BrainCanDo in The Daily Telegraph ‘Can we teach character in Schools? And Should we?’
Parents can ‘catastrophise’ their children’s exam results, thereby missing the chance to teach that we can move on from failure
A child’s character is a mix of learned behaviour, environment and genes. By the time children start school their parents will have done their best to ensure they are polite, be familiar with concepts of “right” and “wrong”, know not to tell fibs, and have reasonable table manners.
But this type of education grows more complicated and subtle as you get older. Core values – those qualities that make us decent human beings – should they be instilled? And then there are the life skills that help us get on in the world and get along with the people we encounter on the way. These include compassion, honesty, respect, empathy, conscientiousness, optimism, adaptability, initiative, motivation — and yes, that modish word, resilience — and a whole lot more. In varying degrees, all of these help define character. And, to move from the sanctimonious to the more practical – they are also what employers are looking for in our innovation-driven economy.
Responsible parents know this and do their best to explain, demonstrate (although we, too, have our bad days) and encourage.
But what about the role of teachers? After all, school is where a child spends a large part of their life between the ages of 5 and 18, preparing for a fulfilling and useful adult life.
From September this year, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), which is responsible for schools inspections, has been judging the personal development of learners by evaluating the extent to which schools support pupils to develop their character, including their resilience, confidence and independence.
Ofsted defines character as “a set of positive personal traits, dispositions and virtues that informs their motivation and guides their conduct so that they reflect wisely, learn eagerly, behave with integrity and cooperate consistently well with others”.
No one could argue with that definition or its acquisition. But for a school to be marked on its pursuit and delivery may seem a challenging addition to school policies and staff job descriptions. Of course, good schools are already doing this by virtue of the fact that they have a strong ethos and values, and provide opportunities for young people to practise and develop these skills and attributes, and recognise their value.
Character is not, of course, and cannot be, a syllabus subject. It’s part of an approach to teaching and learning. So, yes, it is part of a school’s agenda to develop character.
How do you teach character?
Where character education is best supported is in a school’s co-curricular or extra-curricular activities – sport, performing arts, volunteering opportunities, charitable projects, work in the community, outdoor pursuits. Lisa Kerr, Principal of Gordonstoun, says that her school’s out-of-classroom learning experiences are part of the curriculum because the mix of new and demanding challenges undertaken in outdoor expeditions is so important in helping young people to acquire a “give it a go” approach, and to learn when to lead, when to follow, and how to work in a group.
Even the best collaborative teaching in a classroom does not inculcate the team spirit required when putting up a tent on a snowy mountain or crewing a boat in stormy weather when it’s crucial to deploy everyone’s strengths and embrace what may be regarded as weaknesses. Obviously, not every school can provide these tableaux, but we are all looking for the opportunities to encourage our pupils to look beyond themselves and see where they fit in life’s bigger picture.
So what about the role of parents?
Isn’t it for the family to teach and manage character dispositions? Is this really the business of a school? Yes, it is, but schools and parents – as in so many areas – need to work together.
Kathy Weston, an expert on parental engagement, says that it is sometimes difficult for parents to understand the importance of practising resilience, and that parents can be poor managers of “self-talk”. In my own role as a school head, I am increasingly aware of parents catastrophising events and spreading anxiety to their children.
They talk about being “devastated” at a disappointing exam result or a missed goal and, in so doing, they take on the problem and feed the child’s anxieties instead of modelling how to put these “disasters” into a wider context, manage the emotional fallout and look forward to the next opportunity. School should be a safe place to learn how to fail and how to learn from failure.
School should provide a sense of purpose beyond exam grades.
There is plenty of evidence that schools that encourage pupils’ participation in, for example, the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, community outreach or environmental projects and local social work, find their pupils develop a greater sense of social context, enjoy opportunities that encourage them to reflect on their own lives and what they can usefully do with them, and form habits of fairness, sensitivity and service. These may seem like old-fashioned virtues but they are more necessary than ever. Developing them is character education.
Julia Harrington is Head Mistress of Queen Anne’s School Caversham and Founder of BrainCanDo, an education neuroscience and cognitive psychology research centre based at Queen Anne’s.