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Browne, George Stephenson (1890–1970)

by W. F. Connell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

George Stephenson Browne (1890-1970), professor of education, was born on 8 May 1890 at Malvern, Melbourne, son of George Browne, an ironmonger from England, and his Victorian-born wife Lydia Mary, née Purcell. Educated at Armadale State School and Melbourne Continuation School, in 1907 he became a junior teacher in the Department of Education. He entered Melbourne Teachers College in 1910, gained his Trained Teachers Certificate in 1911 and studied part time at the University of Melbourne (B.A., Dip.Ed., 1913). Appointed temporary head teacher at Kamarooka in 1912, he held the same post at Charlton Higher Elementary School (1912-14) and was second master (1915-16) at Horsham High School.

On 18 April 1916 Browne enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He was 5 ft 7½ ins (171 cm) tall, with a fair complexion, grey eyes and light-brown hair. He embarked on 27 May for England where he was commissioned. Proceeding to France in March 1917, he served with the 10th Medium Trench Mortar Battery and in August won the Military Cross: in charge of two Stokes Mortar teams, 'although his guns were several times blown out of position, he succeeded in replacing them in action'.

Wounded in November 1917, Browne was invalided home and his appointment terminated in May 1918. He returned to England in October to study at Balliol College, Oxford (B.A., 1922), and impressed the master A. L. Smith as being 'open to new ideas . . . a man of much force of character as well as great personal attraction'. Browne also completed a diploma of education at the University of London in 1919. Next year he was appointed master of method (secondary) at the Melbourne Teachers College, but the appointment was deferred to enable him to take the vice-principalship of Lancaster Teachers' Training College and an Oxford travelling scholarship which gave him five months to observe educational practices in Germany and the United States of America.

Returning to Melbourne Teachers College in 1922, Browne married Rosalind Haig Malcolm (d.1938) on 15 February 1923 at St John's Anglican Church, East Malvern. That year he was appointed vice-principal of the college. He brought great drive for reforming the methods of teaching and the curricula used in Australian primary schools. His first enthusiasm was for the Dalton plan of individualized teaching which he had seen successfully carried out in England and the U.S.A. In the mid-1920s he favoured in a somewhat eclectic way the Project Method that developed in the U.S.A. from John Dewey's educational philosophy. Browne edited Education in Australia (London, 1927), a substantial volume written by leading educators from all States.

In 1931 he spent a semester as a visiting professor at the University of California; then, under a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, he studied various practices of curriculum revision in the U.S.A. and England. Browne's book, The Case for Curriculum Revision (1932), based on his research, was his most influential piece of writing. It persuasively summed up the activity movement which was expanding overseas, and argued the case for an injection into Australian primary schools of 'an up-to-date and dynamic curriculum, better school equipment, more experimental work, freedom from external examinations, and the enlistment of the scholars' enthusiasm in activities and constructive work'. In those words, Browne adumbrated the programme of educational change which he was to advocate for the rest of his career. He chaired a departmental curriculum revision committee in 1932-34 which produced and tried out new courses for all primary school subjects, but in practice much of the proposed reform was watered down and adjusted to established routines. Browne's zeal, however, was undiminished. He continued for the next three decades to argue the case for progressive education.

In 1933 Browne was appointed to the joint position of professor of education at the University of Melbourne and principal of Melbourne Teachers College. Henceforth his main concerns were with the university and with the education of secondary schoolteachers. Eventually, in 1939, the dual position was split; Browne relinquished the position of college principal and became full-time professor of education.

During the 1930s Browne's main administrative task was to organize and advance the new structure of the university's graduate courses and qualifications in education. In 1936 a bachelor's degree in education was established as a two-year postgraduate course, while the master's degree (established in 1926) became a pure research course. Browne and his part-time staff were thus responsible for producing in an Australian university, for the first time, graduate courses in education beyond the level of the requirements of teacher-training. For the next fifteen years his school led the field.

Browne's central interest as professor of education was in the production of good, progressively-minded teachers for secondary schools. His lectures were well-organized examples of excellent teaching technique. In them he emphasized the need for innovation. Enthused by the international New Education Fellowship Conference which was held in Australia in 1937, he was president of the Educational Reform Association (1939) and of the Victorian Institute of Education Research (1936-56); he was also a member of the Australian Council for Educational Research (1938-44). He admired the Tasmanian Area Schools of the 1930s, and the moves towards educational decentralization which were tentatively begun in the 1940s and 1950s in New South Wales and Queensland. With an abiding interest in comparative education, he collaborated with the American J. F. Cramer in writing Contemporary Education: a Comparative Study of National Systems (New York, 1956).

Beyond the university, Browne was involved in school broadcasting and conducted a popular current affairs session on radio. After his retirement in 1956, he ran a television programme on GTV-9, 'Professor Browne's Study', which continued for ten years. He was a member of the Melbourne, Naval and Military, and Legacy clubs. Survived by his daughter, Browne died on 23 May 1970 at Camberwell and was cremated. His portrait (1970) by Nornie Gude is in the Institute of Education, University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • Education Department (Victoria), Vision and Realisation, L. J. Blake ed (Melb, 1973)
  • D. Garden, The Melbourne Teacher Training Colleges (Melb, 1982)
  • C. Turney (ed), Pioneers of Australian Education, vol 3 (Syd, 1983)
  • University of Melbourne, Gazette, Apr 1957, July 1970
  • University of Melbourne Archives and Registrar's Office records
  • private information.

Citation details

W. F. Connell, 'Browne, George Stephenson (1890–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/browne-george-stephenson-9604/text16933, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 19 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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