Woman reading to a group of children
Education, Personality and self

Character - “caught” or “taught”?

How do you measure the success of a child’s education?

13 February 2020

By Emma Young

How do you measure the success of a child’s education? Test results are one thing, and according to a recent global survey, British children have risen in the league tables for both maths and reading. However, these same teens reported among the lowest levels of life satisfaction. They may be performing well academically, but they’re not thriving.

This isn’t a problem only in the UK, of course. At a recent conference that I attended, organised by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, research psychologists, education specialists, economists and philosophers from around the world met to discuss how to help individuals and societies flourish in the 21st century. One word hung in the air as key: ‘character’.

Beyond grit

The meaning of the word ‘character’ tends to be interpreted a little differently around the world. In some countries, the focus has been on character virtues that contribute directly to academic success. However, some educators argue that other virtues are very important for a child’s mental health, and for the wellbeing of society. ‘Popular books on character education in the US have tended to focus on what might be called “performance virtues”, such as grit and resilience’, notes Tom Harrison, director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham. However, ’these qualities are essentially amoral – they can be used for good or bad ends’.

We also need to teach young people about moral, civic and intellectual virtues, he argues. Moral virtues include courage (acting with bravery in fearful situations), justice (acting with fairness towards others by honouring rights and responsibilities), and honesty (being truthful and sincere). Psychological research of course supports the idea that many of these virtues, such as gratitude, are good for an individual’s own mental health, never mind the people around them (see Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley’s research on gratitude letters). ‘Civic’ virtues, meanwhile, include the concepts of service and citizenship, while ‘intellectual’ virtues  involve notions such as curiosity.

The idea that it’s beneficial to teach a range of virtues, either explicitly or more subtly through entertainment, is of course an ancient one. As Shannon Vallor, a philosopher at the University of Edinburgh’s Futures Institute, told the Templeton conference, theatre, music, philosophy, religion (as well as storytelling, of course) have all functioned, and can still function, to reinforce moral and civic virtues within a society.

But today, character education can benefit from research in psychology and new work in moral philosophy, Harrison argues. The aim is to cultivate Aristotle’s concept of practical wisdom in children; to help them to make the ‘right’ choices in all kinds of scenarios. (See also Igor Grossman’s research on the ‘Illeist Diary Method’ of training for wisdom.)

Bringing character into the classroom

Harrison and his colleagues aren’t alone in that belief. There’s an increasing realisation, at the government level, that our schools have become too narrowly focused on academic achievement. Partly to that end, this academic year, the Ofsted inspection framework for schools included character education for the first time. This applies to all primary and secondary schools. It’s no longer possible for a school to get a ‘good’ or an ‘outstanding’ rating unless it can demonstrate that it is doing this.

In the UK, it’s suggested that teachers do teach the virtues explicitly – to explain what they are – and give children scenarios that illustrate them. The school and the teachers are also expected to model these virtues, by prioritising humility, respect and integrity, for example, and perhaps developing projects to help the local community, to demonstrate good citizenship.

It’s not a small ask. But, Harrison maintains: ‘We think that character is mainly caught rather than taught. This means that it is more about how schools prioritise key virtues in their everyday work. It’s about how they establish the ethos and culture of a school to ensure children understand why character virtues are important for their own and others’ flourishing. Also, we think that rather than character education being another thing on the teacher’s plate it can be the plate itself – as it contributes to furthering whole school priorities such as behaviour, attainment, employability and citizenship.’

What will success look like?

With the teaching of performance-related virtues, it’s very easy to measure success: after an intervention, either the kids get better results, or they don’t. But how do you assess the teaching of all these other virtues?

Character and the impact of a character education intervention is very difficult to measure accurately, Harrison concedes. A few trials have been run, but they had flaws, and were very expensive, he says. The Jubilee Centre (whose character education framework is used in the UK and internationally) recommends instead an approach of self-evaluation, in which teachers reflect on the changes they feel are taking place as a result of character education.  

Around the world, other groups are developing their own programmes for children. In Sri Lanka, for example, where there are high levels of religious tension, interpersonal violence and also suicide, Shehan Williams, a local professor of psychiatry, has developed a web-based character education project. Aimed at 12- to 14-year-olds, it presents the children with a series of scenarios and questions. Some are designed simply to encourage the child to recognise commonalities with children of other religions, in the hope that this will build the virtue of tolerance. This project should get under way later this year. When it comes to teaching these virtues, and assessing the impact of the project, neither will be easy, Williams agrees. ‘But it’s worth trying’, he says.

Along with philosophers and educators, some leaders have recognised the dangers of too narrow a focus on individual performance and achievement, at the expense of teaching moral virtues. The US President Theodore Roosevelt famously said, ‘To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society’. And you don’t have to look hard to find examples of hugely ‘successful’ menaces to society – smart, ‘well-educated’ people doing morally despicable things.

In 2014, academics at Oxford University started to really think about this. They began to question not whether the university produces thinkers and leaders - which it certainly does – but whether it produces good leaders and wise thinkers. ‘For example,’ as Edward Brooks, a philosopher and theologian, told the Templeton conference, ‘at Oxford, you might develop resilience, but you are unlikely to explicitly learn humility…’ From this self-examination, the Oxford Character Project, which Brooks directs, was born.

Worth trying

Last year, Brooks (along with Jonathan Brant and Michael Lamb) published an analysis of the impacts of three years of one of its initiatives in the International Journal of Ethics Education. An extra-curricular seven-month programme for graduate students, the Oxford Global Leadership initiative is designed to help the students develop the ethical qualities of character needed to be a good leader.

It includes sessions on the nature of good leadership, on service, humility and gratitude, for example, and it encourages students to focus on the qualities of character that leaders need to promote the common good. Quantitative as well as qualitative evaluations suggest that the initiative is working to develop awareness of, and adherence to, these virtues. These students ‘have great desire to do good and effect change in the world’, Brooks reported.

The bigger question of whether these people will go on to be morally virtuous leaders, and tilt the balance of global leadership in that direction, will take longer to answer. Perhaps these students are now ‘better’ people than they were before. But they signed up for the initiative. They probably weren’t that unprincipled to start off with. Moderating the future leaders who would otherwise become corrupt and malign surely has to start in childhood, in homes as well as schools.

Certainly, I have witnessed the benefits of strong school-based character education for my own two sons and their classmates. They go to a primary school with a strong Christian ethos. My husband and I are atheists. We had reservations about sending them there. But an emphasis on moral and civic virtues permeates the school culture, more than reinforcing whatever we try to teach them about at home.

Whenever I hear my sons talking about sharing what we have, about kindness, or about recognising how fortunate we are, I’m filled with a sense of gratitude. Of course, these virtues don’t have to be taught in a religious context. But they should be taught. As Shehan Williams said, though it might not be easy to get a character education programme established, or to assess an intervention, it is surely worth trying.