They are with us from the moment we are born (perhaps before?) and stay with us until the day we die. They define us. Most people would agree that without them we are not human. I am referring to feelings. Nothing is more fundamental to our being.
Yet is it remarkable how little science – and education – has to say about them. Since Charles Darwin’s book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals surprisingly little research has been focussed on why and how we feel the way we do. Psychology and neuroscience nibble at the subject from different sides, but since feelings are so hard to describe let alone measure, it is mostly an un-trodden domain. Emotions are not rational. They are “not logical, Captain”, as the infamous Spock would say.
Worst of all, even though emotions generally rule our everyday lives, they hardly feature at all in the school curriculum. Reason – packaged up morsels of maths and physics are today’s hot topics. Literacy – at least initially – is more to do with learning how to read, less about understanding or sharing feelings, while the whole business of examinations and testing is about as unfeeling as can be imagined. Music and drama – those soft, right-hemisphere subjects – are probably the closest our school system gets to the emotional roller-coaster of everyday living, but usually these are subjects relegated to the sidings as optional extras.
What’s to be done? How can sentiment gain a more central place in the curriculum for students of all ages – from as young as five to 18.
One solution is to make it compulsory for every school child to be introduced to the complete plays of William Shakespeare from the age of five, and to ensure that these magnificent plays continue to be on offer to all pupils throughout their school days until the day they leave.
Surprising as this may sound, it is a conclusion I have come to after having had the privilege to work for the last 18 months on a fascinating project in collaboration with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – a charity established in 1847 and charged with looking after Shakespeare’s heritage. During this time, we have been pioneering a new way of introducing young children (and their teachers and parents) to the emotional power of the complete plays of Britain’s greatest literary hero.
Make it compulsory for every school child to be introduced to the complete plays of William Shakespeare from the age of five
The complete plays of Shakespeare represent an emotional spectrum no less significant than James Maxwell’s electromagnetic spectrum is in the world of science. Everyday all of us, young and old, experience the essence of what is presented in these 38 stories. They are a comprehensive encyclopaedia of feeling – a reflection of our emotional selves that contain every possible colour and hue of human emotion contextualised in the power of narrative drama.
But how on earth can you present the plays of Shakespeare in a meaningful way to children as young as five? Ask any 14-year old who is beginning their studies of Shakespeare’s plays for the first time as part of the English GSCE and the groans are as predictable as they are universal.
In my view, we make three basic mistakes: we begin too late, we rely far too heavily on words and, finally, we only look at fragments, not the whole.
Imagine the challenge of introducing a five-year old child to the complete works of Shakespeare. Where would you begin? Perhaps with a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream with fairies arguing in a wood? Or maybe at a masked ball where two lovers from rival families fall in love at first sight?
Our project, inspired by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Educational Manager, Dr Nick Walton, took exactly the opposite approach. Rather than suggest one play, or a scene of a play, why not show ALL THE PLAYS AT ONCE so that a young mind can do what is does best – roam through any of them using nothing more than the power of natural curiosity?
Of course the plays should be presented in a way they were intended – that’s primarily through images not through words. Afterall, today when you go to a theatre you go to SEE a play, not to HEAR it. We dream in images, we remember in pictures. Our brains are hard-wired to make judgements and feelings based more on how the world looks, less about how it sounds.
So, for the first time ever, we have assembled all of Shakespeare’s 38 plays on a fold-out timeline showing when each was written and what was happening in Shakespeare’s life and around the world at the time. Each story is set inside an audience box around the stage of the Globe Theatre where his plays were performed from 1599 until the theatre dramatically burned down during a performance of Shakespeare’s last play, Henry VIII, in 1613.
Even on a 2.4m long fold out timeline, there isn’t room in a single audience box to retell each play in its entirety. But the main plot, the characters and most importantly the transformation of emotions in each story (that can translate into feelings that we all experience in our everyday lives) are all possible.
Now it’s up the child (with their parents or teacher, perhaps) to choose where to wander and which plays to look at.
See those ghosts circling around a tent! What’s that? – a bear? A woman falling out of a boat.. ? Witches dancing around a pot….? A boy with a donkey’s head…? a woman struggling with a snake around her neck, she doesn’t look too happy!… Or that fat guy with his head popping out of a laundry basket … what on earth is he doing?
In just one sweep we’ve touched on Richard III, A Winter’s Tale, Pericles, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Antony & Cleopatra and the Merry Wives of Windsor.
A woman struggling with a snake around her neck, she doesn’t look too happy!
We could just as easily explore which plays may be based on fact and which are made up. Fairies are fiction, Henry V probably not. Best look him up just in case to see if a king called Henry V actually existed…… Yes he DID – must be fact…..
For example, the emotional journey from joy to hate to sorrow could be the story of a child being given a birthday present, it being seized by the child’s sibling and then destroyed in a struggle by the first child in a vain attempt to get it back. The same emotional rollercoaster could also be applied to the story Julius Caesar. His joyful entry into Rome after a triumphant victory in battle, the hatred stirred up in the hearts of his fellow rulers at Caesar’s rising popularity which could spell doom for the Republic and the sorrow of Brutus and his co-conspirators once the consequences of Caesar’s murder play out. Such transformations could equally be understood in terms of colours – perhaps yellow (joy) to red (hate) and blue (sorrow).
To engage a child in such stories is simply just a matter of approach, not a matter of them not being old enough. If a fourteen year old, who has never before experienced the world of Shakespeare, is compelled to sit in a classroom and take it in turns reading a play composed in a quaint, confusing language, (he probably hates reading anyway) with myriad intricate plots and subplots that were never designed to be read in a book anyway – it is no great surprise that pupil engagement does not naturally follow.
Compare with this a 5 year-old child who realises that the emotional journeys they experience themselves every day are also played out in stories from the plays of Shakespeare which can be brought to life through a galaxy of pictures!
A Wallbook of 38 plays can and should never be a substitute for actually seeing (and hearing) the plays of our greatest playwright in a theatre. But if a child’s curiosity is aroused sufficiently by images that stick in their minds, be the ghosts, fairies or bears, such that they decide at some point that they’d like to see the play for themselves, then the Wallbook’s job is done.
Later this month, more than 2,000 UK primary schools will join in a celebration of Shakespeare Week, (17th to 23rd March), an initiative set up by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to celebrate the 450th birthday of the bard. What a fabulous opportunity not only to instil a love of Shakespeare at an early age through pictures and feelings, but also to make our school curriculum a little more about emotions and not all about facts, figures and reason.
An edited version of this article appeared in Weekend Telegraph on 8th March 2014
ENGLAND, WE HAVE A PROBLEM. According to the latest Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) education report our young adults have amongst the lowest literacy rates of any country in the modern industrialised world. England came 22nd out the 24 countries surveyed.
What is going on? It seems that for at least a generation all significant attempts by government and educationalists to nurture a love of reading amongst younger people appear to have failed.
Recently I was asked to speak at the Federation of Children’s Books Groups annual conference, at Bradfield College near Reading. It is an august organisation dedicated to instilling a love of reading in young people. The gathering, now in its twentieth year, was packed with teachers, book lovers and educationalists.
‘How wonderfully refreshing to have a non-fiction author speaking’ said one delegate after I had given my 60 minutes romp through the history of the world, with a giant Wallbook timeline as a backdrop.
Why, I wondered, should being a ‘non fiction’ author be such a big deal? In my world stories about the real world are so much more amazing than any number of fantasies you can dream up in your mind. If you love truly amazing stories then non-fiction’s the place for you…. Most children I speak to seem to agree.
Facts, how things work, encyclopaedias, maps, explorers, books about nature, superheroes and villains from the past – in my experience this is the stuff that really sets off fireworks in many young brains. World records, bloody wars, space travel, Titanic….. to many youngsters these stories are no less incredible than Harry Potter or Spiderman.
As adults we forget that to the young mind reality is often far more magical than fiction. It’s only as we grow older that social conventions condition us into thinking that the world around us is ‘normal’ – far from it!
Take the birth of a child – it is a stunningly extraordinary occurrence. To any rational mind, the self-assembling mechanics of foetal embryological development utterly defy ordinary comprehension. And just because a new baby is born on average 370,000 times worldwide every day doesn’t make it ‘ordinary’. Frequency should never undermine wonder. In fact, to a curious young mind the more often something amazing happens, the more extraordinary it is!
I recall visiting the Picasso museum in Barcelona with my wife and two young children when we were on our travels in a campervan around Europe. One display board explained how it was this great artist’s adult ambition to learn once again how to paint like a child. I remember how powerfully I was moved by his attempt to rediscover a sense of wonder and curiosity about the everyday world. His paintings now seem to make so much more sense.
For most of us grown-ups the extraordinary world around us has long since become mundane and fascination for fact is often substituted by an addiction to fiction – as is shown by the difference in sales each week between fiction and non-fiction titles.
As I left the talk I gave to the Federation, that woman’s voice kept reverberating around my mind. Why did she say it was such a novelty having a non-fiction author give a talk at a conference on reading and children’s books?
Then a penny dropped. Almost without exception the books that are generally used to promote literacy in schools are popular reading schemes based on a diet of fictional stories, graded into levels that can easily be monitored and measured. Using the same set of books for every child means they can be measured against each other – ideal for an adult-centred approach to assessing performance in schools.
Now put yourself in the mind of a reluctant child who is being taught to read via such a scheme. The question most likely to be going through their mind will be this:
Why on earth are these adult bullies forcing me to learn how to read something that I am not interested in anyway? What’s the point when I want to be outside playing with my friends?
And if the educating adult were being brutally honest, I suspect the answer may well be this:
Because it’s my job. Because I want to help you succeed in life. Because it’s my responsibility to help you pass your tests…..(which means I will be praised by your parents and the head teacher and the school will look good in its league tables….).
But all is not lost.
On Thursday this week schools all over the UK will have the chance to celebrate National Non-Fiction Day, now in its third year – a relatively new initiative organised by the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.
Now imagine a young boy who happens to have a fascination with space travel. His teacher asks him to find a book from the library that he finds interesting. He chooses one about the true story of those astronauts who failed to reach the moon on Apollo 13 and only just managed to return to Earth in what remained of their spaceship after it had exploded.
Now he is taking a book he wants to read because he is following his own natural curiosity about something he is already interested in. And the best way for him to find out more is… to learn how to read.
England – we do not have a problem. We just need to remind ourselves again and again that children learn best through their natural curiosity. When and where they will learn to read doesn’t much matter. Far more important is to ensure we do not diminish their built-in light-bulb of fascination for the world around them by forcing them into senseless reading schemes many of which have little natural context, meaning or purpose to a young spongy mind.
This article appeared in the Weekend Telegraph, p.13 on Saturday 2nd November 2013