CHARACTER EDUCATION: Part 1 – the Deconstruction

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In this two-part blog I aim to take a scythe to a lot of the cluttered thinking around the idea of character education, and then present a simpler, more realistic heuristic for how we might just – in reality – effectively educate for ‘character’ – if that is something you think ‘schooling’ should involve. I DO personally think it is worth pursuing…

A bit of context…

Historically, character education was very much seen as meaning ‘moral’ character – virtues which benefit society, and perhaps the eternal soul of the individual.

In recent years however, there has been a rush to add to the mix a bunch of other attributes which are focused on personal ‘performance’ – things which lead to survival and success in economic and goal-directed areas.

Consequently, when the UK DfE announced its Character Awards in 2015, and then again in 2016 the term character was portrayed as covering a broad spread of traits:

Applicants should be able to prove their programme develops character traits, attributes and behaviours that underpin success in school and work, including:

  • perseverance, resilience and grit
  • confidence and optimism
  • motivation, drive and ambition
  • neighbourliness and community spirit
  • tolerance and respect
  • honesty, integrity and dignity
  • conscientiousness, curiosity and focus

The awards support young people to develop the traits that:

  • support academic attainment
  • are valued by employers
  • enable them to make a positive contribution to British society

All young people deserve opportunities to learn:

  • how to persevere and work to achieve
  • to understand the importance of respect and how to show it to others
  • how to bounce back if faced with failure
  • how to collaborate and build strong relationships with others at work and in their private lives

Beyond this, there has essentially developed a move for schools to perhaps look at one of the more well-known 21st Century skills+ formulations – IB Learner ProfileHabits of MindBLP for example, and create a mix between them with traditional ‘character traits’ into a personal fusion reflecting the values and ethos of that school.

Indeed, it now appears that pretty much any supposedly generic mental skill, attitude, habit, disposition or learning behaviour seems able to be lumped together in a single alliance called ‘character’. United, seemingly, because they represent everything worthy in education which isn’t simply raw academic learning and achievement. In other words it has become “Examinable Curricular Attainment” vs “ALL THE OTHER THINGS”

During the rest of Part 1 of this post, I’ll highlight what I find problematic about the notion of character and the attempts which seem to be gaining traction in some parts to ‘teach’ it.

How ‘pure’ are the various concepts?

Firstly, when we do pull together an attractive selection of attributes which we want our young people to have – a lot of them start to fade under careful analysis and an attempt to pin them down precisely. Many of the traits are possibly simply ‘common sense folk psychology’ concepts which we seem to recognise intuitively, but which may not be as straightforward as we think once we start drilling into them.

So perhaps RESILIENCE is actually something which draws upon, or is built up from a mixture of other attributes, and isn’t a single thing at all. In social science this would be labelled as failing to have ‘discrete construct validity’: what we experience on the surface doesn’t come from a single place psychologically. If we measure IT, we’re actually measuring a combination of other things.

Indeed, perhaps resilience is simply something we demonstrate. It is a behaviour, brought about through a mixture of circumstances, and not a thing we ‘have’ at all.

How persistent are the various concepts?

Perhaps though, sometimes we can genuinely feel an internal experience – something where we seem to have such a clarity of mind and strength of will that we feel that nothing will knock us down. Accordingly we find ourselves acting in a resilient way. Perhaps indeed, on these occasions we can definitely say “By God! I am RESILIENT!”

However, does that mean that we always feel resilient? Or is it simply the fact that there merely happen to sometimes be situations in all of our lives where our resolve – our belief in the rightness of a situation, or our realisation in the unavoidability of the situation, or the firing of our emotions – is such that we just dig our heels in no matter what?

There will be alternative times though, when – due to quite a different mix of circumstances – we just find ourselves helpless to do much more than go with the flow. How much of the construct of resilience is simply at the whim of specific domains and situations – combined with a certain degree of genetic ‘pugnaciousness’.

Or, focusing on a different traitCURIOSITY – how often are we blind to the kinds of things which our gloriously curious child – the one we love to teach, the one who seems self-motivated to keep finding-out in our academic lessons – is  simply not interested in…? They like the world of academic knowledge, so they are curious to us, irrespective of the fact that they have no interest in the various permutations which might be thrown-up by the draw for the FA Cup, or about the life experiences of the person they have just been introduced to at a social function.

There are surely different kinds of curiosity – ‘how do things work?’ – ‘why are things the way they are?’ – ‘what will happen in next week’s episode?’ – ‘what will happen if we try this?’ – ‘what are you thinking about?’ –  ‘what is out there?’ –  ‘what is there to know which nobody else yet knows?’ plus innumerable more no doubt. What if there is no such thing as an all-round ‘curious’ child – but that each one of us might simply have an inclination to asking certain kinds of questions – to paying attention to particular kinds of thought stimulants…?

How relatively teachable are the various concepts?

Let’s just assume though that there are indeed certain traits that we could define as character, which are largely consistent across domains and situations, and which have relatively unclouded discrete causal links between ‘what we are’ and ‘what we do’. How easy is it then to teach/nurture/develop these things strategically?

This comes particularly to mind when schools lump all of these things together under a single heading such as ‘Behaviours for Learning’, and then allocate a block of weeks to focusing on each one. Often this may involve a consistent approach which includes doing an assembly on the characteristic, putting up some posters, reminding children about them during lessons, and perhaps instigating a reward system for ‘children being caught in the act’.

Are the various traits which are often picked together in these packages actually comparable kinds of things, which can be developed using the same basic approach?

PERSEVERANCE for example would seem to me (in a naïve way) a pretty straightforward quality which you COULD try to develop in children. You could, for example:

  • Demonstrate to them the VALUE of persevering, and the BELIEF that it’s worth sticking at something if you really want it – that many great outcomes only come about if you persist at something through thick or thin. – Help them to make that link between desired ends and the required means.
  • Train children behaviourally in what it takes to stick at something they don’t feel inclined to stick at (in other words use carrots & sticks to get them to go through it, giving them tacit knowledge of how to ‘cope’ with an experience of being stuck carrying-on with something when required.

So, perseverance might be open to a relatively clear-cut programme for development (or possibly not of course as it could simply depend on your unconscious motivation…). I guess in an optimistic sense it could be summarised as coming down to “the cognitive management of motivation”, and “the emotional management of contrary impulses” (although am I simply talking ‘self-regulation’ then, whatever that is…?)

This is of course all made-up on the spot by me, but I can conceive of relatively straightforward things that would need to be developed if children are to improve their ability to persevere.

Now, CURIOSITY however… What can we do here?

  • We can point out to pupils that curiosity is a good thing
  • We can try to avoid ‘shutting down’ the natural curiosity instinct through overly prescriptive practices (though this shutting down may be a fairly natural process as we get older – as the immediate world around us comes into increasingly sharp rational focus. Certainly this is one reason given for why the most randomly ‘creative’ ideas of children gradually diminish – they simply become too aware of the norms of reality to continue guessing so unreflectively any longer.)
  • We can try to find and harness an area of natural curiosity that a child might have, in order to help engage them obliquely in other areas of learning
  • We can reward them for asking questions…

Now, my question is, will any of these really turn a child who seems predisposed to be less interested in certain things (let’s say ‘the world of ideas’, ‘how things happen’, ‘why things happen’… whatever) – someone who is more easily satisfied by whatever they find in front of their eyes… will any of these things actually turn them into a more naturally curious person across all domains once they are out of the classroom…?

Ultimately perseverance would appear to be an emotionally charged, strategically guided way of behaving in certain situations, whereas curiosity would appear to be an unconscious disposition towards notable aspects of things around you. They just aren’t the same, and hence we can’t use the same potted approach to developing them.

How do we know if we have actually been successful teaching it?

My first two questions above about the purity of character constructs and the likely domain-specific circumstances in which they may or may not arise creates huge questions for how practically any character trait can be accurately measured in a person and also be shown to reflect a general attribute which they have.

And of course, moves to measure efficacy of approach will likely lead to the cheapest, quickest, shallowest approaches being adopted, just to ‘jump through the hoop’.

So, ULTIMATELY …are we wasting time on a naïve vanity project with a lot of these attempts to ‘teach character’…..?

I will try to offer some kind of positive alternative approach in Part 2 of this post…!

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4 thoughts on “CHARACTER EDUCATION: Part 1 – the Deconstruction

  1. I know I could be accused of quibbling over words and definitions but I think part of the problem is in using the frame of ‘character education’. Perhaps the term ‘dispositions’, which is often used, is more useful?

    Having worked with the IB Leaner Profile for a number of years across a whole school I think the key is not to try and teach the profile directly. That sort of ‘education’ is prone to oversimplification and also a desire to then measure character in people. Is there anything more absurd than suggesting somebody is an ‘A’ in curiosity?

    For me, the most sensible way to use the profile is as a spotlight or lens. For example, in reading a story, either fictional or factual, I might ask students to see if they can find examples of where a character or person has show those dispositions, either effectively or ineffectively (after all, curiosity did kill the cat as well as driving most scientific discovery). And in talking with students about their own learning I might use the words as concepts for developing further learning. It can be as simple as praising a group for demonstrating a spirit of collaboration or being caring when they took a friend to the infirmary when that friend feel over in the playground.

    Character education has been around for ever e.g. Marcus Aurelius and Seneca spring to mind. With older students I sometimes remind them of this as part of wider discussions and we discuss how values have changed. It enriches conversations I believe, but I am not sure my expectation is that they develop these skills through direct instruction. I tried BLP in one school and was decidedly unimpressed by its power – trying to teach it as a discreet skill set seemed to lack the explicit connect that young people often need. I am also dubious of practices that require teachers to specifically plan in some sort of sequence these dispositions e.g. let’s do creativity/inquiry in unit 1. It is the sort of structured planning that fills boxes and pleasures accountability than helps students.

    I look forward t the next part and learning something new!

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    • Thank you very much for taking the time to both read and respond in detail to my blog. I too have taught in an IB school, and I don’t actually think I’m taking aim at what they do with this. IB has always had character aims within its goals, and this is warp and weft with its approach to curriculum and pedagogy. In other words, it’s not a new ‘add-on’ which it’s trying to strap on top of things as some kind of extension pack to what it does. Hopefully you will indeed find the second part (coming in about 10 minutes!) interesting, but more importantly, something which simply goes on to nourish what happens in IB schools. Thanks again!

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    • …Sorry – in addition – I think your approach to weaving-in references to Learner Profile virtues is spot-on with what I refer to as “The Dynamic” in my subsequent post. Thank you 🙂

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  2. Pingback: CHARACTER EDUCATION: Part 2 – A SOLUTION! | Stepping Back a Little

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