There has been much talk recently about the teaching of character in schools, and rightly so. But in the rush to bring the character education saucepan to the front of the stove for a good stir frying (before we send it to the back again, next to the creativity and independent thinking pans), we must resist the temptation to write a new syllabus for teaching character, with the obligatory assessment programme and level descriptors.
Whenever there is a consensus that a subject or discipline matters enough to be taught in every school, there is often a tendency to buy a new ring-binder, create a scheme of work and deliver it in a newly created half-hour period, shoe-horned in between other lessons in the timetable. With such a subject and published syllabus in place, one can show evidence that it is being taught. Job done.
But character is different. It is up close and personal. It’s much more difficult to demonstrate that the children are making progress in terms of their character development than it is for their knowledge retention or mastering of skills. And what would the expected standards or predicted grades look like?
It is worth considering what we mean by character education, since the term has many connotations that make us think of morality, religion, culture, ethics and societal values and beliefs.
Every school promotes moral virtues that form the fabric of the school’s ethos and culture. These may reflect the religious teachings of a particular faith, for example, or may simply be the moral standards or behaviour codes to be adhered to if the school is to be a safe and prosperous place in which to learn. Treat others as you wish to be treated yourself, for example, may be one universal principle that appears within such a code or set of school rules, and it is very obvious why this is important in a school, as in life.
But let us draw a distinction between moral character and what could be termed performance character. It is with the latter that my book is concerned – the character traits and attitudes that enable an individual to perform to their potential and to work collaboratively with others. Though some of these will necessarily overlap with the moral virtues enshrined within a school’s code or rules, there is a specific focus for us here, namely the self: one’s attitude to learning and performance, one’s sense of one’s own identity and the self-confidence one requires to participate in school and society.
In the book, I identify seven distinct character traits and attitudes that will help children to perform to the best of their ability, to gain a greater sense of their own identity, and to find fulfilment in living and working with others.
There is an infinite number of character traits and attitudes (CTAs) that enable us to fulfil these aims, but I have chosen seven. These CTAs are: grit, adaptability, optimism, self-control, empathy, discernment and trust
Can these be developed at school? Yes, is my response, but not via a formal curriculum and discrete ‘character lessons’, with assessment points and success criteria at every turn, but rather through a cross-curricular approach and by creating a learning environment that is conducive to character development.
In many schools, the learning environment is still shaped by some historical assumptions as to the purpose of school in the first place. These assumptions, I believe, are: the purpose of school is to develop the academic intelligence of children; the most effective way to demonstrate academic intelligence is through academic qualification; and the best way to encourage children to gain academic qualification is through extrinsic sanctions and rewards.
This is flawed thinking, and it has created a learning experience in which: it is good to be right, bad to be wrong; it is good to come top, bad to come last; and the academic grades you achieve are used to define you – creating a fixed rather than a growth mindset in everyone.
And now we talk of introducing character education into such a learning environment. Seriously? How does that work? Such an environment, it could be argued, is non-conducive to the development of character, just as it is non-conducive to children’s innate creativity or curiosity. That’s just the problem, isn’t it.
In Teaching for Character, I provide practical suggestions for developing character in the classroom via six key features of the learning environment:
– teacher as model learner
– the language of learning
– group dynamics
– choices and challenges
– the element of doubt
Each of these features will help us to develop children’s character traits and attitudes at school. Throughout the book I offer practical suggestions for how this can be done, and advice on how to show evidence that we are actually doing it, with specific reference to the DfE’s Teachers Standards throughout.
The book, Teaching for Character, is the first title in the Invisible Ink series, and will be published in May this year by John Catt Educational. This coming term I shall be running CPD courses at venues across the UK on Character Development in Schools, through a suite of teacher conferences staged by INK Education Ltd. Dates and venues for the Character conferences are:
22nd May 2015 – Brunel’s SS Great Britain, Bristol
9th June 2015 – Durham Street Theatre, RSA House, London
11th June 2015 – National Railway Museum, York