The idea that schools should be educating students’ character has been gathering momentum in recent years. But the once distant drums have become increasingly urgent; politicians and professors, hucksters and headteachers, all kinds of apparatchiks – even the occasional edu-blogger – have all waded into the debate. Unusually for me, I’ve mainly stood back, listened and pondered. Last year I visited Kings Leadership Academy in Warrington and although I was hugely impressed by much of what I saw, philosophically I tend towards the belief that teaching character isn’t really what I think education is about. But until now, I haven’t really been able to articulate exactly why.

Happily, over the past few days, various ideas have started to crystallise into something I can almost grasp. So, in an effort to wrestle my thoughts into some sort of coherence I’ve decided share two of my ideas with you.

1. What character?

We all agree that a good character is, well, good. But what should this include? Is a growth mindset part of a good character? Is grit, tenacity, resilience, or whatever you want to call it? Or, is character more about being polite, well-mannered, able to smoothly navigate through the world? Or might it be to do with morality, ethics and conscience? Is it about doing the ‘right thing’? And if it is, who decides what’s right? Should we be guided by so-called British values of fair play, tolerance and self-depreciation? On some level, all of these things are desirable, but are they teachable?

Greg Ashman’s review of  Eric Kalenze’s new book, Education is Upside Down got me thinking. As teachers, obviously we can’t do everything. Like it or not, some schooling is going to be about acquiring the knowledge in order to be able to do stuff. Kalenze offers the intriguing solution if we get students to struggle with troublesome concepts, work hard and delay gratification as they work towards examinations we will by simultaneously and implicitly developing their ability to acquire these traits without having to teach anything explicit. And these traits may well be the very ones which best prepare young people for higher education, careers and having a fulfilling life.

For me the either/or nature of character vs. academic learning was always problematic. Yes, of course, you can fall into the ‘and fallacy‘ and do a bit of both, but you can only ever have one top priority. If you prioritise X then you automatically take away from your ability to do Y. Any attempt to expend some resources on a second priority prevents those resources being spent on the top priority. But maybe by doing one, we’ll just get the other?

Of course, if you see character education as overturning the bourgeois state and fomenting revolution, then this might not be for you. But it’s a thought.

2. Morality stems from accountability

Another question which has troubled be is, where does character come from? Is it innate or acquired? Might there be a gene for good character (or at least a set of heritable traits) or is it soaked up along with mother’s milk? In short, does character a result of nature or nurture. Well, you’ll probably be unsurprised to find it’s a bit of both.

Apparently one in every hundred men is a psychopath. (Interestingly, the figure is much lower for women.) Evidence appears to suggest that being a psychopath isn’t a choice or the result of some early childhood trauma, but a genetically heritable condition. Psychopaths may or may not end up as serial killers but they do all lack moral emotions like guilt, shame and compassion. They just don’t care what others think about them. Now, if psychopathy is heritable it follows that the ability to experience these emotions must also, at least to some degree, be inherited. Further, it suggests they have evolved through natural selection because they have some evolutionary advantage.

But what? In The Righteous Mind, Jonathon Haidt suggests the answer is accountability. He says people try harder to look right than be right; what others think of us is more important that what we think of ourselves. Phil Tetlock came up with three conditions under which social pressure would encourage people to want to be right rather than look right. They are:

  1. the knowledge that we will be accountable to an audience
  2. the audience’s views must be unknown
  3. the belief that the audience is well-informed and interested in accuracy.

If those conditions are met, people tend to do the right thing. Research into self-conscious has shown that the idea of self-esteem is dodgy at best. People who identify as having high self-esteem actually believe they stand high in the esteem of others; they think well of themselves because others think well of them. In an experiment, participants who identified themselves as possessing high self-esteem saw that sense of self deteriorate when they saw the unflattering rankings of a hidden audience as they spoke about themselves to camera. As Haidt puts it, “They might indeed have steered by their own compass, but they didn’t realise that their compass tracked public opinion, not true north.”

This all suggests that we’re only likely to display good character if we’re held accountable for our behaviour. Most people will conform to social norms and what is acceptable quickly becomes acceptable. So, if we want students to develop positive character traits we should make sure that the culture of our schools is pretty intolerant of indolence, rudeness and general arsing about. This is clearly the role of school leaders. Individual teachers are powerless to change school culture but maybe the best thing they can do is maintain the very highest standards of behaviour within their sphere of influence.

In conclusion

I might be hopelessly wonky in my thinking but it seems to be that developing students’ character depends not on attempting to explicitly teach some ephemeral set of non-cognitive skills but on a combination of high expectations, accountability and modelling.

Maybe the best way to teach resilience is to give students challenging work to do.

Maybe the best way to teach respect and politeness is to model it.

Maybe the best way to teach students how to be functional, happy citizens is to set up systems which hold them to account for their behaviour.

If were to do all that we might arrive at a pretty terrific best.

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