with the public looking on to pick up on any mistake, seemed to have absolutely nothing going for it.
They all said afterwards that they would never let anyone else build a house for them. Doing it yourself is so much fun, and when you have finished it truly does belong to you.

Big challenges are more fun than little challenges.

Teaching produces followers.
Education produces leaders.

The phone went. It was one of the students. "What should I do? I have just had a phone call from New York asking me to take a job there." "What did you say?" "I did not know what to say." "Well ring right back and say yes."
With a little experience it became easier. The HOD objected to one student taking a job in Nairobi, but we suspect this was because the salary was more than the HOD was earning.

Great moves are seldom the result of planning.
You keep your eye out for the chance and you take it.
Education helps people to recognise the chance.

Reflection follows action.

Megan returned to New Zealand and has completed her PhD..
I would like to dedicate this lecture to her, and of course to all the other students who have taught me so  much.
Did we really do all this? It seems like a dream.
It has been a privilege to have had such wonderful teachers.

Reflecting on real experiences is quite different from reflecting on books. In the reflecting we learn.

How do you evaluate real education?

We have changed our lives.
We have changed the world.
We have made friendships which are beyond value.
Yet, in the eyes of the University what we did was worth nothing.

Our story did not fit any of the University evaluation criteria.
No one explained the course outline, because no one could see beyond the next move. The course was a leap of faith, not a tired formula.
No one made any claims about where the students would be at the end of the course, although it was presumed we would all still be alive.
The assignment never was very clear. It had something to do with life.
The only class hand out was a $5000 cheque I scribbled out to secure the tickets for the students to get to Nairobi, as they held the lift on their way to the travel agent.
The reading list was sketchy to say the least. No one had been down this road before. The library was no help whatsoever in the fashionable "literature search" way, but it was a wonderful source of encouragement and relaxation.
The only way in which the grades could be justified was to question which staff member could have done what the students had done. The silence confirmed the grades.
Nothing we had done fitted any of the boxes.
The Head of Department complained because the work was not in the correct format for the Annual Report. An inquiry was begun and only forestalled when a more powerful karakia led the initiator to hospital with cancer rather than to the inquisition. Resentment, jealousy and anger would however finally lead to dismissal. No one could be expected to have the courage to speak out in defence of diversity when to do so would be to place their own teaching on the line.
However, as James K Baxter once said, "Failure is not necessarily a sign of lack of success."
Any fool can get high evaluations by following the rules. Celebrating thinking means questioning the rules.
Probably my main role in the story had been to protect my students from the criticism of those who could never understand. We live in a cruel, vicious and racist world. Only slowly do you reveal this to your students. The students finally had to deal with my being beaten up, in both a metaphorical and physical sense, by 'official' thugs, and left crippled. It was a clear lesson that nothing is more dangerous than success.
It is a lesson I wish I had never had to teach them. Sometimes we are all reluctant teachers.
"Wings of a tarnished victory shadow him
Who born of silence has burned back to silence."
(James K Baxter)
Whakapapa is normally carried through to the next generation through storytelling. This paper reflects on the story of three undergraduate students from the Planning Department who rose to the challenge and raised enough money to get to Nairobi for the Second Preparatory Committee for the United Nations "Habitat II" Conference. At the last moment the New Zealand Government could not raise the money to go and thus the students became the de facto New Zealand delegation. A computer link was established back to the rest of the class in New Zealand, making it possible to provide guidance and support. The students introduced and gained support for the concept of "Peaceful Cities". To keep up the political momentum two of the students went to New York for the Third Preparatory Committee, and a team from the Department went to the Conference itself in Istanbul. The students re-wrote the New Zealand Ambassador's speech to the Plenary Assembly. The President of Turkey flew the students down to Cappadocia to celebrate their achievements. On their return to New Zealand the students shared their learning by building two houses in Aotea Square, one concerned with "sweat-equity" and the other with "sustainability" and "zero-waste architecture". One relocated house has become the focus of on-going research into Maori housing. After being head-hunted to work in New York one student has now completed her PhD. It is only through knowing our whakapapa that we know who we are. We sustain our whakapapa not by imitating others but rather by telling our stories and fulfilling their destiny.


Tony Watkins

First presented during “The Art of Excellent Teaching”
Fourth Annual Teaching and Learning Showcase
2.30pm Monday 22 November 2004
Federation Room, Old Government House

< Prev   Next >