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Schools can teach character, but what sort of person do we want to produce?

That’ll test your character. Wellington College

The issue of teaching character, which until now has mainly been debated within the ivory towers of academia, is suddenly all the rage in policy circles in the UK, in the wake of the report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on social mobility, and shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt’s latest speech.

The APPG report suggests that teaching “character and resilience” should be an essential part of every school’s ambition. Hunt argues, in a similar vein, that character and resilience are vital components of a rounded education, a good preparation for a career – and that instilling them in young people “should not be left to chance”.

Hunt builds his argument on the premise that there is “growing evidence that character can be taught”. This is true. It has been known for a long time that differences in school achievement can be ascribed, to a significant extent, to genetic and socio-economic factors. But there seems to be some magic bullet that can make individual students exceed all expectations in their individual attainment.

Even more significantly, when students leave educational institutions for the rough and tumble of the workplace and “the real world”, school grades seem to have only modest value in predicting how well they will do in their work. Or in predicting how much general well-being they will experience in their lives.

Soft vs hard skills

So what is this magic bullet? It has long been known – in the corridors of Whitehall at least – under the fuzzy labels of “soft skills” or “non-cognitive competences”, but neither label is particularly well suited.

The so-called “soft skills” do not seem “softer” in terms of being easier to administer or learn than their allegedly “harder” counterparts. What we are talking about here are surely not raw feelings and desires, but rather certain attitudes based on complex self-beliefs and beliefs about the world. Those are anything but non-cognitive. Perhaps then “non-cognitive” is simply meant to denote “non-academic” – but that is a very different piece of cake.

Anthony Seldon, headteacher at Wellington College, and some of his colleagues both in the independent and state school sector have long argued that there is nothing mysterious about this magic bullet, and that it simply comprises what ordinary folk call “character”.

They claim that such character can both be taught directly in the classroom and conveyed more indirectly (or caught) through a positive school ethos.

Recent empirical findings seem to confirm this anecdotal evidence. For instance, a study of 681 elementary schools in California showed that schools which spent more time spent on character education tended to have higher academic scores by a small but significant margin.

Another US study revealed that lessons in character indicated a potential 16% improvement in academic achievement. While a third found that character-development programmes improve an array of positive behaviours in addition to academic achievement.

US schools teach busloads of character. tncountryfan, CC BY-NC

Put simply, promoting the development of good character traits in schools seems to lead directly to positive outcomes. Notably, however, most of those studies have been conducted in the US and they stand in urgent need of replication in the UK context.

How to flourish

Both the APPG report and Hunt made references to the work being undertaken presently at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values at the University of Birmingham.

Having only started our research work in the autumn of 2012, we are still in the process of gathering and analysing data. However, early findings confirm the salience of character for the individual, organisational and societal good. Character here is understood as a set of personal traits or dispositions that evoke specific emotions, inform motivation and guide conduct.

When such traits are truly conducive to flourishing, we call them “virtues”. We have also produced an initial Framework for Character Education in UK schools and engaged in developmental work with schools, organisations and communities.

Don’t forget compassion

We are happy to see that the work done within the Jubilee Centre has already begun to influence the public discourse on character. We cannot but celebrate the general consensus that seems now to be forming about character as the magic bullet of a flourishing life.

However, people need to be careful not to overlook a couple of important distinctions as they jump on the character bandwagon.

The first is between instrumental and intrinsic value. It is clearly helpful and fortunate that good character seems to contribute substantially to a number of extrinsic parameters of well-being, such as educational attainment. However, we believe that its ultimate justification must lie in the constitutive role of virtues in the good life. In other words, the final end of the good life does not lie beyond the good life itself.

The second distinction is between moral virtues (such as compassion and honesty), on the one hand, and performance virtues (such as resilience and self-confidence), on the other. Unfortunately, the recent discourse on character has focused almost exclusively on the latter.

There is no denying the fact that resilience helps one bounce back quickly from negative experiences and self-confidence makes one more efficacious in achieving one’s ends. But those “virtues” can be dangerous if they are untethered from any moral constraints.

The missing element in the character make-up of the “banksters” in the run-up to the financial crisis, or the average heinous dictator, is clearly not a higher level of resilience and self-confidence. Happily, there is some indication in Hunt’s speech that politicians are waking up to the necessity for a more rounded conceptualisation of character, as he mentions both performance and moral virtues.

We simply want to remind people to take a broad view of character and not to shirk away from some crucial questions about the nature of the good life as a holistic, morally-informed endeavour.

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