Great Scot Archive
Issues from 1998
Issues from 1998


Ken Mappin: an inspiring schoolmaster

Ken Mappin was a distinguished Chemistry teacher and director of meticulously crafted school theatre productions.

WORDS: MR IAN HARRISON (STAFF 1967-84) and ANDREW TAIT (STAFF 1970-83) with contributions from the Mappin family and Prof Peter McTigue.

Ken Mappin was a dedicated and inspiring schoolmaster who influenced thousands of students to see that a love for science and the arts do not have to be mutually exclusive. A distinguished teacher of Chemistry who played a prominent role in the development of that discipline in Victorian secondary schools over 40 years, he was also a director of meticulously crafted school theatre productions.

Ken’s father Harry was a passionate member of the Henry Lawson Society and imbued Ken with his own love of literature. At Williamstown High School, young Ken’s zest to learn was further stimulated by teachers of science and mathematics as well as literature, and he decided to make a career of teaching.

In 1940, Ken was awarded one of the first five free places in Victoria for student teachers which enabled him to study at the University of Melbourne. The recipients of these bursaries were not free to choose their undergraduate course of study. So Ken, despite his passion for literature and the arts, became a Chemistry teacher. On graduating, he taught at Geelong High School for three years.

Appointed to Geelong Grammar School in 1948, Ken was to be proclaimed by the Headmaster, Sir James Darling, to be one of the best Chemistry teachers in Australia. He became Head of Science and was appointed Housemaster of Cuthbertson House where he and his wife, Bill, provided a sympathetic living environment for the boys in their care.

An exchange year at Christ’s Hospital School in Sussex introduced Ken to the Nuffield Foundation’s work on new secondary school curricula in all branches of science. The objective of these new ideas that Ken embraced and went on to promote at Geelong Grammar, and later Scotch, was that understanding of concepts and ideas should replace learning facts and that the way to achieve this was for the students to actually ‘do’ science.

After 20 years at Geelong Grammar, Ken taught for a year at Clyde School before accepting an offer from Scotch where he remained for 19 years. After his official retirement, Ken continued teaching science at Mowbray Grammar School for several years.

When Ken arrived at Scotch there was no Head of Science role available for him and he had to wait for some time before assuming that mantle once more. Ken’s reputation and modesty were such that his colleagues felt comfortable in discussions with him about the content of science courses and processes of teaching science. As a consequence his influence was particularly evident in the Chemistry department, where the Head of Department shared his ideas, and in middle school classes. In due course Ken became Head of Science, leading to a clarification of the teaching philosophy to be employed.

The notion that teaching for understanding and students ‘doing science’ embraced by Ken implied that chalk and blackboards were out and experiments, demonstrations, films, discussion, questioning and reasoning were in. This required a change of mindset for teachers, new written materials and the consequent in-service work for teachers. It also required considerable quantities of new equipment.

Over time these ideas were introduced into the Scotch Science courses at lower secondary level and Chemistry and Physics courses at the senior level. It was a demanding but exciting and most rewarding period for teachers, in which students gave as well as received.

It was recognised that a new building was required, and the School entrusted Ken with the task of overseeing the development of the design specification by teachers in the department and the consultation with the architect, from the initial idea to the completion of the building.

Ken was tenacious in meetings when he felt he was right. He encouraged his colleagues to contribute to the wider debate about teaching science and to share their experience in conferences and committees. Ken had a profound influence on science teaching, especially Chemistry, at Scotch and throughout the state and the nation. Ken was pleased that other teachers and schools showed great interest in what was happening at Scotch. He was always happy to share.

Ken was an early activist fighting for a role for secondary teachers in the development of school chemistry curricula. In the early 1960s he wrote a Year 11 Chemistry textbook before initiating and supporting the writing of the Year 12 text, Chemistry: a Structural View. A member of the Victorian Universities and Secondary Education Board Chemistry standing committee from the early 1960s, Ken was elected as its chair over its final two years of existence, becoming the first and only secondary teacher ever to hold that role.

Ken was instrumental in the establishment of the Chemistry Education Association (CEA), serving on the original management committee from 1977 until 1982. He was the first of the CEA’s annual chemical educators when the award was established in 1994. He also served as a member of the VISE Chemistry standing committee, and was appointed as the inaugural Chairman of the VISE accreditation committee in 1979. He was later awarded life membership of the Science Teachers’ Association of Victoria.

While at Geelong Grammar, Ken directed numerous drama productions, mainly of Shakespeare. At Scotch, he contributed a drama production per year for nine years. The harmonious marriage between Science and the arts became even more closely tied when some productions moved into the new Science Lecture Theatre. Ken ensured that it had the potential for him to be able to hang both his hats there.

Ken was always stood up for his principles, moral or educational. He was not always popular with those in power, being prepared to challenge arbitrary, expedient or face-saving decisions, concerned as he was for the survival of intellectual rigour, humanity and justice.

He could persuade colleagues, school councils and government departments to do the right thing rather than the easy thing. As Chairman of the Scotch Common Room, he diplomatically steered his colleagues through a difficult period occasioned by the schism in the Presbyterian Church.

In 1956 Ken married Bill (Thelma) Birdsey. Their long, mutually supportive partnership was anchored in family and school life as well as in their shared interest in theatre and gardening. They had four children, but in 1979 suffered a shattering loss when Katherine (22) and Alison (17) were killed in a car accident. Ken is survived by Bill, daughter Meg, son Peter, and by Ken’s sister, Jean. GS

Updated: Monday 24 June 2013