May 3, 2017, by Rupert Knight
What do we mean by ‘Character Education’?
The use of ‘Character Education’ as a term has become more widespread in recent years but can be understood in many different ways. In this post, Rupert Knight explores this concept and provides an example of one school’s approach.
Education for character as well as academic attainment is nothing new and the 2015 report from Demos, the cross-party think tank, points to its origins in many related initiatives, including an explicit mention in the historic 1944 Education Act. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that character has become a higher profile issue, with Character Awards being introduced by the government in 2015. The dangers, however, of character education being misinterpreted or becoming just another educational fad are acknowledged by some of the very people cited by the DfE, as summed up in this article.
Perhaps, then, we should take a step back and start by questioning what character education might mean and comprise. The University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre, specialising in research in this field, offers a definition based on ‘moral education focused on developing virtues as stable qualities of character’. These virtues are classified as moral, civic, intellectual and performance. Meanwhile, a quick glance at the DfE’s 2016 Character Award winners shows recognition of a diverse range of attributes, from what might be termed learning behaviours to broader life skills and work with local or global communities.
Of course, schools seeking to educate the whole child and look beyond purely academic notions of achievement is nothing new. The work of Martin Seligmann and colleagues in the US on character strengths and virtues argues that almost all cultures have long shared six common virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, transcendence, justice and moderation and most schools would surely claim to foster these qualities in one form or another.
With all this in mind, how might schools develop a clear stance on this issue?
It may be instructive to look at one particular case at this point. Langar C of E Primary School in Nottinghamshire is a school with a strong vision for character education, developed and refined as a staff team.
Langar’s model is depicted as a trinity of interdependent qualities, which retains a very clear focus on the academic:
The trinity representation
As well as the acknowledgement of academic excellence and learning skills, it is notable that, as a faith school, its ‘values’ component is heavily influenced by five Christian values, carefully distilled from a much longer list.
Five values: care, respect, fairness, love and thoughtfulness
Five learning skills: independent enquirers, reflective learners, creative thinkers, self-managers, team workers
Perhaps most striking however, is the way that Langar’s character model pervades every aspect of the school. The trinity image is to be found in every classroom and the ethos is reinforced through displays and pupils’ ‘recognition charts’:
‘Take Care’ display
Learning to Learn recognition chart
The five values provide half termly focus points and are reflected verbally in teachers’ interactions with pupils and parents. Significantly, therefore, this trinity model offers staff, pupils and parents a shared understanding and language. In the regular celebration service, for example, pupils are able to explain their achievements in more specific terms by referring to these hallmarks.
Deputy Head Emily Brown explains the school’s vision further:
The National Academy of Sciences in the US, in a 2016 report, concluded that educational organizations need to define for themselves, in a collaborative way, their own character goals and to specify what each attribute will look like. In line with this, it is clear from Langar’s example that a bespoke, coherent and consistent vision across a school has been at the heart of their approach to character education. Building such a vision, however, might raise some questions for schools, such as the following:
- To what extent should such values be modelled and explicitly taught, as opposed to being infused more subtly through the school?
- Should schools try to evaluate the impact of character education (and, if so, how?) or is this something to be resisted? How should this be reflected in inspections, for example?
- Is there a way of promoting and capturing progression in character development?
Such a role for schools and teachers is not without its critics. Some have argued against a perceived rise of ‘theraputic education’ as a harmful distraction from subject-related academic content. Perhaps the term ‘character education’ is also unhelpful, implying some insidious form of mind control.
Whatever we choose to call it, however, it seems to me that at the heart of a strong vision for developing personal virtues and attributes is the opportunity to reclaim much of the powerful ‘hidden curriculum’ work that schools have always done (see for example recent research on the impact of Philosophy for Children). In recent years, alongside a proliferation of sometimes dubious learning styles ideas, there may also be a sense that character has come to be narrowly identified, in England at least, with the government’s promotion of ‘Fundamental British Values’. As exemplified at Langar, it is possible for schools to approach character education as a unique and constructive response to a school’s position in a distinctive local community.
What are your views and experiences? Please share a comment.