In Character Education: Part 1 – the Deconstruction, I pointed to various ways in which I suspect that the whole notion of ‘character’ in schools is currently used as a rag-bag of disparate concepts and traits which lack discrete concept validity, are probably only apparent in specific domains and circumstances, and which are probably such different kinds of things from each other that to try to have a standard uniform approach to teaching individual elements is naïve.

Indeed I suggested that perhaps ‘teaching’ some character concepts might not be possible at all [though some schools do treat it as a teachable module].

In this post, I want to take the arguments a little further, but offer a guide to how I believe we might indeed educate for character in children – if not ‘teach’ character.

Firstly, a deliberate diversion…..

What is actually the best route to take in order to achieve certain goals?

During the high publicity given to the International Space Station in Britain last year, probably more than a few of us were struck for the first time by the process it takes to get a rocket/capsule to meet-up with it. The ISS only orbits 400km above the Earth’s surface. Couldn’t we just ‘see it coming’ and send a rocket on a trajectory ahead of it to intercept it at the right time and place – a bit like throwing a ball to someone who is running?

Given this intuition, the time of a least 6hrs that it takes for a meet-up (2 days prior to 2013), seems intensely slow for a rocket which can get into orbit in 8 minutes 48 seconds.

The reality of course is that it doesn’t just head straight for the space station, it sets off at a seemingly random time, from a seemingly odd location, into a seemingly arbitrary trajectory, and has to fly around the planet 4 times until it is at the right place, at the right time, at the right trajectory and just the right speed.

What is the purpose of this metaphor? Basically, how many things which we want to achieve, and how many characteristics which we want children to have as adults, might not be best acquired ‘obliquely’ – without aiming directly towards them – either because they are more complex behaviours than we give them credit for, or we underestimate the process of natural maturation and general social education.

Essentially, I believe that there is a bit of a cargo cult approach to ‘teaching’ character in some schools these days. Indeed, I think that the whole notion of ‘teaching’ character is fundamentally a cargo cult movement. The cargo cult analogy is used fairly often these days in education blogs whenever people are seen to be looking at the emergent surface features of a successful person or organisation and then attempt to mimic that particular aspect of them, in order to become successful too.

So if Richard Branson was characterised by being a risk taker, then lets teach children to be risk takers and they can be Richard Branson. Or if Roger Federer has come to be regarded as somehow better than Djokovic or Murray because of his ‘graceful play’, then let’s teach children to hit the ball gracefully, and they will become like Roger.

Indeed, recently Martin Robinson has drawn a similar comparison around Lord Nash’s pronouncement that schools should be more like businesses. McDonalds is successful; shouldn’t schools then all simply mimic the working practices of McDonalds to become successful?

Just because an attribute can be linked with successful people, this doesn’t mean that those people were ever successfully taught these things; they might simply always have been like that – or found themselves in a set of circumstances which allowed those characteristics to flourish, or indeed – might have done other things which has enabled those characteristics to emerge, particularly if those characteristics are possibly a bit of an ephemeral, transitory illusion (which character might be).

A colliding thought: How do we truly get the best out of humans?

For anyone who has ever looked inside the mechanisms of a musical box, it is a delightfully simple set-up. There is a set of tuned prongs which in turn get ‘pinged’ by small metal nodules on the outside of a cylindrical barrel. With a small implement it is possible to pluck the prongs individually to see what they sound like – but they sound muted, and it would be very hard to get a coherent tune out of them. To play the music, we don’t pluck the prongs at all, we ignore them and wind-up a spring so that the barrel turns, and if it turns a full rotation, we get a coherent melody being played. What is the equivalent for educating children? I would say that many initiatives to develop character are like this analogy.

Another analogy further into the realm of human experience: I was particularly struck by Karen Armstrong’s 2009 book The Case for God. This wasn’t a ‘tit-for-tat’ logical counterpoint to the ‘new atheism’ of Dawkings, Hitchings, Harris & Dennett. Rather, she contrasted thinking logically about the ‘truth statements’ of religion (Logos), with simply living the experience of a religious life (Mythos), and contended that the latter is how we’ve actually evolved to connect with the absolute. We experience something that we can’t deduce, which is why the logical arguments of atheists rarely completely wipe-out religious sentiment, or even pure belief.

[Whatever your interest in religion, the ‘Argumentative Theory’ of Mercier and Sperber (2011) – which periodically gets big press, such as last month in the New Yorker – I think complements Armstrong’s contention quite nicely.]

Is there something in the previous two analogies which we can take into our notion of human character here as well? Should we stop trying to atomise traits, stop trying to precisely specify, teach and argue them into existence, and instead focus on – to the best of our ability – setting the barrel of human life fully turning, so that we can experience it as we have evolved to experience it?

How does this translate?

Our notions of modern childhood have radically transformed the experience of the modern child. As much as possible we have tried to remove fear, exploitation and abuse from their lives, and replace them with a safe haven in which to discover the opportunities of life as fully as possible. This is utterly to be applauded.

However, in the process of doing this, we have also refined many parts of life beyond all recognition from the pattern of experiences that our physical and mental processes evolved in response to. Relative to their predecessors, children no longer know how to deal with a world which is intrinsically unfair, or which takes them beyond what is pleasantly comfortable, or which doesn’t leave them with a choice or a voice, or requires commitment (particularly in the long term). Consequently, we are scrambling to create character education to fill the void.  We have stripped so much fibre out of the modern educational/lifestyle diet that we’re having to invent nutritional supplements to make up for it.

Back when a childhood of education was the preserve of the wealthy, they had to create quite harsh circumstances in those schools to try to give the, otherwise too-pampered and soft, idle rich some challenging formative experience.

Poor kids on the other hand had their character tempered by everyday existence. They had to function – full-on – in an environment of hardship reminiscent of the millions of years of our ancestry.

Probably, back in those days, the uneducated poor likely derided the school experiences of their wealthier ‘masters’, as being cossetted and leaving them without real ‘grit’ or whatever vernacular would have been current. After all, they didn’t know what ‘real’ life was like.

These days however, the habits and traditions of the classic British Public schools (that’s ‘private’ to those reading from certain other countries!), are often derided as being both anachronistic and indeed ‘abusive’; relentless focus on sport, compulsory cadet training, long days in a boarding environment, a high premium placed on ‘competition’. What kind of world are they trying to prepare children for?!

So what is my solution to all this? Well, I’m not simply saying that we should become like traditional independent schools – though there is a big reference point there. Instead, I think we can create a model here which we can all learn from – rich, poor, liberal, trad.


It’s simple really. If we have a GOAL of wanting to develop a particular character trait in someone, we don’t focus on it. Instead we focus on a PURSUIT which could give rise to that particular trait if done in the right DYNAMIC.


What does this mean in practice?

This means that if we do want to develop intellectual skills such as the ability to ‘analyse’ (the goal), then we might be best-off engaging the children in the pursuit of some worthwhile area of knowledge development (the pursuit), in the context of some creative challenge (the dynamic).

Or if we want to develop character traits such as ‘resilience’ (the goal), then we are possibly best off engaging the children in the pursuit of some emotionally charged competitive situation where they are likely to fail at some point (sport or whatever), and wisely guide them in meeting the two imposters of triumph and disaster just the same (the dynamic).

I’m going to say more than this though. I’m going to suggest that we don’t worry too much on trying to isolate the individual character traits that we want to develop in the first place anyway. Far too many of them are too fuzzy and ephemeral as concepts and seem to lock-arms tightly with each other.

Instead, set ourselves the GENERAL GOAL OF WANTING TO DEVELOP ‘CHARACTER’ – that ‘extra thing’ which helps humans cope and thrive through the diverse challenges of life, then commit to fully encouraging children into A BROAD SPREAD OF CHALLENGING PURSUITS, and use our relationship with them as teachers to ensure that these are done in A DYNAMIC WHICH ALLOWS POSITIVE RATHER THAN NEGATIVE FRUITS TO EMERGE.


The kind of pursuits I’m recommending are things where, for a limited duration of time, they are the only ones that matter. They are the experiences where children commit themselves fully and strive to give the very best of themselves in the process. These experiences should cover a broad spread of endeavours, and – crucially – include things which the child is naturally good at and things which they aren’t; things which they enjoy, and things which they don’t.

So yes, this would involve some arduous physical endeavour, knee-quaking public artistic performances of some kind, utterly personal long-term creative obsessions, and intellectual adventures which leave you stunned, disorientated and questioning what you’ve always assumed. Along the way, you almost certainly would find your ‘element’ or ‘bliss’, but you wouldn’t short-circuit the formation of broader character traits by flying straight to it by the path of least resistance.

The overtone to this naturally brings to mind a competitive culture of some sort, and that is certainly a component of it. However, in pondering this, it’s worth bearing in mind the distinction between two different kinds of competition:

  • Closed, Bounded, Limited” competition – such as sports events, working for exams, proving yourself in an isolated challenging situation.
  • Open, Unbounded, Unlimited” competition – struggles to survive, to make your way through an uncertain life of relentless pressures.

The first of these can create a perfectly healthy, necessary schooling in essential character development, and can help people deal with the second, which can result in a debilitating, destructive effect.

And following-on from that, it is worth also noting the difference between two different types of stress:

  • Eustress – Positive stress which motivates, focuses energy, feels exciting and improves performance.
  • Distress – Negative stress which causes anxiety, feels unpleasant, decreases performance, causes mental or physical problems.

What is worth noting is that whether something is limited or unlimited, or is a source of eustress or distress, can, for an individual person, be a psychologically relative experience for them; We can’t simply create a definitive list of each kind, which applies equally to everyone. Rather, this is something which we manage through the DYNAMIC we apply to the situation of each child.

INDEED… a situation which initially causes a child some distress, because it feels beyond their ability to cope, could eventually become a source of eustress, because they have been carefully supported and shown that they CAN cope (the development of ‘self-efficacy’). Isn’t that what growing up in the hostile, unpredictable environment of our existence must be all about? Learning how to deal with, and cope with hitherto discomforting and threatening experiences?

Despite the apparent fulfilment here of the ‘Traditional Independent School Dream’, I do believe that the instincts to do something more are well founded. So….


Having appeared to rubbish recent moves to teach character in schools, and having appeared to wink towards the traditional all-round character education of the private sector, I do now want to show that much of what schools have recently tried to do is actually helpful, as it can provide the key dynamic through which the competitive, driven, committed approach to pursuits enables us to actually achieve the goals which we have in mind:

  • Labelling concepts helps give life to them and guides behaviour I do think that it is highly valuable to give children (and adults) a rich vocabulary to use in describing the behaviours around learning (though like the moral education we’ve done in assemblies for years, it in itself won’t guarantee changed behaviours – even if people cognitively ‘believe’ in what they preach). Essentially, it gives children a framework in which to view behaviours, and potentially internally measure themselves by.
  • The ability to think about thoughts adds agency and control Allied tightly with the previous point – children must develop the metacognitive reflective impulses to enable themselves to separate their thoughts from their actions (or indeed other thoughts) from time to time, and navigate through the framework that they’ve acquired. At this level I would also see certain simple mental habits becoming essential – suspending judgement, searching for parallels, trying to ‘take a step back’ & placing themselves amongst alternative perspectives. These really must just become reflexive responses to whatever it is that places itself in front of us. They can’t be thinking strategies; they need to be cognitive perspectives which we initially think about enough to make them something we stop thinking about and purely start thinking WITH.
  • Beliefs about the ‘self’ produce ‘self’-fulfilling prophesies Whether or not it is easy to change to it from other beliefs, the concept of ‘growth mindset’ does point to the reality that we can create self-fulfilling prophesies around our beliefs about ourselves. Developing a strong sense of self-efficacy – through the ACTUAL experience of having achieved something through our own efforts – is both the real route to ‘self-esteem’, and – to my mind – to a growth mindset.

To Summarise….

I believe that the human mind naturally develops many of its best attributes through a full engagement with a rich human life.

As educators we facilitate this through exposing children to a challenging and varied overall school experience, which continually pushes them to step out of their comfort zones and to commit themselves to wholeheartedly giving of their best.

Along the way, we give them the vocabulary to help them narrate and shape their experiences; we give them the reassurance to help them keep treading forward without too much distress; and we give them the coaching and wisdom to learn positive things from success and failure in equal measure.

Whatever we do though, we should not seek to protect them at all costs from adversity, and then seek to teach them what it would have felt like had they experienced it…

2 thoughts on “CHARACTER EDUCATION: Part 2 – A SOLUTION!

  1. Pingback: CHARACTER EDUCATION: Part 1 – the Deconstruction | Stepping Back a Little

  2. Very thought provoking! As such it brought to mind an episode of South Park I saw many years ago where ‘God’ had brought together all of the religions and drew a card out of a hat to say which religion was the ‘winner’ in the bid to be the ‘right’ religion and thereby go to heaven, I assumed. Perhaps after all this soul searching and effort to try and produce the ‘perfect human’ the card pulled out of the ‘which is the best humanoid form’ hat could say ‘Neanderthal’. As I mentioned, thought provoking – perhaps that wan’t the thought you had in mind though!

    BW, Tim >


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