How we can deliver on character education in schools

Posted on 2nd May 2017 in Character education, Curriculum

Headteacher, speaker and author Andrew Hammond examines what we mean by character education, and how creating the right learning environment will have lasting benefits...

I had cause to telephone a fellow headteacher last term, when a child from her school pitched up with his parents at my door wanting to transfer. The headteacher told me, ‘He’s a difficult child but he will improve your statistical output come SATs. He is academically able but is not yet self-applying the compliant behaviour we require.’

I said, ‘I’m sorry? Can you say all that again? You lost me at statistical output…’

Though it may not have reached this particular headteacher’s in-tray, teaching the ‘whole child’ has enjoyed a return to the popular zeitgeist and this is welcome. The days of learning in wellies with a frog in your pocket are, at last, back again. Teaching for character, and characterful teaching, are more highly prized now, and school leaders (and those who hold them to account) are recognising what employers have been telling them for a while: that students need to develop resilience, resourcefulness and collaboration whilst learning their frontal adverbials and simultaneous equations.

Not everything that counts can be counted, and the character traits and attitudes children develop while they’re boosting the ‘statistical output’ of our schools is of greater value to me than the statistical data.

Many schools claim to teach the ‘whole child’ and rightly so. Why would you not? We know that teaching from the neck upwards has limitations come adulthood. An A* in Maths is a worthy aim but how will it help you with your marriage? How will a mastery of main and subordinate clauses make you a more collaborative colleague?

It’s not either academic rigour or skills for life; it’s and.

So a focus on the ‘hidden curriculum’ of character development is welcome. But in the rush to bring this particular pedagogical pan to the front of the stove for a good stir frying (before we send it to the back again, next to the independent thinking and assessment for learning pots), perhaps we should resist the temptation to write a 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 development is different. It is personal. There is no one-size fits all. And it requires an integrated rather than compartmentalised approach to planning for it, in order to achieve untrammelled flow. It requires a lighter touch, more in sync with the natural rhythms of childhood. It is more difficult to produce quantitative evidence to show the children are making progress in terms of their character development than it is for their knowledge and understanding or mastering of skills, but it is no less an important part of their education. And even if we were able to agree an established yardstick, what would the expected standards or predicted grades be? Can you imagine a national standard in optimism or resilience? A floor standard for curiosity? ‘85% of your pupils must achieve national expectations for stamina.’

But we can deliver on character education in schools by: creating the right learning environment and then observing the children at work.

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. Once the learning environment is established, we can look for ‘key observables’ – behaviours that may be taken as evidence of growth in character.

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.

Any talk of introducing character education into such a learning environment worries me.

We need a paradigm shift in what we think education is for, how we deliver it and what are the markers of successful teaching. And we need look no further than the Early Years Foundation Stage for fine examples of how to do it. The clear focus on personal, social and emotional development, which appears as a discrete area of learning in its own right, is no less relevant to a nine year old, or to a teenager, but it tends to play second fiddle to curriculum content as children move up through school. Early Years classrooms have a culture in which natural learning, innate curiosity and creativity may flourish, and in which adaptive, tailored-teaching is informed by frequent observations of the children, learning naturally. A well-planned learning environment is everything, just as Maria Montessori told us.

So In Teaching for Character, as with all the books in this invisible curriculum series, I focus on the learning environment. Planning for academic rigour and planning for character development need not be mutually exclusive aims – such a polarising argument is old hat now, and most of us realise that excellent academic progress doesn’t happen in a vacuum; culture, ethos and the learning environment are important and have a direct impact on pupil progress.

I provide practical suggestions for build a learning environment more conducive to the development of character in students (and perhaps even their teachers – why shouldn’t we grow too?).

I identify six key features of the learning environment:

– teacher as model learner

– the language of learning

– group dynamics

– choices and challenges

– the element of doubt

– observation

Each of these features will help 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.

I would send a copy of the book to the headteacher I spoke to recently, but I fear it may not bring the rapid gains to her school’s statistical output that are required. And that’s just the problem, perhaps. Culture, ethos and a rich and stimulating learning environment take longer to shift – but I can wait, if you can?

Andrew Hammond is Headmaster of Norman Court School in Hampshire.

He is the author of the Invisible Ink series, including Teaching for Character, published by John Catt.