Eyebrows were raised. Surely, it was said, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt was too difficult a play for Glenalmond College’s 14-year-old pupils to choose as the Junior Drama production – too complicated, too mysterious – too adult. The same eyebrows were raised in amazement when they saw the performance: not just the humour, the costumes, the snottily threatening trolls and the destructive obstinacy of the hero, but also the deeper questions of what it means to be true to yourself and whether this is morally good or bad.
As a history teacher I always knew what made the subject difficult for pupils to understand. It was not the inaccessibility of the past: that was never difficult. What was hard was the inaccessibility of adult behaviour. It was difficult to work out grown-ups’ motivation, especially when it was cynical or violent – above all when it involved the conscious seeking out and exercise of power.
In studying the rise of Nazism, or the industrial revolution, young people were learning not just about the world which their ancestors inhabited but also about the world they themselves would grow into. It was not the past which was a foreign country; it was the future.
Peer Gynt is a work of imagination; the study of history has to be (as much as is possible) a work of tested evidence. But what they have in common is that they set young people problems to solve. Yet neither is conventionally seen as within the province of problem solving, despite the fact that this is claimed as an important strand in the process of education, not just in Maths and Science, but in Economics and Engineering, Art and Technology. Problem solving permeates – even saturates – current thinking on learning and teaching from the nursery to university.
One of the most interesting recent, disruptive, models of education is the NuVu project based in Massachusetts. It is pitched as a school of innovation: “You’ll learn how to use a framework of innovation and enabling technologies to develop your problem solving skills with the intent of integrating this creative mindset within your school”.
New thinking is stimulated by the solving of problems, as a practical exercise with intellectual, social and emotional benefits for the twenty-first century. Armed with a laptop and a blank sketch book, participants work in a tool shop to develop skills for the future, in an original and creative approach to the process of learning which has begun to infiltrate the best Scottish practice in schools like Kelvinside Academy.
It is arguable that asking 14-year-olds to perform Ibsen is, morally, culturally and emotionally, an equivalent exercise in problem solving. The difference is that the problems are those of living as humans, and that the solutions are neither agreed nor necessarily achievable.
Ibsen, Hitler and NuVu are none of them easy. But we do our children a great disservice when we do not challenge them, whether it be with the moral ambiguity and narrative mysteries of Peer Gynt, the apparently unfathomable drivers of the Holocaust, or the creativity required to define and address the issues in a NuVu workshop. The last thing we should do to our pupils is to protect them from what is difficult.
A real ‘curriculum for excellence’ should be messy, unexpected and raise difficult moral questions. At Glenalmond the external speakers at the William Bright Society are chosen to take pupils’ minds further than they can easily manage, whether it be in aesthetic theory, mental health or mathematical pattern making. So it is right for 14-year-olds to have access to the lived experience of acting Peer Gynt, with its immaculate conception, its imaginary friends, its melter of faulty souls and, for Peer as he faces the balance sheet of his life, the redeeming power of Solveig’s love. Not the sort of thing you find on Instagram.
Only when a school provides this kind of challenge can children learn the most important lesson: how to become adults.
It was Robert Leighton, Principal of Edinburgh University in the 1650s, who said that the purpose of education was to enable the young to live a virtuous life. And that is the most difficult problem of all to solve. In the end these questions turned out to be precisely the ones which teenage children could and should be living out through performance.
Hugh Ouston, Warden at Glenalmond College