How can something as complex as character be taught?

Schools have a responsibility to help form pupils' characters. But what is character? And how is it best taught?

Badges saying "Wrong" and "Right", and showing a question mark

We are not born with a perfect set of core values. They have to be instilled or, some would argue, “caught”. 

Parents do their best; grandparents step in (when they dare); friends and siblings set up challenges (usually motivated by rivalry rather than altruism). With any luck, by the time you’re 5 and starting school, you can say “please” and “thank you”, know not to tell fibs and are aware that you shouldn’t bash the other kids over the head. 

But developing character is more than behaving nicely in company. Compassion, honesty, respect and empathy make the world a better place and help life to run smoothly. Then there are life skills, such as conscientiousness, sense of purpose, optimism and resilience.

Qualities such as adaptability and initiative are essential for success in an increasingly innovation-driven economy. In varying degrees, all of them help define your character. 

Making their way in the world

Do schools have a responsibility to help here? We believe they do. Schools and parents need to work together to help children become the kinds of adults we want to be with (and hope we are ourselves), and who can make their way in the world, confidently and contentedly. 

By the time children get to secondary school, their brains are extraordinarily plastic. This adolescent development affects how they learn and how they behave. We believe that both the academic curriculum and cocurricular activities need to take this into account. 

And, the teenage brain is coping with change; the child at primary school is getting ready for the challenge. 

Ofsted’s new inspection framework stipulates that schools will be monitored on how they develop pupils’ character. Inspectors will make a judgement on the personal development of learners, by evaluating the extent to which “the curriculum and the provider’s wider work support learners to develop their character – including their resilience, confidence and independence – and help them know how to keep physically and mentally healthy.” 

Positive personal traits

Ofsted’s handbook elaborates on the development of pupils’ character: “A set of positive personal traits, dispositions and virtues that informs their motivation and guides their conduct so that they reflect wisely, learn eagerly, behave with integrity and cooperate consistently well with others.” 

Earlier this year, Damian Hinds – then education secretary – set up an advisory group on how schools can be supported in their work to build character. Under his replacement at the Department for Education, Gavin Williamson – who has expressed interest in character education as it affects employability – this group is continuing its work. We shall wait to see what emerges.

Of course, children need to learn resilience, confidence and independence. How to fail, and how to learn from failure. To acquire self-confidence but not arrogance. To become independent in thought while mindful of working together. 

And, yes, it’s part of a school’s responsibility to provide the time and space for exercise; to teach children about having enough sleep and eating the right food; and to ensure that everyone – staff and pupils – are aware of the importance of wellbeing, their own and others’. 

These are challenging additions, not only to school inspection, but to school policies and staff attitudes. The development of character begins to sound a rather daunting proposition. 

Speaking in plurals

The desire for evidence-based answers is the reason we are holding our conference at Eton College on 13 November. It brings together academic researchers and school leaders to look at what a combination of research and practice actually yields. And we have been developing relevant programmes at our own schools, which we will be sharing. 

A special issue of the Eton Journal for Innovation and Research in Education, published to coincide with the conference, includes a piece by Professor Bill Lucas, in which he argues that “character is ‘plural’, that is to say, most educators think character is not one but many things. But there is little agreement as to how plural it is, which ingredients are essential and which optional. 

“At the extremes of interpretation, character can be either wholly about virtue and goodness or entirely about performing well in school or in life. Somewhere on this continuum of definition, there are debates to be had about culture, epistemology and pedagogy, as we consider how such a complex thing as character can best be taught or caught or cultivated (or all three) in schools.”

These are the sorts of nuances we aim to tease out.

Taking responsibility

Over the past five years, Queen Anne’s School has been conducting educational-neuroscience and cognitive-psychology research projects with leading universities, within its BrainCanDo research centre. These have covered memory, sleep, music, emotional contagion, self-affirmation, even gratitude. Many of the findings have been implemented in both the academic and pastoral life of the school

The teachers have found it fascinating and, significantly, this evolved approach to teaching and learning has helped pupils to understand and take responsibility for their own personal development and behaviour. 

At Eton, the boys are taught the importance of teamwork, collaboration and, yes, empathy, because all these are needed in adult lives. 

Research has been carried out to identify the character dispositions most valued at Eton, and how best to foster them. Alongside the character qualities listed in the school’s aims and rules, such as independence and courtesy, the community also values respect, perseverance and motivation, as well as drivers of happiness such as gratitude and strong social connections. 

The College has also researched leadership development and community-engagement activities to understand their impact on character development. We found that certain character virtues are built especially well through community volunteering. These include respect, openness to experience, teamwork, gratitude and empathy.

Teaching character is not and cannot be a syllabus subject; it’s part of an evidence-based approach to teaching and pastoral techniques. As Ofsted acknowledges, to be successful, it has to be embedded in every aspect of school life. 

We believe, too, that it should be part of teacher training. It certainly has to be taken seriously.

Julia Harrington is headmistress of Queen Anne’s School, in Reading, and the founder of  BrainCanDo. Jonnie Noakes is director of the Tony Little Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning, and director of teaching and learning at Eton College

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you