Character education has been in the news a lot recently. The Department for Education has announced that rugby players and coaches were being drafted in to teach students how to be more resilient (at a cost of over £500,000). A recent article by the BBC provides a snapshot of the confusion around ‘character education’, lumping in mental health, mindset and morals into one big pot. Before we even know what (a) we should be teaching and (b) how we should teach it, some are already very keen for it to be measured by OFSTED.
So how does one improve character education? How can we best navigate these murky waters?
Character : 8 ways forward
1. Come up with a better name
The problem with the term ‘character education’ is that it is too vague and so it can mean different things to different people. In America, they are starting to differentiate between performance character and moral character. The former covers non-cognitive skills that help individuals be more successful (i.e. their mindset and how they perform under pressure) and the latter covers areas such as morals and ethics. Even then, the term ‘non-cognitive’ may not be the best way to describe these skills, as discussed in this excellent journal by Angela Duckworth and David Yeager.
KIPP schools in America, which are a public network of schools aiming to help low-income students, have decided to focus on helping their students develop these non-cognitive skills. Their advocates say that this focus on on performance character have helped drive their success (although not all agree).
We are not suggesting performance character is more important than moral character, just that the two are different. It is impossible to develop a single programme that covers all things for all people. Psychologically speaking, performance character and moral character belong to different families. The term ‘character’ is just too vague.
2. Decide what matters
We need to decide what we think are the important qualities we want our students to develop. Are we focusing on skills that improve their mood? Their grades? The sort of skills employers want? Ideally all three. If only someone had reviewed the research on what mental skills help students perform better. Step forward the Education Endowment Fund. They have done a great overview of the existing research. If you haven’t read it already and are interested in teaching character development, we can’t recommend it enough. The Cognitive Abilities Profile also gives a good indicator of what matters, stating that areas such as motivation, curiosity, emotional control and persistence are important behaviours that affect learning.
3. Teach the things that can be improved
What is great about the Education Endowment Fund report is that it not only highlights what skills help but how strong the evidence is that we can teach these skills. The report states that self-efficacy (how confident you are at a particular skill) and metacognition (an awareness and understanding of your thought process) are both skills that can be taught and make a difference. It states that growth mindset and self-control have some impact and can also be taught, whereas resilience may be highly malleable but has little impact on other outcomes.
So it is not confidence and resilience that we should be teaching. These are outcomes. They are a byproduct of teaching competence in the relevant skills. Skills such as self-talk, concentration and managing nerves and frustration can be taught (something all sports psychologists regularly teach elite athletes). These are the skills that help improve confidence and resilience.
4. Teach behaviours, not just “thinking skills”
A lot of time is spent during ‘character education’ teaching students how to change how they think. The problem is that this often doesn’t lead to behavioural change. Abstract concepts such as ‘never giving up’ don’t help students three weeks later when they are struggling with their maths homework. Comedian Tim Minchin hit the nail on the head when he gave this graduation speech. He mused that:
“In darker days, I did a corporate gig at a conference for this big company who made and sold accounting software. In a bid, I presume, to inspire their salespeople to greater heights. They’d forked out 12 grand for an inspirational speaker who was this extreme sports dude who had had a couple of his limbs frozen off when he got stuck on a ledge on some mountain. It was weird. Software salespeople need to hear from someone who has had a long, successful and happy career in software sales, not from an overly-optimistic, ex-mountaineer. Some poor guy who arrived in the morning hoping to learn about better sales technique ended up going home worried about the blood flow to his extremities. It’s not inspirational – it’s confusing.”
One of Tim Minchin’s greatest songs is ‘If you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out’. The same message can also be applied to character education. Talking about resilience in one area does not necessarily mean students will learn to be resilient in others. Richard Wiseman, a Professor in Psychology, is a big advocate of teaching ‘behaviour’ instead of just ‘thinking skills’. His book, As If, is an excellent read full of practical tips of how to do so. If we want our students to be more persistent in Maths, English or Art, then let’s talk to them about that.
5. Age specific skills
We would all love our students to be motivated, not to give up too quickly, to be able to focus and not to let the fear of failure stop them doing what they want. But is it time to also start focusing on which skills would specifically help different year groups? For example, in the younger years it may be more about developing a growth mindset, concentration and communication skills, but in the build up to GCSE and A-Level exams, focusing on managing the pressure of exams may be more beneficial.
6. Embed it within the school culture
Having one-off timetable days to teach ‘character’ is unlikely to lead to behavioural change. They have their value, as they provide opportunities for experts to share their knowledge. Also, teachers frequently report the benefit of children hearing similar messages from different voices. In order to make the biggest impact, these topics need to embedded into the school culture. As Carl Hendrick writes in this excellent blog, “What is the point of preaching a growth mindset one minute, and next minute focusing on target grades and narrow assessment measures?”
7. Provide more extensive Teacher CPD
Simply put, more money and time need to be invested in teacher CPD (this is true regardless of character education or not). This article in TES by Tom Bennett is definitely worth a read, as is this one by David Weston in The Guardian. It is unfair to expect to add to teacher workload and expertise without providing the proper training and additional resources. If the decision is made to teach students performance character, then proper training should be offered to those who are being asked to do it.
8. Invest in future research
The Sutton Trust toolkit is a really positive step forward as it puts evidence based research in the hands of teachers. Non-cognitive skills have been researched extensively in sport and business. Clearly, more research is needed in education, especially on the long term benefits on non-cognitive skills. There is a growing call for students to be taught these skills and we owe it to our students to ensure that we have researched what works, what can be taught and how best to teach it.
Teaching students non-cognitive skills is good if it’s done right. Following this 8 step plan would be a good start in ensuring we are all speaking the same language, teaching things that matter and teaching the things that can be taught.