Cultivating Character? Yes. Teaching Character? No, no, no!
Character has been the education talking point of the past week. An All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) published a report on it, Tristram Hunt delivered a speech about it, and various education-comment heavyweights have written about it.
Character education has an intriguing genealogy. In the Victorian public school, the development of ‘character’ was a central preoccupation. The 1864 Clarendon Commission into nine leading public schools recognised Dr Arnold of Rugby as the father of this tradition, and his dedication to raising Christian boys of ‘manly’ character was immortalised by former pupil Thomas Hughes in Tom Browns’ School Days.
This idea of schools as cauldrons of character spread from the public schools to become a common currency throughout British education. In 1937, the Board of Education, the precursor to the DfE, published a handbook for state elementary schools which suggested ‘The purpose of the Public Elementary School is to form and strengthen character’. The Board suggested that schools cultivate virtues such as industry, self-control, duty, respect for others, good manners, fair play and loyalty.
However, such language became verboten during the high tide of progressive education, and from the 1960s onwards talk of ‘character’ steadily disappeared from our schools. The moralising nature of encouraging ‘virtues’, coupled with the suggestion that they could be instilled through sanctions and rewards, was anathema to the romantic leanings of progressive teachers. The high priest of this movement in England, A. S. Neill, famously wrote ‘No one is wise enough or good enough to mould the character of any child… an adult generation that has seen two great wars and seems about to launch a third should not be trusted to mould the character of a rat.’
Since then, ‘character’ has been staging a long but tentative comeback. For many educators, the term ‘character building’ still conjures up images of morning hymn practice, elaborate punishments and runs across windswept games pitches. Consequently, morally neutral terms such as ‘non-cognitive skills’, ‘soft skills’ and (most horrid of all) ‘social competencies’ are used instead. In addition, educators still uncomfortable with the idea that character should be ‘cultivated’, have instead developed the misguided idea that character can be ‘taught’. This distinction is vital.
Whilst entirely in favour of schools cultivating character, I am deeply suspicious of the idea that character should be taught as a time-tabled part of the curriculum. This was the worrying implication behind the APPG’s recommendations, and Tristram Hunt’s speech. The APPG suggested that Ofsted should reward schools where character education is inserted ‘directly into school lessons’, whilst Hunt confidently proclaimed ‘character education’ to be a ‘rigorous academic discipline’ that needs to move ‘into the classroom’.
Hunt is still relatively new to his role, and is still looking to distinguish himself from Gove. But even that does not forgive such a startlingly short memory. In 2005, the New Labour Government launched a National Strategy called ‘Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning’. It coast around £10 million a year, rising to £60 in Labour’s last three years. The SEAL strategy provided schools with training, lesson resources and various assessments for developing the ‘emotional competence’ of pupils. SEAL was split into ‘self-awareness’, ‘managing feelings’, ‘motivation’ and ‘empathy’, with weird bureaucratic elaborations of human interaction, such as ‘I have a range of strategies to reduce, manage or change strong and uncomfortable feelings’, and ‘I can assess risks and consider the issues involved before making decisions about my personal relationships’. It read like a social best practice guide for someone who has never before encountered humans.
As the likes of Tom Bennett, Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes have shown, SEAL was an epic failure. A 2010 report from the DfE concluded that in many schools it was not just useless, it was worse than useless: there were ‘significant reductions in pupils’ trust and respect for teachers, liking for school, and feelings of classroom and school supportiveness during SEAL implementation’. If what Hunt envisages for New Labour education policy is anything that remotely resembles SEAL, it needs to be clubbed at birth.
Hunt claimed last week that there is ‘growing evidence that character can be taught’. In education, ‘growing evidence’ is a phrase to be treated with extreme caution. There was all sorts ‘evidence’ cited to justify SEAL ten years ago—the problem was it was all hokum. This time round, many have been citing a literature review by Gutman and Schoon as evidence, but it is nothing of the sort. The literature review states that there are ‘significant gaps’ in the evidence base, and none of the interventions covered have recorded startling results.
Results for mentoring programmes are ‘fairly modest’; Service Learning Programmes has ‘moderate effects’; Outdoor Adventure Programmes has ‘small to medium effects’; and within Social and Emotional Learning Programmes ‘many unanswered questions remain’. What is more, most of this research was based on student self-reporting, a notoriously unsound evidence base. Both Toby Young and Matthew Taylor pointed to this lack of evidence, with Taylor observing out how odd it is that we feel the need to seek permission from educational research to make what are essentially ‘value based arguments’ about the sort of people we want our children to become.
Fundamentally, what character advocates need to realise is that the cultivation of character in schools is dependent upon all of the things that go on around, not within, lessons. It is sometimes observed that here independent schools lead the field. However, walk into most independent schools and you will not find pupils working in groups, armed with sugar paper, brainstorming ways in which they have ‘managed feelings’ or shown ‘self-awareness’, before role playing different scenarios to the rest of the class. What you will find is a clear articulation of the school’s values, expressed through everything from rewards and sanctions, to end of term prize-giving and competitive sport. The furniture of school life means that positive character traits are a lived reality, not a one-hour-a-week timetabled subject.
In many state schools, I would say that the biggest barrier to effective ‘character building’ remains poor discipline. Clear rules and structures form our pupils’ habits, and their habits come to constitute their character. This has been a central idea to virtue ethics since Aristotle, who argued that ‘we enter the palace of reason through the courtyard of habit’.
Trying to ‘teach’ pupils how to be good is a fools errand, as I tried to describe in this blog post, and Old Andrew described here. Many teachers will know this through the miserable experience of conducting PSHE, Citizenship or SEAL lessons. The irony that pupil behaviour is so poor in these lessons designed to ‘teach’ such character traits as ‘self-control’ or ‘respect for others’ only compounds the misery. Worse still, by allowing these consistently unsuccessful ‘character’ lessons to intrude into curriculum time, we further squeeze out lesson time dedicated to something which teachers actually can teach, namely knowledge. Hunt’s proposal is not a novel idea, it is yet another pedagogical blind alley down which teachers have been led for years.
Human character is not formed through study, but through habit and environment – to use the words of Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, we need to appeal to System 1, not to System 2. This was something realised by the brilliant criminologist James Q. Wilson, the progenitor of the ‘broken windows theory’ of crime prevention. Writing about moral development in schools he explained:
‘A moral life is perfected by practice more than by precept; children are not taught so much as habituated. In this sense the schools inevitably teach morality, whether they intend to or not, by such behaviour as they reward or punish. A school reinforces the better moral nature of a pupil to the extent it insists on the habitual performance of duties, including the duty to deal fairly with others, to discharge one’s own responsibilities, and to defer the satisfaction of immediate and base motives in favour of more distant and nobler ones.’
There is more truth in that than in any amount of soggy research into ‘non-cognitive skills’.