Among adults, one of the most common phobias is public speaking. Well, it seems that Gordonstoun could teach us a thing or two about how to fix that. When our Head of Music first heard the results of research into the value of our out-of-classroom offer, he responded by mounting weekly recitals. Struck by the compelling pedagogy of challenge, he realised that the students needed more than just the once-termly terror of a public concert if they were really to embed public performance skills. And what could be more terrifying that standing in the loneliness of a concert hall surrounded by your peers, waiting to play?
When we launched the Edinburgh University research into the non-classroom curriculum at Gordonstoun, it was greeted with predictable wails about public school privilege. “It’s easy for them – they’ve got a YACHT!” But this is to misunderstand why we did it. We did it because being a charity is about more than sharing facilities or providing bursaries. It is about being generous about anything we’ve been lucky enough to learn. Gordonstoun has already shared Outward Bound and the Duke of Edinburgh Award with the world. As one of the founders of character education – now very much in vogue – we wanted to assist the public debate about it by providing real data. We’re one of the only schools that can do that, because we have 80 years’ worth of alumni to ask, all of whom were immersed in a carefully designed character-based curriculum, long before it became trendy. And character education cannot be tested at the time of acquisition, because the very point of it if its durability, and the fact that a good one will keep delivering for you throughout your lifetime. So this multi-method longitudinal study is very important. We even asked parents, because they can often see the changes in their children more readily than they can, particularly when they are pre-career.
So let me summarise the essence of our findings, and why they are so transferable, not only through school populations, but for everyone involved in youth work, training and development.
(1) Learning to try
Our research showed that a varied and repeated out-of-classroom curriculum that is compulsory for all students compels them to try things they would otherwise avoid. Our findings showed us that this ‘have a go’ mentality lasts well beyond the Gordonstoun years, and has inspired many to keep trying new things for the rest of their lives. Schools who wish to emulate this need only make more of their non-academic curriculum compulsory, so that young people gain a broader exposure to experience, and learn not be be afraid of trying something new.
(2) Learning to fail
Having to try everything means that failure is inevitable, given that it is unlikely that everyone will be good at everything. Students learn to fail, and they learn how others fail too. They learn that they may need other people to succeed, but also that they may be better than others at unexpected things. Again, schools wishing to help students learn to fail well need only identify no-examined elements of the curriculum where there is an opportunity for experimentation, and create a safe environment where failure is not considered socially terminal. This could be normalised by delaying specialisation and by making elements of sporting or drama activities compulsory for all.
(3) Learning to try again
Because the curriculum is regular and repeated, students have to have to have another go, even if they failed last time. So they learn resilience, and about conquering their fears, both about their own abilities, and about how their peers will react to them. Again, this teaches students how to pick themselves up, and many alumni told us that this ability to bounce back had been crucial in helping them to navigate subsequent career setbacks. Anyone working with young people who wants to help them learn this important life skill would need to design in opportunities for students to identify their fears and set about conquering them, whether it is public speaking, a fear of heights or water, or just plain social shyness.
(4) Social levelling
We found that in the melting pot that is Gordonstoun, the out-of-classroom curriculum is a fantastic leveller. No-one cares who your parents are on exped if you forgot to pack the hot chocolate. And because students often found themselves being led or rescued by peers they would never have expected to thrive in these contexts, it engenders a humility and respect for other people based on ability and character, and not on culture or background. Any school delivers these lessons by exposing the same groups of students to a range of contexts, where different people will have a change to shine each time.
For the women in our sample, being pitted against men in so many different scenarios instils a particularly steady career confidence. Working together both in and out of the classroom, they were bound to have seen men be worse as well as better than them in such a wide variety of contexts, that their expectations in the workplace are very different, which has helped our female alumni to thrive. Again, any opportunity for mixed-gender groups to face challenges together can help with this, if the range of opportunities offered is sufficent to generate multiple data points.
Character breeds confidence
I taught leadership for over a decade at Ashridge Business School, where I had the opportunity to meet thousands of senior leaders, and to learn about their challenges. What they told me was that they wanted to be more confident. What the Gordonstoun research shows is that confidence is a natural by-product of the experience of facing your fears, time after time, and surviving them. This robs them of their power to stop you in your tracks, because you know you have developed the power to prevail. If all schools and those who provide youth activities took these findings to heart, and adapted them to use in their own contexts, we wouldn’t have business leaders who are too scared to do the right thing. We’d have brave leaders of character, which is what the world so desperately needs today.
A version of this post appeared in Insider on 20 July 2018.