To DofE or Not DofE
Thursday 10 March 2016
A couple of weeks ago, I dropped my son off at school early on a Saturday morning and bid him farewell as he departed with a group of fellow students to participate in the Duke of Edinburgh (DofE) Award scheme. My son wasn’t going far away, and he would be back soon. He would spend two days kayaking and sailing in the Andaman Sea, camping overnight on an uninhabited island. You might read this and think it exotic, an adventure of modern day Swallows and Amazons. For his part, my son was a somewhat reluctant traveller, and he was not looking forward to spending a night on a hard, uneven floor, in a sticky tent, in tropical heat, thick with the aroma of the teenage male. Picking him up the next evening, his sunburn and mosquito bites rather vindicated his initial foot-dragging reluctance to attend. Then, on the journey home, he started to express anxiety about the amount of homework he would need to complete for the following day. Maybe you think that experiences like this develop resilience in kids, and maybe you think that if my son hadn’t procrastinated with his homework earlier in the week he would feel less fretful about his looming burden of academic labour; a lesson there too. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you, but at the same time I did feel a bit sorry for my kid.
In the week following my son’s return, I read (with added interest) an article on the BBC’s website about the DofE Awards. Actually, the article was more about Kurt Hahn, his educational philosophy, his influence on Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and his contribution to setting up the DofE scheme. This is not the place to get didactic; most readers will know more or less about Hahn, his educational ideas, and the stimulus he gave to the establishment of not only the DofE scheme, but also to other enduring institutions such as the United World Colleges, Round Square, and the International Baccalaureate. Not a bad legacy.
According to the BBC article mentioned earlier, Hahn diagnosed six societal ills that are, I think, worth repeating:
- lack of physical fitness
- decline of initiative and enterprise
- decline of imagination
- decline of craftsmanship
- decline of self-discipline
- decline of compassion
Hahn’s concerns about youth and humanity remain, I can say with some confidence, the hegemonic rhetoric of today.
Part of Hahn’s response to the ills of the age, as he saw them, was to start schools and initiate educational programmes. It was at one of these schools, Gordonstoun, in Scotland, that Prince Philip attended, and it was here that Philip fell under the influence of Hahn and his philosophy. Philip, by all accounts, thrived at Gordonstoun. His son, Prince Charles, who also attended the school, liked it much less well. The infamous pre-breakfast runs and cold showers were probably not something he found agreeable. Who can blame Charles? And, in a similar way, who can blame my son when he declares that paddling in sweltering heat is not exactly his cup of tea?
The longer I am involved in education, the fewer certainties I have. But this much, I think I know: Young people engaged in the IB Diploma have to work hard to be successful; there is often a lot of pressure on them to do well. In addition to studying, IB students are frequently involved in a wide range of other activities, including playing sport and music, service learning, performing in plays, fundraising, yearbook production and, yes, possibly also the DofE scheme. Most of these young men and women do not, I think, suffer from the ills Hahn identified.
Many years into my teaching life, I still find it a challenge to know when to push a student and when to ease off. A one size fits all model doesn’t work. It comes down to knowing individual kids and responding appropriately to their particular circumstance. In this regard, teaching is a lot like parenting. It involves judicious judgment, patience and, alas, recognition that you don’t always get it right no matter how hard you try. The trick is to provide, as far as possible, germane support for any young person in your care.
I like to remind myself of this as, at the time of writing in the northern hemisphere, IB exams begin, once again, to loom. Students, in my experience, tend to motivate themselves for exams. Sticks are infrequently required. This doesn’t mean students don’t need their teachers; rather, they need them as much as ever to provide guidance and support in stressful times.
It seems interesting that Kurt Hahn seemed to identify deterioration in his society. The view has hardly gone away. Perhaps it has always been this way. But, I’m inclined to disagree with the negativity of naysayers and cynics. Certainly, such negative views about young people do not correspond with my own experience. At the same time, there is much in Hahn’s educational models that I admire. I may draw the line at cold showers in a cold climate, and if my son dislikes slogging a paddle in tropical heat, I respect that too. Society, in other words, is not entirely going to the dogs. An anecdotal survey of our children and students confirms this.