‘Challenge Creates Character’

Pupils from Shiplake College on a trekking expedition in Kenya.

Gregg Davies (Shiplake College) looks for ways around the ‘wall’ of trepidation

One of my many mantras at Shiplake College is that ‘Challenge Creates Character’. In my experience, young people develop character as they are growing up due to the many varied experiences and challenges they face. Where better to be immersed in an environment rich in challenge than in the education system?

But over the past few years, I have noticed a lessening of this ability to build character; a perception of a lack of resilience amongst young people. A palpable sense that perhaps we are bringing up the ‘snowflake generation’, a recently introduced term, coined to symbolise a generation of children who are more prone to take offence and are less resilient. A generation who have an exaggerated sense of their own singularity - managed by parents hovering over them in a manner akin to that of a helicopter, shielding and protecting their delicate snowflakes from the harsh climate and environment that is constantly surrounding them. With this in mind, how do we inspire today’s children to be mentally strong and tough in character?

There is a school of thought that believes that this perceived lack of resilience amongst young people is due to an over-zealous health and safety environment. This is echoed by Professor Claire Fox, a leading psychologist, in her 2016 Generation Snowflake piece. “Health-and-safety mania means the young are denied resilience-building freedoms that past generations enjoyed, such as playing outdoors, climbing trees and walking to school unaided,” she said.

As a nod to lessening these ever-ballooning physical safety restrictions, four years ago the government acknowledged that perhaps some element of the educational activities’ agenda was too overly protective and reduced the threshold for approving educational visits involving challenging activities such as abseiling, caving and pot-holing and coasteering. All well and good – more outdoor challenging activities are back on the agenda, but building physical stamina is only part of the puzzle.

Schools and parents working in tandem

To me, it is about building mental resilience in tandem with physical resilience. Similarly, and of great import, it is also about the school and parents working in tandem. I don’t blame parents. They are continually bombarded with messages of doom and threat to our children: safeguarding, all types of levels of abuse, drugs, alcohol, sugar and smoking to name but a few. But here’s the thing. This is not new news. The world is no more dangerous than it was say seventy years ago. Each of these threats or variations on them, pre-date all of us. What has changed, is our understanding of them and our response to them. Our grandparents’ parents probably did not step in when their child had been reprimanded by a teacher or when a scuffle broke out in the playground. They probably just shrugged their shoulders and told them they deserved it. Do we want to see a return to this mentality, or should we be aiming for a happy medium?

I believe we have a responsibility as educators to strive for that happy medium. To make it our responsibility to create a (dare I say it – safe) environment that encourages our children to metaphorically fall down, but crucially, where the supportive triangle of teacher, family and peers helps them back up.

Would this not help prepare our children for a lifetime of overcoming obstacles? Life is peppered with (figuratively speaking) walls which we sometimes manage to scramble over only to find another larger one looming ahead of us. What’s important is how we react to those types of situations. At Shiplake we strive to teach our pupils that it is not always about getting over the next wall, but instead, it’s about exploring the options: challenging them to think about alternative solutions – how to get round the wall rather than scaling a sheer side.

A compulsory ‘wall’ that I have included in our curriculum is for all pupils to take up a musical instrument. You can imagine that this is not every pupil’s strength, or area of interest, but the challenge that this presents enables each pupil to understand more about how they respond to the experience; how they get round this obstacle that at first, for some, seems insurmountable.

Senior school rowers training on the River Thames.

Meeting a challenge with gusto

When thinking about challenge creating character, I am always reminded of a former pupil who was head of college: a bright boy who was academically strong, played rugby for Oxfordshire and rowed for England. This boy was very similar to John Eales, the most successful captain in the history of Australian rugby and whose nickname was Nobody. Because Nobody’s perfect. (… think about it). With an unblemished track record our Shiplake pupil appeared to have no weaknesses.

As dictated by Shiplake tradition, the head of college sings with the Headmaster at the summer music concert. When presented with this news, our ‘Nobody’ began to falter claiming that he could not sing. ‘Hoorah’ I thought. Finally, something I can challenge. I had opted for us to sing ‘I’m just a little black cloud’ from Winnie the Pooh in honour of my daughter. ‘Nobody’ and I practised and practised. By way of distraction, for the recital, I provided him and me with a prop – a helium balloon on a string, just like Winnie. The night of the recital arrived and ‘Nobody’s’ balloon was shaking like a leaf as we stepped on stage. We got through the performance and he did a fine job! ‘Nobody’ received a standing ovation as his friends cheered his performance.

Up until this point, ‘Nobody’ had always thought the worst part of his role would be to give a speech at prize giving. Having survived his singing debut, this self-realisation that he could overcome difficult situations by being mentally prepared and strong, meant that when it came to the next ‘wall’, the prize giving speech, ‘Nobody’ met the challenge with gusto and found the experience a lot less uncomfortable than he had perceived it to be.

In a challenging world, the forecast for today’s children may sometimes be perceived as gloomy with wintry showers, but is that not the type of environment in which snowflakes flourish and survive? The beauty of snowflakes is that every single one is unique. Each one has their own character. Our job is to find the challenges that create that character.

Pupils white-water rafting during a school trip to Kenya.

The ‘1st VIII’ perform at the Shiplake College Winter Concert.