1. Character Education
This year, for the first time, we have introduced a timetabled lesson called ‘Character’ for our Year 9 pupils. Through the year pupils participate in a carousel that has three components: service, well-being, and character. The idea is that all pupils have an opportunity to reflect on and think about those elements in a structured manner. By ringfencing time in the busy school schedule communicates that they are important to us.
The intrinsic message is that education is more than the certificates we get after writing exams. A great education is one that cannot be effectively assessed or evaluated at the end of GCSE’s or A-Levels. Arguably, the true judgement of education can only occur many years, perhaps decades, after the formal end of a pupils’ days at school.
The evidence of an outstanding education must be evidenced in the actions and attitudes of the pupils as they live out their lives: as partners, as parents, as friends, as members of the community, as colleagues, as employers, as employees, as human beings.
There is a valid debate about whether character can be taught. There is a lot to be said about character being a by-product of experience and that it is not something acquired in the classroom. I agree with that in principle, but I would argue that the development of character can be enhanced and guided through a formal and structured ‘character education’. I believe that character can be intentionally affected over time and that is the starting assumption in this process.
In the next few weeks I want to share with you some of the conversations I have been having with groups of our Year 9 pupils when we have discussed character and I hope that their thoughts and reflections will stimulate your own reflections on this fascinating and important aspect of education.
2. What do we mean by ‘good’ character?
Thank you for reading this second in our series on character education.
The first question I asked my Year 9 class was what we meant when we spoke about someone having a ‘good character’. We all instinctively know what we think we mean but we spent some time trying to unpack it.
The first interesting observation that my class made was that our character is reflected in the choices we make. Our choices are a window into a person’s character. By implication, character is made up of individual qualities but also of values and beliefs which affect the choices we make.
The second observation was profound in its perceptiveness: our choices affect our character too. So, not only are our choices a reflection of our character, but our choices also affect our character. That suggests an assumption that our character can be changed and influenced over time as a consequence of intentional decision making.
The third comment from my class was that someone cannot claim to have a good character unless there is evidence of it. The goodness of ones’ character must be shown in action. A person cannot be kind unless there are acts of kindness to evidence it nor can they be courageous if their courage has never been put to the test. By implication character is like the wind: visible only by its impact on other things.
To summarise my Year 9’s observations: character affects our choices and is shaped by our choices and it must be evidenced by action.
3. Why does good character matter?
The second question that I asked my Year 9 class was why having a ‘good character’ mattered to them. For that matter, does having a good character make any difference?
The most immediate response was that people with good character lead more successful lives. Being a good character has extrinsic rewards that make it worth our while. Some doubts were expressed about that proposition when someone asked whether that implied that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. There was unanimous agreement that life was not necessarily fair and that we all knew of examples of awful things happening to good people as well as people with dubious characters not always being denied some very material successes.
The second observation was that if the main motivation for having a good character was personal material success, then it was perhaps a contradiction to claim good character.
The conclusion we drew was that the benefit of a good character was largely for the benefit of those around us and that our reward is intrinsically the satisfaction and fulfilment we receive from being a blessing to those who we come into contact with.
One interesting after thought was that perhaps people with a good character were able to extend their influence more widely due to the trust and respect that they earned over time. We agreed that the people with good character could access relationships of greater depth and meaning than those without good character.
I was reminded of a beautiful quote by Pope Francis:
“Rivers do not drink their own water; trees do not eat their own fruit; the sun does not shine on itself and flowers do not spread their fragrance for themselves. Living for others is a rule of nature. We are all born to help each other never mind how difficult it is… Life is good when we are happy; but much better when others are happy.”
4. What can we do to develop a good character?
In the last on this series on character education I want to reflect on the final question I asked my Year 9 class: what can we do to develop a good character? There were two things that pupils were unanimous about. The first is that they needed to reflect on their behaviour and their choices and, secondly, they needed to be more intentional in their decision making.
I was interested to hear from them how rare it was to keep a journal. Many of them posted their thoughts and feelings on social media quite frequently but hardly anyone reflected on their thoughts and feelings for their own benefit. For supporters of journaling the strongest case for it is the process of recalling and reflecting on things that have happened. Committing it to writing is not only cathartic but also illuminating, and the habit of keeping a journal can be a very constructive way of dealing with emotions. It is something I strongly encourage.
Pupils were very clear on the need to be more intentional. They accepted that they needed to think about how they wanted to behave and then be thoughtful in applying that in their actions.
There is a third element that we discussed in a bit more detail. In preparing for a role in a play, an actor will value guidance from a respected director. A sportsman will appreciate the expertise of a caring and insightful coach. In the classroom pupils seek feedback on essay writing technique or will check the findings in a science experiment from a knowledgeable teacher. A musician will want advice on improving their technique. So, I asked, who are the experts they would be willing to listen to, who would they seek advice from, when it comes to their character?
For now, parents are top of the list because they love us and know us and have our best interests at heart. However, 14- and 15-year-olds are at an age where perhaps parents will not be their primary point of reference for that much longer. Teachers and tutors can be very helpful too as are grandparents and family friends. Of course, increasingly, their peers are the ones giving the feedback and their insights.
We spoke for quite a while about the importance of listening to feedback with humility but also about the need to be judicious in choosing the ‘experts’ who we would be willing to listen to. I put in a good word for parents in this regard – but it is an important challenge for young people to work out: who will my point of reference be and how will I process feedback.
Perhaps a challenging question for us as adults too!