I spend a lot of my time travelling up and down the country banging on about the power of dilemma led learning, and sometimes a school will ask me to come in, put it into action with some children and let the staff watch. It’s like being observed by Ofsted for six hours straight. But with smiles.
Last Friday I worked with Year 6 in a primary school in Bury. They were about to start a unit of work on the Ancient Greeks and it seemed sensible to combine their History with Literacy work on Myths. I chose the myth of Perseus – it’s a great story – offers opportunities to explore the ancient geography of the Peloponnese as well as the role of religion in Ancient Greek culture, in particular the importance of the Oracle. But more than that, there are two dilemma led pivots in the story that lend themselves to some serious moral considerations.
If you don’t know the backstories to Perseus and Medusa and have only ever focused on the monster slaying elements of the tale, you’re missing two tricks. The first is the role of Perseus’ grandfather King Acrisius of Argos. On hearing a prophesy from the Oracle that his grandchild will grow to kill him, he locks his daughter up to keep her away from men. Of course, his attempt to cheat fate fails – Zeus impregnates the princess and Perseus is born. Foiled, he tries again to end the life of his grandchild. The princess Danae and her newborn son are tossed into a trunk and thrown out to sea, just as a storm is beginning. The gods intervene, however, mother and child are washed up safely onto shore and Perseus becomes a hero. After his encounter with Medusa, he returns to Argos to take part in some games. His grandfather, fearing that the prophesy will now come true, hides in the crowd as a beggar. And as Perseus takes aim with his weapon (the weapon varies in different versions of the tale), a strange wind blows up, taking the arrow/discus off course and into the heart of an old beggar man in the crowd….
As Ancient Architects, our Year 6s are asked by the King to construct a tower, built so securely and guarded so well that no man could enter and no princess escape. They are asked to sign a contract swearing them to secrecy and conceding that if one of them should talk, none will survive. Six children refuse to sign it and a debate ensues in which the power and morality of the king is considered. The children speak of “then time” and “now time”, admitting that they would be unlikely to say no to a king in those times (to be clear, we create a timeline – most of the myths of ancient Greece emerge from the Minoan and Mycenaean times – when were they?). They speak of how wrong it is to lock the princess away against her will and when they realise that they have a stark choice – to sign or to die – they try to think about how they can make the imprisonment as bearable as possible for her. They research leisure and entertainment in Ancient Greece. They interview the princess to find out what her favourite foods and colours are (figs and blue) and they design her tower to make it as comfortable as possible. But when the king hears a newborn cry in the middle of the night, the architects are in trouble. He accuses them of treachery. He orders them to take the princess and the baby and throw them into the sea….several refuse. But enough agree:-
“It’s either them or us.”
Later, at the point at which Perseus is about to take the head of Medusa, we freeze the action. One child is Perseus. One child is Medusa. The rest are frozen statues – all the men in the past who have tried and failed to kill her. I thought-track them and ask them to speak their thoughts in response to the question “why were you here?”
“I wanted to be known as the bravest of them all…”
“I thought killing her would make me rich…”
“Athena sent me here…”
And then we switch to the story of Medusa – a beautiful, but vain girl cursed by a jealous and angry God. Turned into a monster so hideous that her two loyal sisters begged to be turned into monsters too so that they could care for her. Three gorgons, so shamed they hide in a remote cave in Ethiopia hoping never to be seen, but hunted forever by men seeking them as trophies….
“Is she a monster?”
The room erupts into discussion.
We end the day in Argos, an old man lying bleeding in the dirt…what questions do we have?
“Is fate real?”
“Do we have any control over our lives?”
“Should God be good?”
“What is a monster?”
“Is Perseus really a hero? What IS a hero?”
We learned a lot about Ancient Greek society, beliefs, geography and over the course of the unit, they’ll learn much more. But much, much more importantly, we looked at some deeply philosophical questions and grappled with what it is to be human. And for, me, that is the essence of good education – working at the edges of morality and figuring out where we sit when the going gets tough.